Probably (maybe?) hundreds of new characters are created in super hero comics each year, yet only a precious few (if that) catch enough to even become reserve Avengers or Justice League alternates, let alone headliners. A lot of times the most popular “new” characters are just old friends wearing new clothes or familiar names (though I’m not complaining, because I love me some Flash Thompson as Venom and Kaine as Scarlet Spider; thanks Steve “recycle, reduce, reuse and close the loop” Wacker). The true newbies are like so many little sperm struggling to reach the egg, with only one ultimately surviving (my wife is a labor and deliver nurse and I fear it’s beginning to affect my metaphors).
Take this situation and multiply by the fold of a hundred foil variants in the 90’s, where a larger market, more publishers and an exponentially wider swath of titles with new ones being launched seemingly every day (not just Wednesday) meant thousands upon thousands of characters we barely got 12 issues to meet before they faded off into obscurity.
In large part, the concepts that didn’t survive and haven’t experienced a renaissance since make sense in retrospect, as they had the feel of the assembly line, but in some cases, I remain somewhat baffled by the ones that got away.
The Ray was a legacy character before that was that big a thing at DC (you had the Silver Age successors and Wally West, but the concept didn’t full on explode until the JSA series). I was drawn to the character without knowing a thing about him because he had such a cool, striking look designed by current Marvel CCO Joe Quesada. During an era where most costumes were either more colorful than the set of Flashdance or simplified to a t-shirt and jeans, Ray bucked every trend. When he was powered down, he had the intriguing combination of mostly white with yellow plus a neat jacket and unique helmet, then while using his powers he went jet black offset by patches of white. He looked like nothing else out there and was expertly handled by Quesada, Howard Porter and others.
Ray also had a crazy origin wherein he grew up in his boarded up basement raised by his uncle and privately tutored because his father, the original Ray, didn’t want him exposed to sunlight which would activate his powers too early; moreover, he was told he was allergic to light, making his childhood lonely and downright freaky. He eventually meets his dad and refuses his request to succeed him as a hero—understandable given that this dude let him rot in a basement for the first 18 years of his life—but then eventually does it for the greater good.
It’s a very unusual genesis for a character with grim elements that weren’t gritty just for the sake of, but because they were story driven. It also set Ray apart personality-wise as he was leery and distrusting with good reason given his upbringing, but also genial and eager to experience the world; he could flip the switch from surly to naïve like your average teenager but there was story meat as to why.
Ray was put on the Justice League pretty quickly and became the centerpiece of Justice League Task Force not long after. I tend to think that was maybe too much too soon as he didn’t really have time to develop organically and become a true fan favorite before he was stacking up next to the (relative) big guns and instantly becoming less impressive by comparison. I remember a moment during the climax of Zero Hour where Ray is the grizzled “been there, done that” guy giving Damage a hard time and thinking how that seemed odd given that he’d only been in existence a couple years, but a lot of stuff was crammed into those years.
I daresay The Ray was a character a bit ahead of his time. The persona created by Jack C. Harris and later honed by Christopher Priest is one that could really have thrived in the more character/story-driven last decade as opposed to the flashy 90’s. If he debuted in the past 10 years, I believe The Ray could have caught on as a cult favorite with strong followings among the type of people who dig something like Invincible (story of a kid lied to by his hero father and forced to grow up too fast). I also think he was put on the Justice League too fast as it felt like a case of that brand name being used to foist a character upon us rather than it being awarded to him because we voiced our approval.
Every time Ray has shown up since his initial run, there’s usually a requisite nostalgia cheer, but more a stigma of coming from an era which wasn’t ready for him, which is a shame.