Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Legionnaires: Dawnstar

Dawnstar of Starhaven, aka Bounty. Created by Paul Levitz and Mike Grell.

Dawnstar was a member of the original version of the Legion. She was of American Indian descent, and her powers included flight (including spaceflight, at speeds high enough to make it worthwhile) and psychic tracking. She first joined the Legion out of the Legion Academy. During the Five Year Gap, she was taken over by an entity named Bounty who caused her wings to be cut off, among other indignities. Dawnstar didn't appear in the reboot Legion (although a comparable character, Shikari, did) and hasn't yet appeared in the threeboot. However, there are strong hints that she's going to show up (with her wings) in the pages of Justice Society of America as part of their Starman storyline, possibly leading to some kind of return to active continuity of the original Legion.

Dawny was... she was the kind of superhero character who works best in a team book. First of all, she can handle herself okay in a fight but doesn't actually have any good offensive or defensive powers. As she put it in the first comic I ever saw her in, "I'm a tracker, not a stomper." Second, she didn't have the most attractive personality; she was kind of aloof, only ever really opening up to Wildfire, with whom she had a long star-crossed relationship. She was even a bit on the mercenary side: she made no bones about the fact that she first joined the Legion for money (which she sent home to her family, by the way). And I don't remember her ever having any fun. Even Saturn Girl would relax every now and then.

In my entry about Chemical King I said that his powers posed problems for the writers, because to use Chemical King right you really have to know a thing or two about chemistry. Dawnstar's powers are also a problem for the writers, but in a different way: they're easy to understand, but they can often blow your story right out of the water! See, Dawny can find anybody, even on the other side of the galaxy. And sometimes, to make a story work, you need people to stay lost for a while. So we got a lot of scenes where Dawnstar was standing on the bridge of a Legion cruiser, concentrating, a halo of tracky-mojo around her head, saying stuff like, "I think I've got him--he's out there--no, it's gone. And, no, before you ask, it wouldn't help if Brainy came up with a gizmo to amplify my powers." Dawny's powers must have failed her more than any other Legionnaire I've ever seen, but it wasn't her fault. It was just logistics.

Now, as for what makes Dawnstar a great character... With Dawnstar, it's all about the look. This may sound like an obnoxious thing to say; after all, there is more to her than that. And I would never say such a thing about other Legionnaires, even the visually striking ones like Dream Girl or Tellus. But with Dawny the look is the key to everything: the magnificent white wings, the flowing black hair, the fringe on her costume, the star on her forehead... This is why the Bounty storyline was such a shame. I won't go so far as to say that there's no point to Dawnstar if you cut her wings off, but it's close.

So, for a signature moment, let's try this quiet moment from LSH v2 #304, where, thanks to Messrs. Levitz, Giffen and Mahlstedt, she’s at her best in many ways.

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Blogger Greybird said...

Thanks for the concise summary of Dawny as a character, and for noting how her abilities could sometimes be almost too narrowly powerful for the stories' own good.

Her apparent return, with all her limbs restored, is the best comics news I've had in years. I'm sure you'll cover it here!

You're right, she always would work best in a team book, as would many other Legionnaires with highly defined powers. The Kryptonians, Mon-el, or Ultra Boy could make exciting stories difficult to portray by bringing almost too many abilities to bear at once against their foes. Finding the ingenious, unexpected fit of a specialized Legionnaire, for problems that didn't submit to sheer force, gave us some of the more rewarding stories. Including, for Dawny, the early episodes of The Crisis.

As for her really letting loose and showing another side, it was rare enough to be easily missed, but I remember one notable occasion: In "LSH" v3 n30, Brainy and Sun Boy go to a nightclub with her, relaxing from a long, eventful day, and they even get her to dance!

The look does matter, I'd have to agree. Grell's visual ingenuity took enough Indian elements (which weren't gratuitous, as he valued their cultures) to suggest a hint of the exotic while making it possible to draw her with drama.

Almost every artist came through well in showing her majestic wings, although they weren't always fond of the task or confident about it. Such as Jeff Moy, who told me so at a con, but has nonetheless done some superb pin-ups of a character who was, sadly, absent from his own Legion run.

2:05 AM  
Blogger Your Obedient Serpent said...

The look is, indeed, important, and might just be why she never made it into the reboot: while I liked the visual unity that the wide-stripe-down-the-middle costume motif gave the reboot Legion, there's just no way to capture the essential elements of Dawnstar's costume into that fashion.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Greybird said...

