Let’s get it out of the way: yes, I decided to read these after I finished watching Crisis on Earth-X (which was fun, but mostly tweaked some animalistic part of my brain when they used the Crisis on Infinite Earths lettering for the title, though a number of other bits were fun). Still, I picked these up (and most of the second volume from a few years later) after I read Steve Orlando’s Justice League of America – Rebirth: The Ray one-shot and really liked the idea of Ray Terrill (up to and including his identity-shared name).
Ray Terrill has just discovered that, unlike he was told throughout his childhood, he is not, in fact, allergic to sunlight. His cousin Hank–who speaks in something akin to early 90s African American English, dresses like he wishes he was Elvis, and is cryptic but obsessed with Ray getting “chicks”–has informed him that he instead has superpowers. While this is a revelation in itself, Ray is even more taken aback, of course, to discover he can function in the world everyone else knows. He can come out during the day, go shopping or out to eat anywhere–all things he thought were impossible for him. And, alongside that, his childhood nickname of “Night Boy” being shed also opens the door to find Jennifer Jurden, his only friend as a child, until she was taken away from him by her mother. What follows is Ray being pushed to embrace his powers by Hank (to get women), by an immaterial form of the previous Ray (“Happy” Terrill) pushing him to embrace them (to save the world), and his intent to simply try to live his life–and find Jennie.
Jack C. Harris (with lovely pencils from an early-on Joe Quesada, inks by art Nichols, and wonderful colors by John Cebollero) brings this new Ray to being as an unusual character–maybe less so now, and probably not exclusively at the time, but still pretty fresh for the time, certainly as a protagonist–he doesn’t want to be a hero, but doesn’t hate or fear his power exactly, he’s just being pulled and pushed in more directions than the series of massive revelations have left him prepared for. Harris keeps the stakes intimate even when they aren’t: we eventually find Doctor Polaris, but he’s mostly there for his wrestling with his “other self”, Neal Emerson. The threat Ray is being prepared for (against his will, of course!) is something cosmic and alien and somewhat unknown. The people pushing him are manipulative and morally ambiguous in some respects–they withhold the truth from Ray, or even lie to him, all to serve the ostensible greater good–and possibly working against it unintentionally in the process.
Quesada also, let’s be clear, designed a pretty swanky costume. It’s weird, perhaps pretty dated (that jacket, at least!) but it feels very in keeping with Ray’s own character and aesthetics. Still, that fin–as editor Christopher Priest (née Jim “Owz” Owsley) wrote–is cool as hell, and the lines and colours work brilliantly. Perhaps the best decision was to make Ray’s expectedly bright powers cast even his “golden” helmet in shadow, leaving a dark figure with brightly contrasted yellow highlights when in motion. It’s something like Roberto “Sunspot” da Costa, but with more of a style to his “inverted” colouring, courtesy of that jacket and that helmet.
Harris and Quesada beat James Robinson and Tony Harris to the punch by a year or two: a semi-obscure Golden Age character re-envisioned, but via a reluctant legacy, rather than a “reboot”. Certainly the “legacy character” is a shtick of D.C.’s more than Marvel’s–there are occasions, to be sure¹, but there’s nothing like the Barry to Jay (or Wally to Barry), Connor to Ollie, Dick to Jason (to Tim to Damian), Dan to Ted to Jaime, Alan to Hal to Kyle (with stops at Guy and John), on and on and on–but this was a more uniquely D.C., and uniquely 90’s thing to do. It’s a more “flowing” approach to the idea of internal history, embracing the length of it while declining to simply maintain it in the same fashion.² And it’s…just not something that anyone seems to try much anymore. Of course, doing this a third time explicitly might be a bad, worn-out idea, but man, it was something in those days…
¹I mean…Genis-Vell was originally literally called “Legacy”, but didn’t noticeably take-off. Well, oddly, until he was also named Captain Marvel. This should not be confused with the other Captain Marvels: Monica and Carol don’t often embrace their predecessor(s). Dancing through tons of history under other names (Photon! Pulsar! Spectrum! Binary! Warbird! Ms. Marvel!) doesn’t help either. Phyla-Vell, however, dealing with becoming Quasar? That, I’ll count.
²This kind of thing is, I would argue, the key to properly addressing things like continuity. “Legacy” isn’t necessarily about a new character, but allowing the passage of time and its effects to actually, well…have effects. Quesada. Johns. Looking at the two of you harder than anyone else. Way to try to keep things static!