‘The Package,’ ‘Southern Bastards’

Sketchy line work and frenetic brush strokes nearly obscure the action early-on in new digital-only graphic novel The Package. Co-creator Alexis Ziritt’s blotty backdrops make it difficult to distinguish when a hotel’s table fan and desk chair begin and end in the first few pages, where two miserable hitmen — who are working together in dry and dusty “Vista Del Sol, Mexico” — trade threats and eventually, let their tempers get the best of them.

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The crude black smears that darken the panels align well with the heated atmosphere that underpins the book’s opening sequence, which positions thugs Charlie and Fred in pretty tight quarters, where they’re waiting for a nondescript “package” and hint that this set-up is likely punishment of some kind (“Your ‘not thinking’ is what got us into this jam,” barks Charlie). In sharply dealt flashbacks and pithy dialogue penned by writer Elliot Blake, however, this often-surprising black and white crime story comes into focus.

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The ruthless gang lord Rafi Vega and a pair of women Paz and Ana, who’ve suffered in the wake of Vega’s murderous rise to power, might be recognizable to fans of these kinds of books, but The Package offers a less predictable take. Although character close-ups reveal careful composition — purposeful swirling strokes in Paz’s wavy hair; short, thin lines that suggest years of dust-ups in Fred’s bruised, weathered cheekbones; the use of the “sugar skulls” (calacas), grave and eerie — Ziritt’s art retains a wild feel, proving a good match for the fast-paced twists and turns here. With visual nods at the easily worked-up alpha males in series like 100 Bullets or Darwyn Cooke’s “Parker” comics, fraying contours and occasionally humorous, graphic violence make for a gritty, revenge-fired yarn from this team (they’ve previously collaborated on a story for Popgun Vol. 4 from Image before Kickstarter’ing this 84-page work).

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There is a whole lot of angry folks walking around in the fictional Craw County, Alabama in new monthly series Southern Bastards from writer Jason Aaron and artist Jason Latour (creator Michel Fiffe chatted with Latour for The Comics Journal in 2011). While he’s well-known for his work on Wolverine and Ghost Rider, I know Aaron’s writing best from Scalped, a sprawling, beautiful, and often intensely violent 60-issue Vertigo crime epic that unfolds on a South Dakota Indian reservation. Only two issues in, Southern Bastards has hooked me, and I’m inclined to agree with buddy/critic Justin Giampaoli, who writes that the book “is quickly becoming a portrait of a little understood slice of American culture.”

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In the first issue of Southern Bastards, Aaron directs us to follow Earl Tubb back into the overtly corrupt, one-horse town where he was born. Forty years after he’d decamped to an area near Birmingham, Tubb finds in Craw County a ticking time bomb — a nearly all-Caucasian hotbed of barbecue stop-off joints, Confederate flags, and hardened, unshaven lugs who don their own tattered high school football jerseys well into middle age. Aaron helps fill in the contextual blanks with framed newspaper clippings, which shed some light on Tubb’s father’s role as a sheriff several decades back. With help on colors from assistant Rico Renzi, co-creator and artist Latour employs the covers’ scorching meld of the dark orange, yellow, and red (the latter, an omen throughout Southern Bastards that materializes just ahead of or during danger) for flashbacks, each hinting at a violent stand-off between the elder Tubb and the bloodthirsty football enthusiasts that appeared to have gathered on the sheriff’s front lawn one summer night, wielding knives, guns, and crowbars.

southern bastards package comic graphic novel 5The town doesn’t seem to have changed much since Earl was a kid; fists are thrown and bats are swung when he stumbles into a mysterious scenario that hearkens back to his past and involves a local crime boss/football coach. We get a bit more information about how deep the roots go in a slow-cooking second issue that closes-out during a crackling thunderstorm, as a square-jawed Earl, pelted with rain, stands over his father’s grave, screaming, cursing him for having had to compete with the sheriff’s duties for attention.

“The south is more peaceful than any other place I’ve ever been,” writes Jason Aaron about his subject in the debut issue’s back matter.

It certainly doesn’t look that way — at least for now.

‘The Package’ images © 2014 Alexis Ziritt. ‘Southern Bastards’ images © 2014 Jason Latour. Read ‘The Package’ via comiXology. Learn more about ‘Southern Bastards,’ out now via Image Comics.