By Rasmus Lykke
“Every comic is someone’s first.”
It’s an old quote, attributed to Stan Lee. I suspect it’s more from Stan Lee the editor, than Stan Lee the writer. It’s meant to remind creators that every comic should be able to be picked up blank, without any prior knowledge of the character and the reader is supposed to be able to follow along. Everything will be introduced to the reader in the story. It’s the school of writing that gives us the classic “In my guise as Spider-Man, I could easily handle Rhino’s rampage. But I can’t slip away right now, or J. Jonah Jameson will find out my secret identity and expose it in The Daily Bugle!” type of captions, when presented in its most inelegant form.
But it’s also the kind of writing which means that any kid who has heard of Spider-Man can pick up a random comic with him on the cover and follow the story, hopefully becoming hooked for life. When done well, it doesn’t feel like someone condescendingly fansplaining something to you, but instead a good friend introducing you to a new group of friends.
Based on The Ray #13, it’s not an approach Christopher Priest is a fan of. In this issue, nothing is explained to the new reader. To start: the huge, menacing villain on the cover doesn’t even really factor into what’s going on in the comic. He appears as a henchman on the first two pages, before showing up on TV to get our hero good and mad at the very end of the issue. That’s all we see from him. Instead, this comic focuses on Ray working the graveyard shift at Clucky Chicken, a fast food joint.
Except, well… that’s also misleading. Because Priest and Porter focus less on Ray and more on two groups of customers he serves. One, a Mercedes full of white college bros, are busy showing off how damn clever they are, while saying nothing of substance. Then the car behind them is driven by a group of Black teenagers, who’re chancing for free food. Under Priest’s pen, both groups come off as kind of obnoxious idiots. And most frustratingly, the bulk of the issue is focused on these two cars for some reason.
First the white college bros, who’re having an inane discussion about the benefits of an arts degree (or more likely the lack of any benefits); which college is better; and most of all which celebrity “is Elvis”, an apparent slang that makes no real sense. I honestly don’t know if it’s because the comic is 27 years old, because of a language barrier or, most likely, because these are idiot college bros that want to sound hip and intelligent, while not really saying anything at all.
Contrasting the white teens are the Black teens. Their conversation is similarly inane. They’re talking about a lack of money and discussing whether or not there were any Black people on The Beverly Hills Hillbillies. For a while, it appears like they’ll actually be discussing something vital to a new story – but then it becomes clear, that they have no money and were hoping for free food, from their friend who was supposed to work the graveyard shift that the very white Ray is now working. And when he doesn’t immediately give them what they want, they start accusing him of being racist, despite him having done nothing more than ask for their order.
Their exchanges are intermixed with Ray, wallowing in guilt over something that happened in The Ray Annual. Though… what exactly that is never really becomes clear. My best guess is that he failed to properly save a plane (that his girlfriend was either on or supposed to be on) and then talked to Superman about the pressure of being a superhero. It’s all very confusing. But then again, Ray doesn’t really seem like the character that Priest is most interested in exploring in this issue. When another superhero shows up… it’s to order some fast food and once again nothing of consequence (or interest, really) happens. It’s a highly frustrating issue. But – and this is important – I think that’s actually on purpose.
I’ll admit that at first I couldn’t see it. I was just frustrated by all the inane things going on, the somewhat poor craftsmanship by Priest and how much of a struggle it was to get through. But then someone pointed out to me that that’s actually what I was supposed to be feeling. Like the readers, Ray is frustrated in his life’s story: being stuck in the graveyard shift while his life is falling apart all around him. He’s lost in a dead-end job, his girl (probably?) just dumped him (or died?), and his archnemesis (I think?) is on TV being the front figure out a new rogue nation. And all the while Ray is busy saying “Cluck Cluck, can I take your order”. Ray’s life sucks. As a daydream near the very end shows, he just wants to kick loose, fight some bad guys (or the assholes who annoyed him during his shift) and be a damn superhero.
He wants an exciting superhero life, which we as readers also want to see from him. It should be relatable. But instead it’s just incredibly frustrating – and it brings me to the chronological approach. The way the issue is structured means we never really get on Ray’s side, before all the annoying things start piling up. By the time we meet him in the issue, we’re already annoyed, and he’s just another annoyance. Even worse, there’s nothing to combat this annoyance. As new readers, nothing is explained to us about his history, his status quo or even his powers. We’re lost.
Him moping about might make sense, even if we’re only given the briefest, most unclear glimpses into his recent backstory. But the confusing nature of the issue, coupled with the chronology, means that we’re just annoyed by him instead. Ultimately, the approach is a failure.
In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that Priest set out to annoy and frustrate us as readers. It’s honestly a noble goal. Instead of him just showing us that Ray is frustrated, he wants us readers to join in. To really feel the frustration. It’s a style of storytelling that I normally applaud. But here it just doesn’t work. The rest of the creative team are doing good work here, but it’s the writing which lets the issue down. It sets out to truly put us in Ray’s shoes, making us feel as frustrated as he does – but in failing to give us any reason to understand him or find him compelling, we’re left uninterested in him. So we’re simply left frustrated.
I sincerely hope this wasn’t anyone’s first comic, because then it might well have also been their last one.
The Ray #13 “Graveyard Shift”
Artist: Howard Porter
Colourist: Pat Garrahy
Letterer: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Rasmus Skov Lykke is the author of “Style and Substance”, about the themes and storytelling in Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers. He has written extensively for PanelxPanel, SKTCHD and ComicsXF, and contributed to numerous other sites. When not writing, he spends his time with his wife, their daughter and their cats, usually thinking about writing. You can find him on twitter here!
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