A Boy Named Sue: Father-Son Relationships in the Comics of Jason Aaron
You don't have to look too hard to see the prevalence of difficult father-son relationships in the work of Jason Aaron. In Scalped with R.M. Guera, Dashiell Bad Horse was adrift in a sea of father figures, unable to choose his own path and incapable of avoiding the same fates that befell the father who left him. In 2014, Aaron launched Southern Bastards with Jason Latour, about a conflicted man who returns to the home of his dead father, a legendary lawman; and Men of Wrath with Ron Garney, is about a father-to-be on the run from his own dad, a hired killer.
Despite the prevalence of the topic in comics, Aaron has carved out his own niche when it comes to father-son relationships, with an unflinching perspective that rings truer than most.
Being the male-dominated field that it is, it's no surprise that father-son relationships are so vitally important to superhero comics, usually in the form of the honorable father the hero must live up to. Every other superhero has an amazing dead dad, from Batman to Daredevil. Superman and Spider-Man are so superhero-y they each have two. Probably around the 70s the evil father/good son and its reverse were introduced, and save for exceptional standouts like Starman, and parts of Astro City, that's about as complex as mainstream superhero comics generally get.
Further out in the indies, you have books like Art Spiegelman's Maus, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware, Jeff Lemire's The Underwater Welder, and more alternative and autobiographical comics that go much deeper. In between superheroes and indies, you have the genre comic motif most likely established by Kazuo Koike's Lone Wolf and Cub, echoed or copied in The Walking Dead and Road to Perdition: father and son alone against the world.
Despite all of these examples, I can't recall any work that has explored the same types of relationships that Aaron has. I think the best parallel actually comes from outside of comics, in the form of the song that I can't help but think of when reading Men of Wrath. Because I assume that everybody under the age of 30 is useless, with terrible taste in music, I'm now going to explain "A Boy Named Sue" by Johnny Cash, even though you're going to look it up on your iPhone anyway.
Written by cartoonist Shel Silverstein, "A Boy Named Sue" was recorded by Johnny Cash before a live audience of prison inmates for his landmark album At San Quentin, and there was never a more perfect audience for a song. Comedic and absurdly violent, it was the actually the very first time Cash and the band played the song, and you can hear them adding extra bars of 2/4 to account for the audience as the convicts laugh at the funny parts, and whistle and holler at the violent parts. (Seriously, listen to it. They cheer for maiming.)
"A Boy Named Sue" is about a man whose dad gave him a girl's name --- Sue --- and then abandoned him to a lifetime of persecution. To defend himself, Sue gets in a lot of fights, growing up to be a violent man and vowing to kill his father if he ever sees him. When he runs into his dad in a bar, the two have a bloody fight, leading the dad to proclaim his pride in Sue, explaining that he wanted his son to learn to be tough to survive in a violent world.
Through comedy, the song expressed a harsh but undeniable truth about fathers and sons, one that a roomful of convicts likely understood better than most, and one that Aaron has been touching on for years. Like it or not, every man is in some way what his father made them, even through absence.
Men of Wrath with Ron Garney is the most obvious example. Legendary hitman Ira Rath is dying, and accepts a contract to kill his own son Ruben, who ran away when he was young. Despite growing up to be decent, Ruben stumbles into trouble when trying to provide for his pregnant girlfriend, and as justification for taking the job, all Ira needs to know is that his son is a Rath. Each issue begins with Ira recounting more of the Rath family history, a lineage stained with violence, beginning with a great-grandfather and passed down from father to son like an heirloom.
Men of Wrath has touched on something universal about father-son relationships, in an over-the-top, psychotic, gritty kind of way. The men's arguments sound like gritty, over-the-top variations on every fight every father and son have ever had.
Ira is as maddeningly contradictory and fatalistic as older generations always are: he thinks that Ruben is weak, that he ran because he's cowardly, that he didn't run fast enough because he's stupid, that he doesn't have it in him to kill anybody, and that he's just as murderous as every other Rath, and any chance to end the bloodline should be taken.
Ruben, conversely, is the quintessential son who doesn't know how good he's had it; who has succeeded in being nothing like his father yet still shaped and informed by him; the kid who wants an acknowledgement of damage, an apology that he's never going to receive.
Their confrontations are like action-crime therapy sessions, and with each encounter they've gotten closer to some reconciliation of their diametric natures. Heading in to the final issue, through blood and mayhem, the two have actually worked through a few things and are on their way to affecting a positive change, also probably through blood and mayhem. Men of Wrath features nearly everything you'd expect from a Jason Aaron crime comic: variations of common tropes, unblinking portrayals of sex and violence, and dozens of profanity-laced southern colloquialisms you should use on your coworkers.
But Men of Wrath hasn't quite reached the same depth that Southern Bastards or Scalped have, and Aaron's best comics are the ones with strong emotional cores. Ghost Rider and Wolverine are good, but Thor and Wolverine & The X-Men are more satisfying for that reason, and I'd have to say the same is true of the difference between Men of Wrath and Southern Bastards. The first four issues of Southern Bastards, with artist Jason Latour, are like the first ten minutes of Up for terrible father-son relationships.
(Spoilers for Southern Bastards follow.)
Earl Tubb, the son of a famous lawman, returns to the crime-ridden hometown he left behind, and finds himself burdened with his father's legacy and haunted by his memory. Unwilling to forgive him for his sins, but unable to deny the same combination of violence and righteousness that pumps through his veins, Earl takes up his father's stick, leading to even more turmoil.
"Here Was A Man," the first arc of Southern Bastards is powerful, transformative stuff that aims for the gut and won't stop punching. Latour's art is both primal and emotive, capturing the most heartfelt and mature writing of Aaron's career in the soulful and conflicted Earl Tubb.
And then they kill him. With his own daddy's stick.
After becoming so emotionally invested in Earl and his memories, readers were forced to stand by as Aaron and Latour exterminated Earl and his dad problems after four issues. It was one of the biggest shocks of last year, and it followed with an even more surprising one. Shifting to the story of Coach Euless Boss and the father issues that shaped him, Aaron and Latour have imbued Earl's murderer with an undeniable pathos, making Southern Bastards even more compelling than before.
Like racism and religion, violence is often something that's passed down from father to son. It takes a strong will for a son to successfully challenge the influence of his father --- even if that influence is an absence --- and become a different kind of man. Coach Boss, Earl Tubb, Ruben and Ira Rath, Dash Bad Horse, Diesel, and poor Sue, are all stuck in the same place between history and genetics and their own sense of self. They're all their own men, with their own choices, and nobody to blame but themselves. But they're also the men their daddies made them.