We all try to escape the past. The past is pain, love, laughs, tears, mistakes and lessons. We gloss over details and look at memories with a nostalgic lens, but at some point we all unfailingly move forward and try not to look back. The present is ever shifting, the future is always a question, but the past simply…is. It never changes, it never flinches, it never goes away. The past is a testament to all our accomplishments and all our sins.
By attempting to escape we forget that it’s the past that shaped us, for better and worse. How we grew up, what friends we had, what mistakes we made; these factors affect our behavior, but none are as important as our parentage. Parents are the ones who influence our morality, our behavior towards others, how we view ourselves and our actions.
Southern Bastards by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour is an ongoing comic series that focuses on Craw County, Alabama. It’s an area in the deep South with an all-encompassing love for God, football, and bbq (not necessarily in that order). It’s in this setting where the creators examine what happens when the demons of our pasts, the ones that we’ve either run from or thought we’d conquered, come screaming back. For this article, I’ll focus on the first two volumes of the series so SPOILER WARNING since I’ll be discussing a lot of what happens over the course of the first two story arcs.
Here Was A Man
Earl Tubb just wanted to leave the past behind. A former Marine and resident of Craw County, Earl’s come back to pack up what he can from his family’s former home. It has fallen into disrepair since his uncle moved into a nursing home, and he’s looking to sell it off and finally move on for good. It’s his first trip through town in years and he quickly sees how much has changed. Someone named Boss is everywhere you look, and there’s a tree growing out of his father’s grave. Time has moved on.
Over the course of the first arc, we get only a scant few glimpses of Earl’s past, and very little of his father, Bertrand Tubb. Bertrand was a famous sheriff in Craw County, one who was both feared and respected in equal measure. He was a hard man who quite literally walked tall and carried a big stick, as we first see in a flashback where the sheriff confronts a mob who seek to do harm to him and his family. Said stick was then buried with him and, according to local legend, grew into the aforementioned tree. It’s here mixed in with Earl’s memories that we see family photos of his father and newspaper clippings of him being killed in the line of duty, items that even in his anger Earl pauses over. He joined up with the Marines and went to Vietnam years ago just to escape his father, yet even so many years later in his old age every memory washes over him like it just happened.
In the present, Earl is just trying to put the past to rest and leave town in a couple days. He wants to be a shadow that no one notices so he can be on his way. He tries to ignore the thugs taunting him and threatening the locals, he wants to ignore the corruption and intimidation that’s going on around him. He talks on his cell phone throughout the first arc, leaving messages to someone he’s very close to; he talks about his past, how he wishes things were different, how he’s torn about making things right.
He tries to play it safe, talking with the local authorities, but they’re all under the control of the true power in town. In a moment of frustration and anger, he rails against his father’s grave, cursing the type of man his father was and how he turned out just like him. Funny thing about the universe, though: sometimes it talks back when you least expect it. Lightning strikes the tree, as if to say “if you think you’re so much like him, prove it.” In the embers of the destroyed tree, Earl sees it: his father’s stick. He knows. He stands up for himself and others, beating on the thugs in town. He’s embracing the righteous anger like it’s all he knows. But there’s a reckoning coming, and Earl’s about to run headlong into someone equally as angry and cursed as he is…
The eponymous boss that’s mentioned everywhere is Coach Euless Boss, head coach of the state champion Runnin’ Rebs football team and the true power in Craw County. There’s nothing he doesn’t have control over, person or business. Throughout the first story arc, he’s an intimidating presence, whispered about and looked at with fear. But this man was also once a boy, a boy who wanted to play football and to also escape the life he was born into.
In the second story arc, we see young Euless Boss try and try to make the Rebs, but every time he’s beaten back down by the coach and other players, literally and figuratively. His home life isn’t better. His father Olis is a thug, a low-tier member of the Dixie mafia who could care less about any kin. But Euless isn’t a quitter. He finds help from a former player, Ol’ Big, and learns how to move, how to think on the field, and how to hit. Hard. Finally he’s noticed, and when he makes the team it’s the happiest day of his life. And then he’s shot in the foot by one of his father’s associates as a warning to his father. A lesson about being a Boss.
This setback hurts Euless, but he heals. Setbacks are nothing new to him. When he hits the field and finally lets loose, it’s a catharsis: he is finally good at what he loves and it’s practically too much to bear. He plays his heart out over the years, trying to get noticed for a scholarship to play for the almighty Bear Bryant and Alabama Crimson Tide. But nothing comes, and just like that, high school is over. Forced to swallow his pride, he goes to work for his former coach as a ball boy, a humiliating measure made even more so when the coach reveals that he was the one who sabotaged Boss’ chances of any type of scholarship. Another harsh lesson about being a Boss.
Finally, Euless humbly goes to his father. He begs him for help, because this wannabe outlaw is all that Euless has left. Humbled and finally recognizing the potential in his son, Olis agrees. He starts to feel what could be described as fatherly pride…and is then shot in the back. Olis realizes too late that Euless learned what it means to be a Boss: take what’s yours, by any means necessary. The death of his father was the real bargaining chip, and with it, his new Dixie mafia associates get him the job of head coach of the Rebs. He finally has power, power over a game that he loves and also power to keep that control by any means necessary. That power is fleeting however, unless you keep fighting. As Euless himself says “you ever stop climbin’ (the mountain)…all you do is fall.”
It’s at the end of the first arc that both men confront each other. Two men who were shaped by their demons, angry at their pasts. It’s no surprise that Coach Boss wins, though. Earl was a Marine, as hard a man as his father; but Coach Boss learned his lessons by being even more ruthless than his opponents. And so Earl is killed on the street in front of the town, beaten to death with his father’s own stick and having it then placed above the door of the local bbq joint as a lesson to all. Coach Boss’ place in the hierarchy is established once again.
Yet the universe has a funny way of circling back around. At the end of the first arc, we meet the person receiving Earl’s messages: his daughter, Roberta Tubb, USMC and currently stationed in Afghanistan. And at the end of the second arc, we see her being discharged from her post to head back to the only place that’s more dangerous: home. Heaven help those who get in her way.
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