Anticlimax. When everything that you feel should be happening fails to happen, when the world ends with a whimper instead of a bang, it leaves one very important question behind: Why? The concept of anticlimax can be used to subvert expectations or recontextualize an entire narrative. It can be one of the boldest and most introspective twists in fiction, when utilized well. Southern Bastards #20 is all anticlimax. It fails to deliver on the promises built up throughout "Gut Check" and even goes so far as to reverse several big moments throughout the arc. That begs the question: Why?
Latour's visuals encompass much of the story so far and broadcast the potential of this being a finale issue, for several characters if not the series itself. Imagery from across the entirety of Southern Bastards is stacked up and deployed with almost military precision. Dogs come out in a mob to surround Big's old house, looming in their flat dark gray tones like ghosts. The concept of trees as heritage and history is resurrected as yet another one falls. Past and present are fused into singular sequences that make it clear everything has built to this moment. In Craw County everything is connected, history, family, football, all of it. And that has never been more apparent than the depiction of these chases and fights.
The weight of all these past decisions and a long season of failure for Coach Boss has led to this, and this turns out to be the continuation of what was already occurring. Nobody dies and everyone is allowed to return to their position (give or take some bullets and arrows). While Roberta's decision to release Coach Boss and pursue his destruction via other means is explained, it is explained in a forced fashion. The very act of pontification from Roberta runs contrary to everything the character has said or done up to this point. It offers logic, but the logic does not flow from character. Furthermore, given what has happened to Coach Boss' empire throughout "Gut Check", an enormous fall reinforced throughout this issue, it seems that Roberta's need to watch him fail has largely been completed. There are few more obvious acts of plot guiding character, and it grates in a series that has been so excellent up until this point.
Southern Bastards #20 does not just undermine its characters through their decision-making process; it violates the tone it worked so hard to establish in its opening arc. Violence has been a consistent fact of life in Craw County, one that is sudden and ferocious in nature. Death is a truly nihilistic force that comes without concern for plot or character. Yet throughout this issue death is pushed back as an unwanted impediment for future stories. Those thought dead are resurrected, and a plan is laid out for many future issues to come. The story is back on obvious rails, and expectations are significantly diminished as a result.
Southern Bastards #20 continues much of what has earned the series its strong reputation. The visual storytelling is unparalleled in its ability to construct mood, deliver violence, and toy with time. It remains a powerful, visceral experience. Yet the narrative has been undermined in a fashion that calls into question the longevity of this story. It has rebuilt the world and called characters back into play to stretch their arcs further into the future, contrary to everything established in the first arc of the series. There is much more story to come, but it suddenly feels like a much safer story and that has never been what attracted readers to Southern Bastards.
Published by Image Comics
On May 9, 2018
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Jason Latour