Saturday, September 06, 2014

Favorite DC Characters #1 - Ray Terrill

Character: The Ray (Ray Terrill)

Creators: Jack C. Harris and Joe Quesada

First appearance: The Ray #1

First encounter: The Ray #3. Pretty sure I grabbed this right off a spinner rack.

Definitive writer: Christopher Priest. I feel like Harris spent a lot of time trying to establish how Ray came to have his powers, and the characters around him, while Priest was the one who did more for his personality. Also, he ramped Happy Terrill's dickishness to nuclear levels, which made Happy fun to hate. Too fun? MAYBE.

Definitive artist: Joe Quesada. I have disliked a lot of decisions he's made as Editor-in-Chief, but he has a strong design sense.

Favorite moment or story: The Ray #6, the final issue of the mini-series. Ray had been trapped within the Light Entity which, look, I'm only clear on what that is in the 5 minutes after I read the mini-series again, which isn't right now. Suffice to say, Ray needed to get it off Earth, and he did, but there's still the fact that the Entity somehow fused Ray's dad (the Golden Age Ray) with Dr. Polaris, and they're out of control. But then. . .

That was really awesome to me. The way he's hitting him from every direction, how he cuts off the attempted villain response, the badass pose.

What I like about him: My earliest comics I remember were bought for me, Big packs of comics, a random assortment of issues from the mid to late 80s. Or they were leftovers from my father's collection of late 60s, mostly DC and Archie. So by the time I had an allowance and could actually purchase comics on my own, I knew a pretty wide array of characters, and my purchases tended to reflect those experiences. Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman comics. I think The Ray #3 is the first comic I bought where I knew absolutely nothing about the character prior to that book.

Which is odd, because it's the least dynamic cover from that mini-series. I can't say what it was that made me have to have that book. I probably flipped through it in the bookstore, and that's why. Quesada was doing some really good work with negative space in that mini-series (it's a technique he employs a lot), and he made Ray look dynamic and distinctive. The costume looks ridiculous, with the pixie boots and the white-and-yellow pants (not a color combo I've ever been a fan of), but I liked the metallic sheen of the helmet, and I would wear that jacket today if I owned it. OK, not today as I'm writing this, it's 94 degrees outside, but in appropriate weather, sure. But it was Ray's, let's say "powered up" form that got my attention. When all that white shifts to black, the yellow pops against it. And the way he seems to project that field around him in a long rectangle, it makes him look faster, as though he's slicing through the air like a blade. It even made a certain amount of sense, as Ray absorbs light to power up, so he wouldn't reflect light, thus all the black.

No, that doesn't explain why the yellow parts still show up. Or why sometimes the aura around him is yellow. I said a certain amount of sense, not all the sense.

Beyond that, The Ray #3 showed me a young man struggling to control his powers, trying to find his childhood friend Jenny, both to help her, and for her to help him, while dealing with a manipulative and deceitful father. Oh, and he saved a village from an erupting volcano. That was pretty cool, and made Ray look good for dealing with all of it. Plus, he punched his jerk of a dad in the face, which was something he really needed to do more often.

One of the things that gets played up with younger superheroes is the idea of superpowers as a metaphor for adolescence, or puberty. The X-Men for example, with mutant powers typically not emerging until puberty, or Spider-Man, whose body underwent drastic changes at the time. Ray has a bit of that in his initial mini-series, where he tries to fly across Philadelphia to visit Jenny, but because he doesn't understand his powers, goes way too fast and crash lands in Germany an instant later. Also, because he can't control his powers, he incinerates all his clothes besides the jacket (which his father made by bending light into a solid construct, so it's heat resistant). Meaning Ray is left pantsless in public, in a foreign country, and then arrested for exposure in front of a bunch of people (I seem to recall there being quite a few women about). It's like all those nightmares about taking a math test in your underwear made real.

Ray's situation is a little different, though, because if you think of his learning about his powers as a stand-in for adolescence, or maybe even adulthood, they're freedom. Ray grew up being told exposure to light would kill him. He was known as the "Night Boy", kept in a darkened house with few visitors or friends. Then the man he believed to be his father (actually his uncle) dies, Ray's on his own, and suddenly he learns the truth: Light won't kill him, it makes him stronger, it makes him special. Ray talks about how much better he feels when he's charged up, how great it is. If he gets too much power, he can even get a bit tipsy on it, which happens the second time he saves the Earth from the Light Entity, this time in the ongoing. Which is why he's wearing the dress in the picture below, if you were wondering. Still, it's a distinctly positive outlook on those changes, rather than a nightmare that makes you feel like an outcast hated and feared by society (meaning adults).

In the mini-series, one of the other themes seems to be "lies my parents told me". Ray learns the truth about his condition, obviously, but also that his father was not the man he called "Dad" all those years, but the original Ray. But then that guy (Happy Terrill, never has a name been less apt) keeps lying. First he tells Ray he's actually dead, while trying to hound Ray into doing what he wants. Then when his "ghost" shtick gets blown to pieces (almost right alongside that island with the volcano), he goes for "we're aliens". It got to the point that when he ran afoul of Dr. Polaris, he thought it was just another test engineered by Happy, and it took nearly being crushed underground to clue him in this was a real fight.
In the ongoing, Ray will learn his mother didn't die in childbirth, and she has no idea he's alive, either. Even though my parents always seemed to be straightfoward with me, as a kid and a teen, it's hard not to think they're trying to make you do what they want. Most of the time it's rather obvious, like when they outright tell you to do something, but they could be playing tricks on you and you wouldn't even realize. I'm pretty sure I related the story of how my father utilized my adolescent contrariness to trick me into taking German back in junior high. So the idea you have to be on guard to catch them in double-talk undoubtedly struck a chord, as well as the idea that sometimes you'll have to clean up their messes, and that sometimes they're even right about things. Not often, though.

