Retro-Reviews: The Ray Vol. 1 By Harris, Quesada & Nichols For DC Comics

The Ray #1-6 (February 1992 – July 1992)

Written by Jack C. Harris

Pencils by Joe Quesada (#1-4), Art Nichols (#6)

Layouts by Joe Quesada (#4-6)

Finishes by Art Nichols (#4-5)

Inks by Art Nichols (#1-4, 6)

Coloured by John Cebollero (#1-6)

Spoilers (from twenty-five years ago)

I’ve been in the mood, of late, to revisit every comic written by the great Christopher Priest that I own, or don’t yet own, and that has led me to The Ray.  Of course, before Priest wrote the ongoing series, there was the introductory six-issue miniseries that he edited (under his original name of James Owsley).

I remember picking this book up, attracted by the wonderful Mark Beachum cover on the first issue, and immediately enjoying the things that made this new Ray (I was familiar with the original from the odd issue of Freedom Fighters I owned, and his rare appearances in All-Star Squadron) a unique character for the early nineties.

I guess there’s no denying it – I liked the jacket.  Joe Quesada’s design for the character, from the Michael Jackson-esque jacket to the way in which he portrayed him, in his light form, as a solid black figure except for the jacket’s highlights (and later the helmet) really drew my attention.  This book felt new and hip to my seventeen-year-old self, and I was sure that Quesada was going to be a big-name artist (was I right about that?  The guy hardly draws anymore…).  

Let’s see how I feel about this book some twenty-five years later…

Villains

  • Dr. Polaris (#4-6)
  • Light entity (#6)

Guest Stars

  • Ray (Golden Age Ray; #1-6)
  • Lobo (#6)

Supporting Characters

  • Hank Terrill (Ray’s cousin; #1-2, 4-6)
  • Jenny Jurden (Ray’s only childhood friend; #1-6)
  • Caldwell the Candle Man (#1-6)

Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:

