Jason Aaron’s Men of Wrath is a twisted take on the pervasive Nature vs. Nature debate, the question of whether human behavior is determined by the environment or by a person’s genes. Aaron draws inspiration from his gene pool — the inception for Men of Wrath‘s plot derives from Aaron’s great-grandfather, who notoriously stabbed a man over an argument involving sheep. His son, Aaron’s grandfather, passed away after suffering complications from rabies. It is often said that reality can be stranger than fiction; If Men of Wrath’s origin is any indication, it very well may be.
The protagonist — a term being used loosely — in this narrative is Ira Rath, a misanthropic Alabama hitman with all the moral fiber of a genocidal maniac. Ira holds nothing back in his wanton execution; children (literally, a baby), women, the elderly, and even priests hold no sway in restraining Ira’s bloodthirsty nature. The horrific quality of the comic can be offensive to some readers. As I read the issue, a thought lingered in my mind: Is the gruesome violence an appropriate reflection of the malevolent nature of the Rath family, a physical representation of the darkness that lies in their souls? Or merely an example of an overt attempt at provoking a reaction?
While some families have a family crest, a wedding ring, or even a secret recipe passed down from one generation to the next, the Rath’s inheritance is pure unadulterated misery. Ira’s grandfather stabbed a man over his flock; Ira’s father murdered his mother in a rabies-fueled rage. Sound familiar?
The Rath curse comes to a head when his Ira’s son, Ruben Rath, enters his crosshairs. From the beginning it is evident that Ruben’s life has felt the sinister touch of the Rath curse, filled with desolation and heartbreak; Ruben is a low-level criminal incapable of a simple robbery at a convenience store. However, Ruben lacks the family proclivity for murder. He is the very embodiment of desperation. His girlfriend is bearing his child; he can’t afford the medical expenses of having a baby, and cannot make rent. Like so many before him, Ruben’s woes lead to bad decisions.
While working a job for the notorious Polk family, Ruben refuses to kill a young boy who witnesses the event. In an ironic twist, the Polk’s approach their best hitman to take up the job and end Ruben’s life. Ira kindly obliges. Suffice to say that Ira isn’t the benevolent patriarch looking to bond with his son.
But therein lies the beauty of the brutal tale Jason Aaron weaves: Ruben is everything Ira isn’t. Ruben is a fumbling low-level crook with a deep seeded love of his family. His every action is driven by the notion of providing for those he loves. In contrast, Ira is an efficiently calculated killer. A man that can’t connect emotionally; killing comes easier than open expression. The narration is driven by Ira’s inner monologue expressing pure ire. He hated his wife, hates his son, and relished the day Ruben ran away from home. The apex of the story arrives from how the father-son dynamic effects Ira and Ruben. For better or worse, Ira and Ruben change one another, however slight that change may be. The climax will remain spoiler-free, but it’s safe to say that the Rath family curse can only end in carnage.
Artist Ron Garney hits a home run with his pencil work. Every panel feels meticulous in its creation. An apt comparison would be Frank Miller’s Sin City, but with a fresh take and more nuanced detail. The angles are conducive to the emotion of the moment. When a gang of Polk family thugs looms over a bloodied body, audiences are treated to a worm’s eye POV. As we look up at the maniacal crew, their power over their victim is portrayed visually. Garney personifies the shadows as well, almost as if they reflect Ira’s deep-seated discontent. Ira’s eyes are draped in darkness, but once we get a glimpse, we beg for the mystery of the shadows once again.
At its worst, Men of Wrath is narrative shock value at its finest. At its best, it offers a profound glimpse into the inherently murky nature of man. Regardless of your interpretation, Men of Wrath is a grisly experience that is not be missed.
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