By Jonathan Edwards
Justice League of America #21 is a one-shot focusing on the book’s most likable character: Ray “totally not an insufferably whiny and pretentious man-child” Terrill. Yippee skippy. Of course, just like every other time JLA has put the spotlight on Ray, the goal is to illustrate just how good and fair and doggone heroic he is. And believe it or not, this is the most successful attempt made to date. Yet, it’s not because Ray suddenly and inexplicably turning into a decent character. Rather, it’s because he finally runs into someone that preaches and screams at him at least as much as he does to everyone else.
We open in Vanity a good week after Ray threw a hissy fit and stormed out of The Sanctuary with Xenos is tow, and apparently, not a single member of the JLA has gone there to try and talk some sense into him when he still refuses to answer his transmatter token. Sure, maybe the idea is that the JLA doesn’t know where he is, and if that’s the case, they wouldn’t be alone. Throughout the issue, everyone that encounters Ray reacts as if they had no clue he was in Vanity. This is despite the fact that he stopped a bank robbery at the very end of the last issue, and the implication is that he’s been actively fighting crime for the whole week. What, are no local news sources reporting on him being back in Vanity? Or, do none of Vanity’s citizens pay attention to the news? But then, what about the JLA? Surely the tokens are trackable in case one of them gets kidnapped or something, right?
Anyway, Ray is at the site of yet another attempted bank robbery, where a disgruntled Mister Scarlet (now a villain sharing his Kingdom Come design) is wrapped in a vault door but otherwise unharmed. “Someone beat me to the scene again with the same… brutal efficiency,” declares Ray. I’m sorry, brutal? Sure, incapacitating a criminal by bending a solid metal door around them could be called excessive, but brutal? Seriously? This is the type of thing that Silver Age Superman would do. And probably did. Multiple times. Mister Scarlet isn’t even in pain from it or especially bothered. He’s just mad he got caught at all. This whole situation is no more brutal than a hero using his light powers to turn a criminal invisible, causing said criminal to nearly have a panic attack before getting knocked unconscious. Y’know, that thing Ray did in Justice League of America: The Ray Rebirth #1. But, I digress.
Throughout this opening scene, Ray and Xenos talk over the phone, and after Ray gets angry at Xenos for continually bringing up the token, as well as sarcastically calling him the JLA’s “mascot” (which… doesn’t really make any kind of sense), Xenos returns to The Sanctuary. For a moment it looks like Ray might show an emotion other than pissed off. But then, duty calls, and he flies off to answer it without so much as a second thought.
However, he’s quickly snagged out of the air by what turns out to be a new version of the hero Aztek. See, she’s pissed at Ray because he left Vanity to join the JLA, and she’s had to pick up his slack. What’s more, because the “language of the higher realm is symbolism,” Ray not being in Vanity means that there's no light there either. And, that’s made it easy for a dark god to sneak in and take root. In one of his few lucid moments, Ray questions why he’s being faulted when he had no way of knowing that’d happen in his absence. And, rather than address this perfectly valid question, Aztek simply continues to tell Ray how much of an asshole he is for leaving. Though I did already mention this, I want to take a moment to emphasize just how identical this behavior is to the way Ray has acted in previous issues. For example, the time Ray yelled at Batman for not 100% trusting Makson, the wild man who took a mere week or two to acclimate to modern living and culture, or the time Ray automatically believed the JLA had betrayed him when an obviously exploitative “documentarian” told him they did. But as annoying as those moments were, there’s no satisfaction in Ray getting a taste of his own medicine here. Because even when he’s on the receiving end of it, two core problems remain the same: no self-awareness and always treating Ray’s perspective as the more valid one.
Real quick, let’s compare the circumstances surrounding Ray’s outbursts in those examples to Aztek’s here. When Ray bites someone’s head off, he doesn’t receive negative feedback. When he chastises Batman for doubting Makson, other members of the JLA take the moment to agree that the Dark Knight has trust issues. But, what happens when Batman turns out to be right about Makson? Rather than be any kind of apologetic, Ray just doubles down on criticizing Batman. And then, when Ray quits the JLA because of Prometheus’s lies, there’s not a single moment where anyone, least of all himself, questions whether or not he’s got his story straight. Even after a full week of ignoring the problem in Vanity, the most Xenos can do before leaving is say “I know you’re pissed off. I just worry you don’t know what at anymore…” But, that’s never been the issue with Ray. It’s not who or what he’s angry at but the why and how, and the fact he’s never had to learn or change because of that. Whereas with Aztek, she reads Ray the riot act, but then after fighting alongside him, she suddenly changes her tune. “You bring something I wasn’t trained for to the front line: understanding. If the Justice League didn’t notice that? They’re just as stupid as you were.” And aside from that being a bullshit aggrandizement of Ray’s character, it also betrays the fact that, in Steve Orlando’s grand scheme of things, Ray can do no wrong.
Furthermore, even ignoring that lack of self-awareness and blatant favoritism of Ray, there are still problems with Aztek’s story. Namely, if she’s known for all this time that the source of the problem is Ray being anywhere but Vanity, then why the hell didn’t she immediately go to The Sanctuary and inform him or any other member of the JLA of that? My guess is Steven Orlando forgot that he’d make their headquarters a place that’s open to the public, as there are no alternatives that paint Aztek in a good light. Either she didn’t think of it (which is a lazy a justification as saying that she did try just that, but it was off-panel, and no one would listen to her), or she didn’t do it out of spite. And, if the latter is true, she’d be just as complicit in the dark god settling in Vanity as she accuses Ray of being. Probably more so, since she’s the one who actually knew it was happening.
But also, if the symbolism of a “dismal city” with an “absence of light” it so important, why didn’t the dark god target Gotham? Vanity might’ve been voted the most depressing city in America, but Gotham is the city protected by darkness and fear. And if not Gotham, then what about Blüdhaven? In some ways, it’s debatably worse than Gotham despite having a protector that, in almost every scenario, is more upbeat and optimistic.
As for Stephen Byrne’s art, it gets the job done, and there’s not much more to say about it. Although, when compared to Justice League/Power Rangers, it becomes very clear why his work there was so underwhelming.
I do have to give Steve Orlando a little bit of credit though. As flawed as his execution is, the idea that a city “loses its light” when a hero leaves, thus leaving it more susceptible to an actual dark entity, makes Justice League of America #21 a particularly inspired issue. Perhaps the most inspired of any issue so far. Now, if Orlando can just focus on writing plots that aren’t automatically solved by characters reacting solely with their Id, we might finally get a book worth reading fortnightly.
Justice League of America #21