[Spoiler Warning – There will be some mild spoilers in this review]
The JLA Rebirth: The Ray one shot had a lot riding on it for me. It's the return of a classic character I've always been a bit of a fan of, it's a gay male leading title and set-up for a new gay male member of the Justice League of America, one of the oldest and biggest, most well-known superhero teams of all time, and it is coming at a time when things seem really dark for the LGBTQ+ community in America and the rest of the world. It needed to bring some hope.
And boy, does it deliver.
Steve Orlando and Stephen Byrne craft a fantastic story that sets up the origins of the character as well as their reasons for moving forward, and perhaps why he'd be part of the new JLA coming soon.
And what I think is especially wonderful too is it's coming out story at heart, but not one that is weighed down by the common tropes and structure. Many, many times in media, pretty much any media, you see the same old coming out story: gay kid realises their different, struggles with the realisation that oh, that difference is their sexuality, and then wrestles with pain, emotional and sometimes physical, as they torture themselves to their true selves. And this will end either bright and positive or, worse, in tragedy.
There is a place for those stories, true. I've certainly been known to play with those tropes myself. Sadly, we do still live in an age where coming out, all the many times we come out in our lives (because it doesn't just happen once), can be painful, traumatic and, yes, at times tragic.
But Orlando is known for nothing if not twisting our expectations in interesting and exciting ways.
Here, Orlando shows us Ray Terrill from a small child, to his teens, to a young adult. We start off in the dark, a time of confusion and pain true, but not all about his sexuality, but rather his situation, locked in the dark by his mother supposedly to keep him safe from his dangerous 'allergy' to light. When we jump forward to his teen years, Ray is more confident, sure of himself and angry – and this is exciting to see, because none of that anger seems to be wrapped up in his sexuality. Rather, he is sure of his sexuality right away when we find him again, and it is this drive to find others like him and to be himself that draws him to the outside world. For Ray, coming out isn't torture, it's literally release.
Finally, as a young adult, we find a Ray more contemplative and hopeful, but still wanting to jump into the fray and be part of the world. But not just in a social way, in dating etc, but a social conscience too. Wanting to be a part of the world not just to be a part, but to help improve it.
This is furthered by Orlando's other conceit, that is incredibly timely right now. Ray's true coming out, as the hero The Ray, is at a political rally that goes sour. That gets overrun by fear of change and difference that causes minds to shut down and turn to violence and hatred, and with LGBTQ+ POC at risk. And Ray becomes part of the world again, drawn out from a self-imposed exile out of love for his society and for what is right. A literal social justice warrior drawn to fight for his community, all aspects of it, because it's what is right to do, instead of just watching from the sidelines.
All of this is of course beautifully illustrated by Byrne, whose art clearly conveys that he totally understands and relates to this story. This is what you get when you get a creative team who clearly have connected on a story and do their best to tell us all something about that. Byrne's art is expressive, making us relate to all the characters. It's animated, which brings the action to life. It's classic adding weight to the importance of the character and tale.
This is what a superhero story should be. It is hope. It is conscience. It is action. And it is accessible to anyone at all. JLA Rebirth: The Ray is a great example of what Justice League of America can bring to us. And it is bright indeed.