Football season is drawing to a close. There’s only one game left and it’s today. Yet even now in the midst of hockey and basketball seasons, football is still on the lips of most Americans. Fans, both lifelong and casual, are discussing the follies of 2015 and possibilities of 2016. They’re talking about what went down in the AFC and NFC Championships, and what may happen at Super Bowl 50 when the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos face off at Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco.
Even as a San Francisco Forty Niners fan, I’m still stoked to have one last game to watch before enduring seven months without my favorite sport. Baseball may still pass itself off as America’s pastime, but there is no sport more watched, attended, or loved in the country than football. Despite the enormous love for this sport, it’s not all encompassing. There are many comics fans who love football, but there are plenty more who don’t know how many points are scored with a safety, but could care less.
That doesn’t mean football is beyond understanding even for folks who have never felt the urge to watch a single game. Perhaps the single most outstanding aspect of all of the media that have come to define being a “geek” is that it brings distant, alien experiences into your head and heart. Taking in stories on film, television, prose, or comics allows viewers and readers to learn about something entirely new. That basic concept applies to football every bit as much as wars taking place long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.
As a longtime fan of both college (Go Big Red!) and professional football (Go Niners!), no story has struck closer to the experience and enjoyment of football than Southern Bastards. On a cursory glance Southern Bastards is a crime comic written by Jason Aaron and drawn by Jason Latour. Yet what really makes the series pop and has garnered it so much critical attention is the culture captured within its pages. Barbeque and politics both play significant roles within the story, but there is nothing more important to the sinners (and rare saint) of Southern Bastards than football. Many of the citizens of Craw County, Alabama may attend church on Sunday, but they all worship beside the gridiron every Friday night.
If you’re reading this and wondering why you should care about football, I’d recommend checking out Southern Bastards. If you’re reading this and thinking about how you already care about football, I’d recommend Southern Bastards. Football is a sport that raises the blood of more than one hundred million Americans during the fall and winter. It’s a powerful thing. Southern Bastards is a comic that provides both perspective and understanding of that thing.
The truth is that Jason Latour might draw the best looking ugly comic being published today. His characters and settings can be downright hideous, but it’s purposeful. The story he is telling is one steeped in violence, corruption, and history. It is composed of wrinkles created both by time and the wrinkled expressions of hatred. Looking at the face of Coach Boss, the head coach of the Runnin’ Rebs, you can see his soul and self plainly on his eyes, cheeks, and mouth. They are crumpled like trashed paper, but made of far sterner stuff with thick black lines reinforcing each feature.
What you’re seeing isn’t an easy dichotomy of evil vs. good. As bad of a man as Coach Boss may be, he’s far more complicated than a supervillain. He’s a man ruled by his passion and that’s what Latour’s art reflects: passion. There are few emotions as powerful as anger and that feeling is what covers Coach’s face. Even if you haven’t ever screamed at the field, on television or in person, when he screams you can sense the deeply rooted passion on display. It’s difficult to not care, much less ignore.
There’s a difference between experiencing Coach’s passion and that of a fan on television too. Unlike a bystander on your screen, Latour and Aaron have been able to expose the depth and meaning of Coach’s connection to football on the comics page. In “Gridiron”, the second story arc of Southern Bastards, his background as a high school player mocked by his classmates and empowered by hard work on the field is revealed. Even knowing the monstrous man he will one day become, it’s difficult to not root for a young man pursuing his dream with every ounce of his strength. The four issues that compose “Gridiron” make his screams and speeches in Southern Bastards #13, when the Rebs play their homecoming game against rival Wetumpka County, feel real. The anger in his face, eyes, and words are easy to understand even if you don’t understand how badly things are going on the field.
Coach Boss may be the most fully formed character on the field in Southern Bastards, but he’s far from the only one who provides a window into understanding the sport. A single shot of fans cheering the Rebs in Southern Bastards #13 is simultaneously hilarious and frightening. The small town of Craw County is screaming at young men, minors, who are not being paid to crash their bodies together in a gladiatorial brawl. They threaten the young men and encourage them to threaten those on the opposing side. The one woman in the crowd providing positive encouragement is screamed down in a moment that is funny because of how closely it strikes to reality. Whether or not you have ever been part of that crowd, seeing it is absolutely fascinating.
On the other side of this equation you witness the Rebs themselves giving all of their effort and passion on the field. The men hearing those screams are every bit as concerned with what’s happening on the field. They are not simply victims; they are passionately engaged. Seeing how Latour details their exhausted faces in a locker room after a tough first half is absolutely heartbreaking. His manner of revealing players, coaches, fans, and opposing teams provides so many facets to a single game of high school football that it becomes a complex modern drama told in 20 pages. It’s a potent reminder of all the levels on display when you watch a game in real life.
Looking forward to the Super Bowl today it’s probably worth tuning in, whether you typically watch football or not. It’s no accident that this game, from high school to college to the professional level, has been so widely embraced. The violent poetry of football is its own sort of art reflecting crucial passions and beliefs of the American people. The narrative of a championship match captures the national imagination for months on end and inspires stories in journalism and fiction. Southern Bastards owes a lot to football, but football also owes something to Southern Bastards. They are narratives that build one another up and allow all of us, comics fans, football fans, and those in between, to better appreciate our culture.