Looking at his ongoing series, I feel like Christopher Priest really focused on the difficulty of growing up, the reality versus how kids perceive it. Ray was on his own, an adult, but he had no idea what that meant. So he was excited to sell his old home, to get an apartment, to get a job at a fast food chicken chain. He could be out in the sunlight, and he was gonna be a hero, and pay his bills, and he and Jenny were gonna be a couple, and it was gonna be great. It feels very familiar to what I thought adulthood was like when I was a kid. I was gonna make the rules, go to bed when I wanted, and not have to go to dumb school.

But then the best apartment he can find is a cruddy one with no fridge, but some hideous metal sculpture. His furniture ends up being a card table and one chair, because he blew his money on a new computer and a Superman standee. Things didn't work out with Jenny, working at a chicken joint kind of sucked, the training program he devised for himself and gave physical form to began running on its own, killing people, and took over an entire country. And Ray couldn't beat it. Every time he tried, Deathmasque just stomped him, and meanwhile he's got Happy breathing down his neck about this and that, criticizing everything Ray does. And Ray keeps learning new things his dad lied about, and then Deathmasque appears to kill his father, so Ray has to deal with that guilt, and with all the unresolved issues he had with his dad that never got cleared up. He finds out being an adult doesn't mean people stop trying to run your life. It doesn't mean people stop trying to hurt you, or that you're suddenly able to understand why they're doing it.

And Ray makes some bad decisions. He gets so spooked about Deathmasque, and feels so rejected by the Justice League when he goes to them for help (thanks, Triumph), he turns to Vandal Savage, of all people. He actually fights his way through Savage's defenses, right into his office, and then asks for help from a mass-murdering caveman. He ends up running one of Savage's tech companies, gets a new apartment, meets a different lady, and lets Savage lead him around by the nose, the bad guy always promising he'll help take down Deathmasque soon. Of course, "soon", never became "now". Ray had to eventually handle it himself, and when it counted, he did. It was really close, nearly lost his mother (before he'd even explained who he really was - she realized he was Happy's kid, but thought he was from an affair or earlier marriage), but he pulled it off. Some of that is about trusting in yourself, and some of it is the idea that being an adult means not simply running to some older person and expecting them to fix everything for you. That's part of being an adult, people look to you to help with their problems, not the other way around. You can't go running back into your past, hoping you can lose the stuff dogging you.

It's a process, though, which is something Ray found out. You learn, you grow, you hopefully get better at handling things. Ray went from being the new kid in the Justice League, the guy everyone seemed to pick on from what I could tell from the one issue I saw - super-strong Ice shoves him out of the way for telling her Oberon needs them in the monitor room, Guy yells at him for interrupting his conversation with Ice, Captain Atom grabs him by the collar and drags him off to answer some distress call from the Army - to a guy who was a veteran, calm presence on Young Justice. When Secret lets Empress go after her father's soul (since Secret is a gateway between life and death), Ray charges in after her, when even Robin is hesitant. He keeps his cool, even while he recognizes he's going to run out of power if they stay in this endless void for long. He doesn't barge in and try to take over - though he does run for team leader when they hold an election - but he's observant, supportive, follows orders, offers suggestions when appropriate, and generally is a good team player.

For all that, Ray's still a really amusing character, prone to acting like a silly kid with way too much power. Which he is, so that makes sense. When he was running to be leader of Young Justice, he used his light powers to give himself especially sparkly teeth, so as to impress Arrowette. He got arrested in Germany for public indecency, which as humiliating and awkward as it was for him, was kind of hilarious. Also, when he flew back to Philly and burned up the pants the German cops had given him, his father formed a pair of bellbottoms on him which Ray described as 'Michael Nesmith's pants'. He saved that Philippine village by diving into the volcano and redirecting the magma underground and out to sea. Very cool, but once he's in the water, he remembers no one ever taught him how to swim. Whoopsie-daisy. Neron offers him anything he wants in exchange for his soul, and Ray almost takes him up on the offer because he thinks it's a joke, or a hypothetical. Because he forgot he's a superhero and demons tempting you to lose your immortal soul is a thing that happens. Ray was more freaked out because Neron had originally met Ray as a woman and things were progressing nicely, right up until Neron got tired of Ray treating the whole thing as a joke and revealed his true form to speed things along. Watching Ray be all, "Oh my God, you were actually a dude?!", while Neron is standing there like, "Focus Ray, I want your soul!" was more funny than it ought to be. The whole idea of selling his soul is so out there to Ray, even at that stage in his superhero career, he just glosses right over it.

And of course, there was the time he danced in the skies of Philadelphia.

That is apparently how Ray celebrates losing his virginity. To the Black Canary. Look, Dinah had already nearly died multiple times in the course of that story, and she was feeling a little vulnerable. And to be fair, while the Ray is no Dr. Mid-Nite, he's still a considerable step up from Oliver Queen or Ra's al Ghul. I love that, though. Ray's excited, he probably thinks this means he and Dinah are a couple (while back in her apartment, Dinah is laying there under the covers thinking, 'Damn.' And not an impressed "damn", a "what the hell did I just do?" damn.), and he's back home after a harrowing ordeal that involved travel to another world, fighting Lobo at a truck stop in space, then time-traveling and almost erasing himself from existence. But he's back home, feelin' good, and he's gonna show it. How could I not love that?

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