One of my favorite comics being published right now is Southern Bastards, written by Jason Aaron with art by Jason Latour. It's a seedy crime drama epic with that same sour taste that Jim Thompson novels give you. It's harsh, mean, and filled with reprehensible characters. And yet it does something very special — it leads you to empathize with these fuckers. It details these misfits in all their ugliness while still admitting their humanity and portraying them with an unlikely dignity.
Some of my favorite fiction does this sort of thing — film noir, to which Bastards is related, traffics in morally-conflicted characters. The two plays I directed both ask the audience to empathize with characters who most fiction would present as "the other" — in The Iceman Cometh, playwright Eugene O'Neill invites us to identify with a makeshift family of drunks, pimps, prostitutes, and enablers; and in Hedda Gabler, playwright Henrik Ibsen demonstrates that people who lash out and do terrible things when they're trapped by society's rules are still worthy of our empathy. Martin Scorsese is a favorite filmmaker of mine, and Scorsese usually focuses on outsiders like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta, and even The Aviator's Howard Hughes. A key difference between the 1962 film Cape Fear and Scorsese's remake is that in Scorsese's version the "hero" isn't an innocent. Scorsese often shows us people who've made mistakes, who don't fit in, who do terrible things to themselves and others... and yet who have an undeniable humanity. Anyone can empathize with a nice, "good" person. It takes guts and skill and maybe even wisdom to get us to empathize with someone "bad".
And something surprising Southern Bastards does with empathy is a turn very rarely attempted — Aaron and Latour give us a protagonist to empathize with, and later they guide us to empathizing with that character's antagonist at the point his hands are bloodiest.
Even setting the empathy aside, the whole thing feels lived-in and truthful, with dialogue that sounds idiosyncratic but authentic. It'd be easy to parody these characters as "dumb rednecks", but Aaron keeps honest.
Southern Bastards is also a visual feast. The storytelling is clear but exciting. The art is stylized and gritty. And the use of color is extraordinary — Latour seems much less interested in evoking objective reality and much more in conveying subjective mood.
The collected third volume of Southern Bastards just came out last Wednesday. I tore through the first volume in one sitting and promptly ordered the second, and then I tore through the next volume in a single sitting and ordered the third within minutes of finishing the second. I expect to devour the third volume the same way. They're still publishing Southern Bastards in periodical comic book form, and I don't know if they have an end point in mind, but I'm looking forward to reading it for as long as they make it.
Watching Johnnie To's Hong Kong action film Breaking News, I was struck by the clarity of the action. Most modern action movies, at least in the US, are cut very fast and frenetic, with the camera jittering and bouncing and never letting you quite see everything. Ostensibly this is to make the audience feel like they're in the action themselves, but it may be more about disguising lack of craft and the fact that the actors aren't actually coming to blows. (I've seen some interesting comparison between the filmmaking styles of Jackie Chan's Hong Kong movies and the ones he made in the US. The US filmmakers tend to shoot from closer in and cut faster, which muddies the action and kills the jokes in comparison to the work Chan did in Hong Kong.) In Breaking News, Johnnie To makes good use of long takes with complex choreography involving a lot of moving parts, and the effect is storytelling that's all the more suspenseful and riveting (and impressive) for being easy to understand.
It's Tuesday, and that means (among other, less important things) that I've posted new pages of my sci-fi webcomic, Flesh Machine, over at michaelavolio.com. If you like my comic, please share it with others who may enjoy it! (And if you don't like it, take some time this week to reevaluate your life. Really. For your own sake. (I'm only trying to help.))
You can also support Flesh Machine now and my future comics work in, uh, the future by pledging on my Patreon page here.
Thanks for reading!