"Because I love The South with all I've got".
Those are words from Southern Bastards artist Jason Latour in the back of last month's debut issue of Image's new deep-fried noir hit. With crime stories usually taking place in the likes of New York and the streets of Chicago, Aaron and Latour bring things down south with a tale reminiscent of "Walking Tall" and the seedy doings of the Dixie Mafia. While Southern Bastards takes place in a fictional town, Latour drew from his southern upbringing to bring certain aspects to the pages and give readers a taste of the south that they might have expected.
Outside of Heroes Aren't Hard to Find in Charlotte, North Carolina, Newsarama sat down with Latour to chat about the title, as well as the inspirations behind some of the imagery, and what the South and southern culture as a whole means to him.
Newsarama: Jason, Southern Bastards came out last month to pretty much across the board success (currently at 9.1 on ComicBookRoundup.com, a review aggregator), did that catch you and Jason Aaron off guard at all?
Jason Latour: Yes. I didn't really know what to make of it. I didn't have anything expectation wise I was just hoping people were going to enjoy it. I felt really good about it and felt that we achieved what we set out to do, but as far as subject matter and genre, I guess, I'm taken aback in a good way. I'm pleasantly surprised with how well it's been received because with crime fiction you just never know, especially with it being what could seem a niche kind of story.
Nrama: When designing the setting of Craw County, were there any specific influences or was it a general amalgamation?
Latour: The specific influences were from when I was a child visiting my grandparents' farm in eastern North Carolina. Of course they're just memories and that place doesn't exist anymore. But in that way it's very specific, but more so it’s an impressionistic kind of view of the South that I’ve built up over living here most of my life. I clearly didn't grow up in Alabama but I feel there's a commonality in the region and the shared experiences of people who live here.
Nrama: Do you feel that working on something like Southern Bastards gives audiences a chance to see the real creative side of you compared to when you're writing something like Wolverine and the X-Men?
Latour: I know a lot of people see superhero comics as a job, and sure it pays the bills but I would not have become an artist if not for books like the X-Men. So whatever growth I've shown in my work, it all foundationally comes back to superhero comics. So it’s just a mode I put myself in. As a human being I feel like I have different assets and when you're a good artist you can tap into the assets of who you are. In another interview I compared it to being like Mick Jagger: in the superhero work you're up there peacock struttin' on stage and when you switch over to something like Southern Bastards you get to lay back in the cut and pretend to be Keith Richards. But both things are the whole.
Nrama: Your color palette you used really set the mood and the tone of the story, what was your color theory going into this?
Latour: Well essentially the idea is that color is a tool for storytelling. I think when you read crime fiction comics a lot of times color tends to evoke one singular mood over and over again. It’s kind of dread and oppression through lack of color. So the idea was to pick colors that I've considered the meaning of. So realism in terms of color is sort of a baited term in comics, we tend to quantify realism by what would replicate a photograph. But photography, especially in movies, is emotionally driven and based off very considered as choice. In good photography it’s not just point the camera and snap. So why do that in a comic? The idea here was to approach color as another tool in the toolbox. So if a scene is red or muted, those are choices that hopefully communicate more than purely the aesthetic.
Nrama: When it came to designing the characters like Earl and Coach Boss, as well as citizens of Craw County, did Jason give you any notes or did he let you do your own thing?
Latour: We went back and forth a little bit. Jason had some specific imagery in his head, but I did too, so we came to the middle on that. But it wasn't that far away from one another. Coach Boss, while I've drawn him, he doesn't show up until issue 2, so that one was the one that Jason had the most specific view of. I tried to go in a different direction and end up coming back to what Jason first described him to be. Earl kind of...I don't know. It's like he's been living in my psyche for decades. So Earl was a bit easier, but Coach Boss took some figuring out.
Nrama: Do you find it difficult when transitioning from writer to artist and back and and forth?
Latour: No, again, it's just a matter of what's most pressing. It's shifting gears, basically. When drawing I've always approached it as story first. I hate to assign what’s a success or isn’t in my own work, but I feel my strengths are largely not what I bring to the story as a draftsman. I'm not saying I'm a bad draftsman, but I certainly think there are people who are better at it. What I bring is that I'm generally thinking about how the story is being told. That’s not that dissimilar from writing, it's just a different mode of operation. In terms of the process or the gear shift, there's a point you reach when drawing when you have basically done all the hard mental lifting and now it's just the exercise of finishing the drawings. So having that in my life helps me write something like X-Men because as I'm working on say, Southern Bastards, there's a point where I’ve figured out what the page needs. My body has to be there but my mind can drift and meditate a little. It also affords me the time and space to start thinking through other problems.
Nrama: As the name implies, Southern Bastards is set in the South, so do you think the South is an underutilized setting in comics?
Latour: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's why so many of the comics I've done are set here. It's because of the old "write what you know" thing, but it's also the fact that not everything can or should take place in New York City. I’ve long felt this region was really under-represented and then suddenly… the zeitgeist or the momentum of how media is going has changed, there’s a sort of shift towards the south with shows like "Justified", "True Detective", and even with stuff like "Duck Dynasty", it all has a southern flair to it. What I think you're seeing there is as much as there is a rubber necking thing going on with the people that live on the coasts, you're also seeing that people are realizing there's more people like this than they initially realized. It's sort of an untapped market. That or maybe these people are dying off and we’re trying to trap them in a time capsule. I’m not sure which it is really.
But to me, it’s not about what’s going on in other media. This is a story that comes from a more of a personal level and… well on some level really deals with the idea that those broad stereotypes you see on TV can be dangerous. The difference between a book like Southern Bastards and something like Larry the Cable Guy is that they aren't that different on the surface, it's the idea what when you peel back the layers there's more to it. What’s under there is what’s important. That’s where the humanity lies, and if you ever want to understand this sort of stuff that’s where you have to be willing to look.
Nrama: What are some things as a southerner you felt like you had to get right when working on this?
Latour: I don’t know. A lot of it is just innate. It mostly starts inward and then I whittle it down. But you know, with things you’re immersed in it's hard to pin point exactly what's wrong until you see it on the comics page. Which is kind of similar to superhero stuff which is drawn more from imagination. But since it’s a more realistic setting, it’s also very specific. In the other genre stuff I’ve done like Django Unchained or Sledgehammer '44, the specific research required is pretty heavy. One thing I noticed on that kind of stuff is that because we've all seen so many World War 2 movies at this point we know more than we think. Or at least we have a powerful impression of what we think we know. So we notice when the production value is bad. We notice when the uniforms don't fit right or the equipment is off, we notice things like that. With this project there’s a lot less digging to do, but if I need to check myself I look out the window. I've done all the collecting I can do in 36 years, so it's intuitive, but intuitive with intent.
Nrama: What does the South and southern culture mean to you?
Latour: That's a tough question. I think that...I don't know, I think I'm trying to figure that out with this book. I think that it's something I've been confused about my entire life. Like how proud of it and how ashamed of it am I? There's things I'm ashamed of that I didn't have anything to do with. Just by virtue of the fact that I grew up in a place I've been assigned a lot of qualities. Some which I'm proud of and very happy to embrace, and some that are completely beyond my control. Parsing out which is which is very difficult, so I think that was part of the appeal of doing this book. To try and figure out what it does mean to me.