It wouldn't have been easy to make Dawnstar over with the reboot central-stripe look, but it was worth a shot, methinks. Jeff Moy (colors by LoserLad) made an intriguing try. Fan artist SaberGirl did, as well.

1:44 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

One of the (many) reasons I didn't like v4 was the crippling and subornation of Dawnstar, for no apparent story purpose.

It may have had the bestest backstory in the history of all fanfic, but it never made it onto the page, and if it's not on the page, it doesn't count.

Plus, of course, she was a post-Adventure character, which meant that the v4 writers didn't give a !@#$ about her.

Not that I have a strong opinion or anything.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

Tracky-mojo? ;-)

Yes, Dawnstar had a personality, and it was written fairly consistently, but I wouldn't call it good. She was a stereotypical spiritual Indian. While dreaming about the Great Spirit, she was out of touch with reality.

I never bought her, uh, starcrossed romance with Wildfire. As Greybird postulated in a short story, she would've been better off with someone like Mon-El. His mind was off among the stars, pondering the ethereal cosmos (or whatever), and so was hers.

Yes, with Dawnstar, it was all about the look. The magnificent white wings, the flowing black hair, the fringe on her costume, the star on her forehead, the bountiful breasts, the luscious legs, etc. Er, did I mention the breasts? Without her striking looks, she would've been unremarkable: a poor man's Angel or Black Condor.

But give me some time and I'll rehabilitate Dawnstar. I'll show you how she could go from being a minor Legionnaire to a major one. Stay tuned for more.

3:55 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

It's interesting how you're emphasizing aspects of Dawnstar that I find easy to ignore. For instance, I tend to forget about her Indian heritage. It's not an aspect of her character that I find makes much difference for how she's used in comic books. (Which may be your whole point!)

Or, as you noted, her breasts, which have certainly been emphasized by the artists who've drawn her recently (especially on that one JLA/JSA cover). I think that's revisionist, though; she's not Power Girl. In my mind she always had a normal (comic-book) build, and it was her wings that provided the great visual effect.

Anyway, I don't think Dawnstar needs fixing to work as a Legionnaire, although I could certainly see how someone who knew what they were talking about could make her a more satisfying character in other ways.

I like the Mon-El idea. For that matter, Shady and Wildfire might have gotten along. Her powers may even have provided a way to avoid some of the adverse effects of his physical condition...

10:50 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

Re "I tend to forget about her Indian heritage. It's not an aspect of her character that I find makes much difference for how she's used in comic books. (Which may be your whole point!)"

Indeed it is.

I suppose Dawnstar's voluptuousness has varied with the artist, but her costume is inherently revealing. As I said, the fan art kind of proves my point. Regardless of how the official artists have drawn her, fans emphasize her sexy body.

But let's forget about the costume and the wings for a moment. If a character works only because of her appearance, is that a good thing? Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man work regardless of their costumes because they're well-conceived characters. Can anyone say the same of Dawnstar?

I agree with Greybird that the writers had to limit her powers to make her work. I'd say that's a problem that needs fixing. For instance, if you have to invent reasons why her tracking power doesn't work, get rid of it.

Incidentally, the same is true of Chemical King, which is why he had to go. It's also true of Element Lad, even though his power is straightforward. Which is why he's never been a major player. If he turns the Persuader's axe or the Empress's Eye to gas, the story is over, so that doesn't happen.

Yes, I could see Wildfire and Shadow Lass together. I think he'd go for a "bad girl"--someone dark and arrogant--not a madonna type like Dawnstar. How about a story in which the Empress uses the Eye to make him solid and he falls for her in turn? Talk about your tragic love!

6:40 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

The Legionnaires' background and heritage have never mattered much. And why is that? Because regardless of their skin color, they (used to) represent a Caucasian, American mindset.

Except for hints of change in such characters as Chameleon Boy, Princess Projectra, and Shadow Lass, this is still the case. Only a few Legionnaires--Invisible Kid II, Karate Kid II, XS, Kid Quantum--have embodied the range of human diversity. And only a few--Blok, Tellus, Quislet, Gates--have embodied nonhuman diversity.

Gates is arguably the only Legionnaire ever to have a philosophical difference with the others. The rest have been gung-ho about making the universe safe for democracy. It's almost unheard of for them to question the prevailing dogma.

