Jacket Required: With The Return Of 'The Ray,' Superhero Fashion Gets Layered

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Cover of the prodigiously titled <em>Justice League of America: The Ray: Rebirth #1; </em>art by Ivan Reis.

Leather jacket ... over superhero tights.

Maybe with the jacket sleeves pushed up to the elbows jauntily? Finished off with some leather driving gloves, for precisely no reason?

It's ... a look. You can't say it's not.

At least, it was a look, back in the bad old days of the benighted '90s, when superhero fashion, like skiing, skateboarding, makeovers and underarm deodorant, got extreeeeeme.

Sartorially speaking, the jacket-spandex combo doesn't make any damn sense, it never has. Superhero costumes are supposed to reflect the beings inside them: bold, uncomplicated, iconic — design reduced to essential elements and vivid primary colors. Super-suits are athletic wear, after all, meant to allow for a full range of movement. They possess, one strongly suspects, wicking technology.

Throw a jacket over that, and you just complicate things needlessly. You make superheroes look ... fussy. Also a little chilly. ("AVENGERS, ASSEMBLE! NOT, YOU KNOW, NOW, BUT SOON! AFTER I'VE GONE BACK TO THE CAR TO GET MY DENIM!")

Worse still, as I've mentioned before, you make them seem like they're doing a tight five minutes about airline peanuts against the brick wall of a Chuckle Hut in 1991.

But that's how a great many superheroes started to dress in the '90s, as a booming comics industry fed demand with a swelling roster of extreme! heroes given to grim-and-gritty outbursts of violence — and sulking. The editorial thinking went: "These new heroes are more complicated than our classic heroes" — (psst: They really, really weren't, you guys) — "so their look should reflect that. We'll make them look contemporary, raw, in-your-face."

Which translated into: we'll slap a bomber jacket on 'em and call it a day.

(Yesterday I appealed to Twitter to help me remember the various superheroes who've rocked this regrettable look, over the years. At this writing, some 24 hours later, the names are still pouring in; the count stands at a soul-shattering 47.)

But time moved on, and the comics boom of the early '90s busted, and the fashion for jackets-over-tights superhero couture mercifully faded. Many heroes who'd sported that look came to their senses, in much the same way that you, eventually, got rid of your jorts. I'm assuming.

But now, one of the '90s heroes who defined the jacket-over-tights era has returned with a vengeance, in a solo one-shot comic in stores today.

And, yes, he's brought the jacket with him. That's him, and it, right up there at the tippy-top of this post.

But first, some quick background.

Quicker Than A Ray Of Light

There's been a superhero called "The Ray" flitting through superhero circles, off and on, since 1940. He was created by writer Will Eisner and artist Lou Fine in the pages of Smash Comics #14, and his design was sleekness itself: glowing yellow skintight bodysuit, with an art-deco fin on his head.

Over the long decades since his debut, he's bounced from one parallel Earth to another, a perennial C-lister with broadly defined "light powers" who hung out with a team of Nazi-fighting heroes whose roster included a guy in a hazmat suit who could make his limbs blow up (the aptly-named Human Bomb) and nothing less than the personification of the American Spirit (Uncle Sam — not the cigarette — complete with soul patch, top hat, blue tails and stripey pants on his bandy legs).

In 1992, writer Jack C. Harris and artist Joe Queseda introduced the original Ray's son in a 6-issue mini-series. His deal: Young Ray Terrill grew up convinced he had a light allergy, and was kept in the dark — literally — about his true origins, lest strong sunlight trigger his light powers before he grew old enough to control them.

Artist Queseda, awash as he was in the era's Jolt-Cola zeitgeist, added another element to this new Ray's look. A jacket.

And ... what a jacket.

Take a look at this thing. First of all, it's both short-sleeved and double-breasted, in the way precisely no jacket should be. It's epauletted and strappy-strapped all the way to Sunday in a way that's meant to evoke a military uniform, although with that black-and-yellow color scheme ... well.

I'll let my colleague Linda Holmes sum it up: "If Sergeant Pepper were a character in The Bee Movie."

Also, fingerless gloves. You know, in case his heroic duties should require him to infiltrate the "Love is a Battlefield" video.

Beginning in 1994, this new, second-generation, stupid-jacketed version of The Ray starred in a successful solo series written by Christopher Priest and penciled (initially) by Howard Porter.

It was promoted, in a highly unusual move, with a full-page ad featuring a photograph of a male model in full Ray regalia, which appeared in all of DC's titles.

Behold, 1994 distilled to its floppy-haired, floppier-jacketed essence!

Since then, there have been two other versions of The Ray in DC Comics: Stan Silver, an African-American reporter, and Lucien Gates, a Korean-American lifeguard. Both of these latter-day Rays had the good sense to lose the jacket.

Ray, A Drop Of Golden Sun

But today, it's the Ray-Terrill, Bee-Movie-Sergeant-Pepper version of The Ray who's returning in a one-shot comic that boasts the hilariously voluminous title Justice League of America: The Ray: Rebirth #1. Writer Steve Orlando and artist Stephen Byrne reintroduce the character, setting up his inclusion, next month, in the ranks of the Justice League of America.

Orlando's bisexual, and Byrne is gay, and their version of Ray Terrill is a matter-of-factly out-and-proud superhero. Most queer readers will welcome this development, while other readers will balk. Me, I find myself surprisingly conflicted.

Don't get me wrong — the issue is an admirable piece of work that retells his origin, sets up his worldview, establishes his New Normal and positions him in the DC Universe with energy and economy. And it leaves you with no small amount of good, old-fashioned, superheroic uplift.

And yet, there's something I couldn't get past: that retcon.

Not that's he's gay now; I applaud that.

But accepting that fact means I now have to force myself to also accept the notion that any self-respecting queer kid would design ... that woeful, woeful jacket.

I'll let it go, eventually. I mean, take a look at the guy, below. HE sure seems happy with it.

More's the pity.

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