Justice League of America #21 review

The Ray quits the Justice League of America!

…kind of.

Really, he’s doing some soul searching and trying to figure out his place in the world, but in doing so he is separated from the League so I’ll give it a pass.

From the beginning, Steve Orlando’s Justice League of America has touched on some pretty admirable themes: inclusion, compassion, and even grace.  Even if there’s yet to be a convincing case as to why this particular team with these particular members exists, the idea that anyone belongs, no matter their past, rings true.  I mean, Lobo is one of the charter members; if he has a place, then anyone can have a role to play.

And the role the Ray has to play, according to Orlando, is one of compassion.  He understands what it’s like to be an outsider, how it feels to have even your closest loved ones be ashamed of you.  He offers understanding and empathy, the ability to tell somebody “I know how that feels, and you’ll be okay.”  He’s a helping hand to pick up the downtrodden, and he’s not sure he even needs the JLA to do that.

That’s what Orlando explores in this one-and-done, as we follow the Ray’s heroic exploits in the city of Vanity.

Oh, and also Aztek is there.  And he’s a girl now too.

I remember Aztek, mostly from seeing lots of references and spotlights in Wizard Magazine in the late Nineties.  Since then, I’ve read some of the Grant Morrison and Mark Miller-penned series, and it’s pretty good.  It’s not quite as crazy as you’d expect from that duo, but the concept is interesting and there’s plenty of self-referential meta-humor (Aztek is given his name by a group of journalists who say he looks like an Aztec warrior, with one continually piping in and stating he looks Incan).

Plus his costume just looks so rad.


Sadly, Aztek died back in 2000, sacrificing himself to save the world.  After the return of Prometheus, it’s no surprise that Orlando would dip back into late-Nineties DC lore and bring back the Ultimate Man Woman Person.  His successor is Nayeli Constant, a software engineer.  The helmet of Aztek found its way to her and, with a few upgrades to the suit, she became the new avatar of the Q Society.

She is also quick to let Ray know this, which is indicative of this issue’s biggest flaw: it doesn’t breathe.  Ray and Aztek go from yelling at each other about duty and responsibility to Nayeli telling Ray her origin so quickly that I thought a page was missing.  It was a really weird transition.

From there, the duo team up to take down a gang called the Sons of Earth, who are currently holding a group of police officers hostage.  There’s some fairly stilted dialogue here too, particularly between one of the officers and a member of the Sons who happen to be related, but Orlando and Stephen Byrne make some pretty creative use of Ray’s powers.

Again, the intent is admirable, as Ray tries to reach common ground with one of the gang members.  It backs up Orlando’s mission of having the team strive for unity through understanding, even and especially when it doesn’t seem like there is grace to be had.  These themes resonate with me pretty deeply, and I appreciate that Orlando is even attempting to give the team a purpose beyond “punch all of the things.”

The best scene, unsurprisingly, is between Ryan and Caitlin.  It helps that the two have a history and chemistry with each other, which Ray and Nayeli do not.  Likable as each character is, the dialogue between the two felt like that: dialogue.  Ryan and Caitlin sound like they’re actually having a conversation with each other, making their scene ring true.

The visual support Orlando receives from Stephen Byrne is unique, to say the least.  His style isn’t bad by any means, though it is curiously flat.  Aside from a few bits of good physical humor, most of Byrne’s pencils have a cel-shaded quality that doesn’t quite work with the material.  A lot of it comes down to the coloring, I think, as each page is awash in whatever primary shade Byrne is using.

Take that page.  There’s actually a nice effect with the sunset and most of the pages aren’t unpleasant to look at, it’s just a strange fit for this book.  I’d totally buy Byrne’s style on an all-ages book, with the clean figures and bold, solid colors, but it doesn’t be quite work on JLA here.

The issue ends on a cliffhanger that brings us one step closer to the inevitable confrontation with the Might Beyond the Mirror.  That and the addition of Aztek to the mix should hopefully breathe some new life into the title.  It feels like Orlando is finally getting to write the stories he’s been wanting to tell all along, and I’m intrigued to see what he has planned.

Recommended if:

  • You’re a fan of the Ray.
  • You’re also a fan of Aztek.
  • You can appreciate good thematic material and intents.

Overall: An imperfect experience with nonetheless good intentions, this focus on the Ray has some great ideas and solid thematic material.  The reintroduction of Aztek will hopefully bring some new perspective to the title, and though she’s a new person under the helmet I’m starting to like her already.  A lot of my appreciation for this title stems from understanding where the creative team is coming from and what they’re going for, and now that Orlando is bracing for his big arc I’m hoping the intents come together with the writing to create a truly memorable team book.

SCORE: 6/10