What's their position on, say, the future equivalent of globalization? Take the Anglo-American position, project it 1,000 years forward, and there's your answer. In other words, do exactly what the 20th-century military-industrial complex did and hope for the best.

That's why backgrounds matter. And why Dawnstar is a faux Indian and cardboard character. Real Indians have opinions on the issues that affect them.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I think Dawnstar is a well-conceived character, yes... power-balancing aside. (The same, of course, could be said of Superman.) Her appearance is key but not the whole story. Actually, how different have Batman, Superman and Spider-Man ever looked since their first appearances, and when they did, how well was it received? (Spider-Man's black costume, good in small doses. Electric blue Superman, no thanks.)

For your other points about Dawnstar, her heritage, and the makeup of the Legion: I tend to agree, and do not challenge your arguments at all. But I will say that if any of the issues you raised were ever addressed a) in any kind of depth, b) well and intelligently, and c) in a superhero comic, I would be pleased, yes, but surprised even more so.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

Here you go: The New, Improved Dawnstar.

5:52 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

True, Superman and Batman didn't change costumes much. But Spider-Man did and it didn't hurt his character.

What changed for Superman and Batman was the interpretation of the character. Superman went from glorified strong-man to near-god and back again. Batman went from Camp Crusader to Dark Knight. Both characters appeared in numerous imaginary stories.

Why did all these different versions of the characters work? Because the characters were deep and robust. They didn't rely on their appearance or a gimmick (e.g., wings).

When superheroes rely on some artifice, they tend not to work. For example, the 1960s Green Arrow with trick arrows was lame, while the 1970s Green Arrow with a liberal attitude was compelling. He didn't need arrows, a costume, or anything to be a great character.

Winged characters are usually second-stringers because they have nothing but their wings. Take Hawkman, for instance. DC has reincarnated him several times because he's failed several times. That's because he's nothing more than a pair of wings with a mace.

The only time he, uh, soared was when they gave him the Hawkworld backstory. Suddenly he had a whole "hawk" history and philosophy to go with the costume. No longer was he a WASP playing dress-up like the original Carter Hall. He was a Thanagarian with an alien perspective on everything human.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

That's one way of looking at it. But also, the requirements of the characters are different. Green Arrow and Hawkman have had their own series; Dawnstar never will, be she ever so well-conceived and deeply written. She's a member of a team book that's inextricably tied to an exotic setting separate from the regular DCU. There's no point in giving her too much depth because you're hardly ever going to get to use it.

I mean, unless the idea is to make her such a great character that she can be spun off into her own title, like Karate Kid in the '70s, despite her 30th-century origins. That idea doesn't really set my imagination on fire for any Legionnaire, but even if it did, much as I like Dawny, she wouldn't be at the top of my list for which Legionnaire I'd single out for this treatment.

Your 'new improved Dawnstar' idea... It'd probably work. If I read it in a comic book I'd have no objection. Only thing I can think of is, would Dawnstar and her people really keep their powers under wraps in the face of, say, Darkseid and his hordes? The secret's not going to do them much good once the universe has been conquered.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

Green Arrow was decades away from having his own series when DC remade him into a liberal do-gooder. You can't possibly think they revised him because they knew he could carry a series 20 or 30 years later.

Team books invariably work better when the team members are given distinct personalities and backgrounds. The X-Men comics have proved that definitively, I'd say.

The Legion flourished under Levitz when he fleshed out the characters and added depths or twists to their histories. His spotlight issues on individual members only made the team book stronger.

There have been several series and mini-series featuring individual or small groups of Legionnaires. Dawnstar could be the next to benefit from such a treatment.

It wouldn't be hard to come up with a reason why Dawnstar's people haven't intervened in cosmic crises before. Perhaps they have a shaman (or a Naltorian) who tells them when they're truly needed.

6:05 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Green Arrow was decades away from having his own series when DC remade him into a liberal do-gooder. You can't possibly think they revised him because they knew he could carry a series 20 or 30 years later.

Not exactly, no; but they did think of Green Arrow as a character who was conceived to be the star of his own stories, just as Hawkman was, and just as Dawnstar was not. GA and Hawkman weren't conceived or developed as elements of a large ensemble; Dawny was.

Which is not to say that I don't think she *should* be developed, or that any Legionnaire shouldn't, or that I have a problem with your ideas of how to do it. It's just that, since she is and will almost certainly always be a member of a large ensemble, there's a law of diminishing returns about just *how much* detail is actually going to do any good.

6:28 PM  

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