  • Outside Philadelphia, Ray Terrill lets his powers loose, proving his cousin Hank’s theories about what he can do.  Hank thinks he should become a hero, but Ray just wants to live a regular life.  Ray shows Hank some articles about his childhood, when he was told that he had a fatal allergy to sunlight, and was kept in the dark 24/7.  At his eighth birthday party, his friend Jenny gave him a flashlight, but a mishap with a camera flash ended the party early, having sparked Ray’s abilities.  We learn that Ray spent most of his life alone, but Jenny invited him to the prom.  Ray tells Hank about his father, Happy Terrill, who on his deathbed revealed that he had been the Golden Age Ray.  He also told Ray about how on the night of his birth, Happy figured out that he had somehow absorbed his father’s abilities, and decided to keep him in the dark, literally and figuratively, to protect him.  At Happy’s funeral, Ray met his cousin Hank, which led to the scene at the start of the book.  Throughout the issue, we keep seeing single panels with some guy with long fingernails lighting a candle; these panels are bordered by some McFarlanesque panel borders.  There’s also some guy in a suit in Philadelphia talking about contacting someone, presumably Ray.  Ray uses his computer and a payphone to track down Jenny, and goes to visit her at the bank where she works.  Before he can decide to go in, the bank is robbed, and Jenny is taken hostage and loaded into a van.  Ray powers up and gives chase, getting hit by the van and setting it on fire.  As the robbers bail out, they are caught by the police.  Jenny goes to help Ray, but is pulled back by her husband, the existence of whom upsets Ray.  He returns to his human form, but everything except his jacket was burned up, causing him some embarrassment, but somehow pleasing the candle guy.  Back in his motel, Ray wants to throw away the flashlight that he’s always carried with him, and a photo of Jenny and him as kids, but is surprised to see that the light is working again, after being dead for years.  He is called by someone in his bathroom, and goes there to find the Golden Age Ray on the floor, saying that our Ray is the only one who can save his life.
  • The original Ray tells our Ray that he needs his help, but that they need to stay away from each other so they don’t neutralize their abilities.  Original Ray flies away, and Ray goes after him.  They are able to communicate telepathically, and Original Ray tells Ray that his real father is not dead; he then flies away too quickly, and Ray, trying to slow down, ends up crashing in Philadelphia’s Italian Market, naked once again.  A woman gives him some ill fitting clothes off a sale table, and he takes the bus back to his house.  A reporter wants to talk to him about his cure, but he locks him out.  Inside, Ray can only find the same jacket he was wearing last issue (does he have more than one?) since his other clothes are at his motel room.  His father’s lawyer lets himself into the house, and tells him that they need to sell the house to pay his father’s legal fees.  Ray is upset by this, but doesn’t really question it; the candle guy doesn’t like that Ray is sad.  Jenny watches the bank robbery footage and recognizes Ray; she leaves work.  At home, Ray has visions of Original Ray again, as his cousin Hank arrives.  Hank thinks that Ray should sell the house and buy a nice condo downtown.  When the doorbell rings, Ray runs upstairs and tells Hank to get rid of the person.  He finds more pages from his father’s scrapbook, which are all over the house, although he never apparently noticed them growing up there.  He sees Original Ray out the window and gives chase again, which causes him to miss Jenny coming looking for him.  Ray flies after Original Ray, who again tries to fly away quickly.  Our Ray pours on the speed, almost catching him.  He crashes into a river, naked but for his jacket, and discovers that he’s in Germany when some locals give him a beating.  He gets dumped in a drunk tank, and is visited by Original Ray again, who has disguised himself as a guard.  He wants Ray to embrace his powers and save the planet.  Original Ray is immaterial, and is worried that the same could happen to Ray without training.  He flies away again.  Ray calls his lawyer to tell him to sell that house.  He sits in Germany trying to figure out what to do, and the candle guy worries about his training.  There are a lot of questions here still.
  • Jenny, remembering when her mother forbade her from continuing her friendship with Ray as a child, is determined to get in touch with him.  She leaves work to go looking for him, and doesn’t notice that she’s being followed.  Ray wakes up in Germany, thinking about Jenny, and deduces that whoever that guy was in the first issue, he is not married to Jenny.  He flies into the sky, and tries to figure out how to get to Philadelphia, when Golden Age Ray shows up, wanting him to go stop a volcano from erupting in the Philippines.  Ray instead flies back to Philly, landing outside Jenny’s bank where naked again, GA Ray helps him out by providing him with some bell bottom pants.  Ray talks to a guard and leaves a note for Jenny.  Jenny, meanwhile, is approached outside of Ray’s house by the two nuns who worked as his private tutors when he was a kid.  They chloroform her and pack her into the van that’s been following her.  Ray and GA Ray continue to talk, as the elder hero teaches our hero how to make solid things out of light.  They stop off in a swamp, and Ray learns how to make himself some clothes that won’t burn when he flies.  He also designs his own helmet, rejecting GA Ray’s mask.  Ray wants to ignore his repeated requests to go to the Philippines, but his conscience gets the best of him.  Jenny is taken into an old psychiatric hospital, where she meets Caldwell the Candle Man, the guy we’ve seen since the first issue, watching Ray.  In the Philippines, Ray tries to tackle the volcano, at first making things worse.  GA Ray gets knocked out by some debris, and so Ray decides to tunnel the lava from the volcano into the ocean, and just about out of power, manages to survive.  Caldwell somehow shows Jenny what’s going on through or in a candle.  Ray clobbers GA Ray, who he now knows is able to become material, and who he believes could have handled this situation without him.  GA Ray tells Ray the truth, that he’s an alien who came to Earth by mistake in 1939, and fathered him.  It’s time for them to go home.  Ray rejects this, saying he’s going to go look for Jenny.  Caldwell telepathically tells GA Ray to tell Ray where Jenny is.  He flies to the hospital, and Jenny tells him that what he has to do he has to do alone, and walks away from him.  Ray flies off angrily.
  • In Florida, Dr. Polaris creates a tornado over the ocean, and gets hit by lightning.  His human side, Dr. Emerson, comes to, and sees a newspaper article about Ray, causing him to postulate that Ray could destroy Polaris.  Ray, still upset, lands and has yet another talk with GA Ray, who is warned by Caldwell to not tell Ray any truths about his past; instead, GA Ray blinks out.  Angry again, Ray decides to fly back to Philly.  Jenny goes to work at the bank, and is told by her boss to keep quiet.  We learn that the hostage taking and concerned husband in issue one were all ploys to get Ray to activate his powers and stay away from Jenny.  Emerson arrives in town, and goes to look at the van that Ray melted.  Ray returns to his house to find that all of his things are boxed up.  The lawyer is around and tells him he has forty-eight hours to move into the temporary home the law office has arranged for him.  Dr. Polaris looks at the van and perceives Ray as a threat.  Cousin Hank checks in on Ray, and Ray accuses him of being GA Ray, because of all the knowledge he’s shown.  Hank denies it and leaves.  Jenny comes by, and tells Ray that he is not an alien, as he believed, and that she is defying everyone who thinks she is going to distract him.  They kiss, and he flies off to look for GA Ray.  They fly south, and GA Ray explains about the history of Dr. Dayzl’s research and experiments into the nature of light (which he believed has intelligence).  As they talk, a bolt of blackness hits Ray, and he plummets and is attacked by Dr. Polaris.  GA Ray arrives in Florida, where Polaris’s tornado is still active, and when he sees that Ray is gone, attempts to stop it himself.  Something goes wrong and he blacks out.  Ray, meanwhile, keeps fighting Polaris, who is wrecking Philly.  Ray moves to protect bystanders from falling debris, and when he turns around, Polaris is massive.
  • As GA Ray lies unconscious on the sand in Florida, Ray continues to fight Dr. Polaris, deducing that he had not increased in size and was projecting a hologram.  As they fight, Ray sees that the sun is beginning to set and worries, as does Caldwell, watching all of this in a candle flame.  The fire inspector comes into Caldwell’s room and insists that his candles be extinguished (apparently his asylum is a real one).  At Ray’s house, Jeny learns that Ray’s things are being moved that day.  One of the nuns comes to get Jenny, and the reporter that was hanging around earlier decides to follow.  Ray fights Polaris some more, convinced that this is a test from GA Ray.  Jenny goes to the asylum and poses as Caldwell’s niece so she can go see him.  Ray realizes that his fight with Polaris is real, and gets angry, finally taking Polaris out.  Jenny’s subterfuge is discovered, but she is still able to tell the nuns where Caldwell is, so they can reestablish contact.  It turns out they need Caldwell to open a gateway.  GA Ray comes to Philly, and realizes that Ray had to fight Polaris.  He once again tells Ray that the world’s fate rests on him, while Emerson’s spirit appears to Ray as well, giving him directions on how to destroy Polaris’s personality.  Ray zaps Polaris in the head, which allows Emerson to take control.  The three fly off, with Ray carrying Emerson/Polaris, while GA Ray finally tells Ray the whole story.  He, Happy Terrill, was a reporter who went with some scientists, including Dr. Dazyl, on a mission to the upper atmosphere, where a “cosmic storm” hit him and gave him the powers of the Ray.  He joined the Freedom Fighters for a while, but quit when Ray was born.  He recognizes that Ray’s powers put him some million years ahead of an evolutionary process of some sort.  Emerson loses control of his powers and explodes.  The nuns and Jenny sit in a circle of candles in a park, which allows Caldwell to teleport to them, but they are interrupted by a cop.  Ray ends up floating around somewhere near the beginning of time, or so the narration tells us.
  • Ray has not returned to the beginning of time, but he is lost in space, zipping past Lobo in a gratuitous 90s cameo, as he tries to find his way home.  He begins to speak telepathically with, he assumes, GA Ray, but it turns out to be the light entity that his friends and allies are trying to stop from destroying the Earth.  GA Ray, Emerson, and Dr. Polaris have somehow become merged, and are going on a bit of a rampage in Queens New York, until GA Ray feels the pull of the gateway and follows it.  Hank bails out Jenny from a police station in Delaware, and they are joined by GA Ray/Emerson/Polaris.  Ray flies around a black-and-white landscape filled with his belongings.  Hank takes everyone to meet with the nuns and Caldwell.  Ray tries to fly home, where he finds a young Jenny waiting for him.  At Hank’s, Caldwell and the nuns show up, and they try to form a gateway into the light dimension.  Hank is sent through, and he tries to convince Ray to not return to the image he has as his home, as he is needed to convince the light entity to stay away from the Earth.  Polaris takes over the GA Ray/Emerson/Polaris amalgam body, and is about to kill everyone when Ray shows up.  He gets GA Ray separated from Polaris somehow, and tells Jenny that he closed the door for the light entity.  Later, everyone visits the grave of Ray’s father, who we learn was Happy Terrill’s brother Thomas, who took Happy’s place to protect Ray.  We don’t know if he’s Hank’s father, or what.  Hank and Happy leave, and Ray and Jenny decide to spend their lives together, disappearing in a burst of light.

Okay, this miniseries was a bit of a mess by the end.  I have to remind myself that this is what passed for normal in the early 90s, as what started as an interesting book about a young man who discovers that his life has been a lie quickly turns into a very twisting plot about sentient light beings, featuring unexplained allies who live in mental asylums and talk to candles.  It’s not really clear if the original Ray is actually alive, nor is it explained why he hasn’t aged, or what he’s been up to.

I come away from reading the series this time around with an admiration for the set-up, but feeling like it all fell flat, largely because the greater mysteries in Ray’s life felt either mundane or ridiculous by the time they were revealed.  I also don’t see a lot of potential for the ongoing series coming out of this, but have good memories of it.  I also suspect that much of what I liked most about the opening issues – Ray’s new exploration of the world outside his house, and his odd relationship with his cousin Hank – came from Jim Owsley/Christopher Priest’s original vision for the title, and the slow slide towards chaos came as Priest pulled back and let Harris write things his way.  I could be totally wrong about that, but Priest is usually so much better at sticking the landing.

Joe Quesada also ends up being a bit of a disappointment, because as the series progressed, he switched from doing full pencils to just layouts.  It’s no surprise to anyone who has followed Quesada’s career to see that he had trouble with a monthly schedule as he started, but it’s still a bit unfortunate.  His art is very nice, but I also like the combination of Art Nichols’s pencils over his layouts for the last issue.  What ever happened to Nichols?

It was also interesting to read this book in light of the Ray’s recent revival by Steve Orlando in the Rebirth series Justice League of America.  Orlando kept a lot of stuff from Ray’s childhood, disposing of the conspiracy angle, and swapping young Jenny out for a boy neighbour who awakened the same romantic feelings.  

Really though, I just read this series as prologue to Priest’s ongoing title, which I’m looking forward to diving into for my next column.

If you’d like to see the archives of all of my retro review columns, click here.

If you’d like to read this series, it looks like it’s been a while since the collection was in print.  Maybe try:
The Ray: In a Blaze of Power

 

 

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