Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Legionnaires: Saturn Girl

Saturn Girl, aka Imra Ardeen of Titan, aka Imra Ardeen Ranzz. Created by Otto Binder and Al Plastino.

Hard to imagine that anyone reading this blog needs Saturn Girl summed up for them, but here goes. Founding member of the Legion and leader on more than one occasion, telepathic powers, generally a couple with Lightning Lad, in original Legion continuity had four children: Graym, Garridan, Dacey and Dorrit.

Saturn Girl was the first Legionnaire.

She was on a spaceliner, and detected some oompus-boompus with her telepathic powers: somebody was going to try to assassinate rich industrialist R.J. Brande. She did not hesitate. She sounded the alarm. In doing so, she created the Legion of Super-Heroes, because Garth Ranzz and Rokk Krinn acted quickly and effectively, and Brande was able to recognize a good thing when he saw a good thing. But her actions were the key: she didn't doubt herself and she didn't waffle; she knew it was time to step up and did so. Her exclamation (which has been variously rendered over the years, but in my mind goes, “Those men—they're going to kill Mr. Brande!”) has taken on an almost talismanic importance in my mind; the sentence itself is a seed of heroism. (Right up there with Tanis Half-Elven saying, “We'll go out through the kitchen.”)

I've recently come to believe that Saturn Girl's mental powers make her as indispensable to the Legion as Brainiac 5. And when I say that I don't just mean the fictional Legion team; I mean the Legion comic-book franchise. On a tactical level, the Legion has any number of physically potent characters, but far fewer mentally potent ones. Really just her, and Tellus for a little while. (Brainiac 5 is mentally quick and agile, but not potent. An analogy: Superman:Saturn Girl::Flash:Brainiac 5.) And mental conflicts are more interesting than punching people out anyway; they really get you involved in the meat of the story. This is probably why Imra is our viewpoint character so often.

Let me try to explain what's so great about Saturn Girl. I know that some people will say that it's because she does stuff like coming up with Mon-El's anti-lead serum, but that's not it. The anti-lead serum was nonsense anyway. How'd she do it—used her power of super-thought-casting to analyze the nature of the poisoning and figure out what the antidote had to be like, or something? That makes exactly as much sense as if they'd said that Bouncing Boy used his power of super-bouncing to analyze the nature of the poisoning and figure out what the antidote had to be like. Never mind all that stuff. That's not why.

It's not even that she was a rare example of a superheroine who was written, in the '50s and '60s, to wield power and authority on the same level as the superheroes on her team. It's true; she was such a character, and that certainly shouldn't go unremarked, but it's not what I want to point out.

This is why. I'll give you the ending first, and then go back to the beginning and list a bunch of things that happened and that didn't happen. The ending is: Saturn Girl never turned evil. Saturn Girl never came close to turning evil.

She once manipulated the Legion's leadership election so that she could win, and used her power to obnoxiously and gleefully jerk the other Legionnaires around. But she had the best of motives for doing so.

Both Lightning Lad and Proty gave their lives to save hers, in situations where it would have been perfectly possible for her to have mind-controlled them into doing so, but no suspicion ever attached to her for it. Not even a whisper or a raised eyebrow.

It was revealed that her fellow Titanian, Saturn Queen, needed the influence of the rings of Saturn to keep from succumbing to the evil in her personality, but Imra never had any kind of similar issue.

She (and a few other Legionnaires) embarked on a conspiracy to deceive their teammates and commit murder, which they did, successfully, but all was forgiven.

In the Five Years Later run it was revealed that her husband had been an impostor for years and years, and she couldn't help but know it, but had been fooling herself all this time.

In the reboot, she found that her mentor had placed mental blocks in her to keep her from being too powerful, and when they were removed, she initially had a hard time controlling all her new power, which caused a lot of problems. For one thing, she subconsciously animated Cosmic Boy's comatose body into walking down the aisle with her.

In Legion Lost, she tricked her teammates into thinking that Apparition was with them, and got to listen in on some confidences by proxy. When this was discovered, it destroyed the Legion's trust in her.

In the threeboot, she invades Timber Wolf's mind to defuse a delicate situation, which enrages him and causes Lightning Lad (as leader) to put the hammer down on any such use of her powers.

At times she's had problems remaining faithful to Lightning Lad, finding herself drawn to Timber Wolf (in the Levitz era), Cosmic Boy (early reboot), Ultra Boy (late reboot) and Ultra Boy again (threeboot). In all cases, it's caused friction and loss of camaraderie on the team.

And in general there's a trend with female characters, that their writers don't tend to trust them with too much power. I'm thinking of Phoenix, and how she got so powerful that she turned evil and had to be killed off, and I'm thinking of the Bionic Woman, who rejected her bionic parts and went berserk, which the Six Million Dollar Man never did. Imra did (as noted above, with the mental blocks) have some issues along these lines, but she never became a menace. Quite the opposite, in fact: she's one of the most stable of Legionnaires. If anybody is keeping it together, she is.

But with all of that, she never turned evil. It never happened to her character. She's obviously no saint: she's deceived herself and deceived other people and used her powers irresponsibly, or even invasively, lots of times. But none of it ever tarnished her. Whatever happens, Saturn Girl is going to remain one of the good guys anyway, and it won't be hard for her to do that. You see, as Paul Levitz showed us once, Saturn Girl is simply not afraid of the darkness.

Contrast her with Superboy-Prime. Superboy-Prime is terrified of the darkness. He became evil because he made a terrible mistake once and couldn't cope with it. He couldn't fit the mistake into who he was and things got out of hand even more and he eventually concluded that he must be evil. If Saturn Girl had done the equivalent of punching Pantha's head off (and you can argue that she has, at one time or another), it would have been totally different. She would have gotten herself back in control, made restitution, maybe turned herself in, something. But she still would have been, recognizably, Saturn Girl, superheroine.

Or take the Joker, Killing Joke edition. The Joker's argument in Killing Joke was, essentially, that everyone is afraid of the darkness, that everyone can be made to gaze at it in fear, and that everyone's time can come. And the Joker was wrong. He was wrong about Jim Gordon, and he would have been wrong about Saturn Girl if he'd tried it on her.

I am now imagining an objection, where someone says, “Come on, Matthew—she's a great character because she doesn't turn evil? Isn't that setting the bar pretty low?” But that's not exactly what I'm trying to say. I'm trying to say that, in fifty years, she doesn't turn evil despite an abundance of situations in which comic-book writers would be strongly tempted to turn her evil. Why didn't they? I say it's because her character was so well-portrayed that writers understood not to turn her evil, because it was clear from the start that heroine-succumbs-to-the-dark-side is simply not a Saturn Girl story.

Her characterization has remained pretty consistent throughout all of Legion history, with the exception of some weirdness toward the end of Shooter's threeboot run. Basically she's been like this since 1958. It's not enough to say that Imra is one of the strongest superheroine characters that DC has. She's one of the best superhero characters ever created.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. E., you did it again!

Your analyses always show interesting layers to each character that show why the Legion is so compelling.

I'm always glad to find more reasons to like a legionnaire.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...


I always feel like I have to come up with something really good to compete with the Major Spoilers Hero Histories (see link in sidebar). I can't be more thorough than them, so...

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I keep hoping that anytime a writer is tempted to turn SG eeeevil, they'll be stopped by remembering everyone-knows-which-redhead at the "other" comics company.

But you never know... :/

-- cleome45

4:36 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I hope it doesn't happen. I hope that anything I can think of doesn't happen; I want to be surprised.

4:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's that. Also, there's the fact that personally, I'm tired of the recurring theme that chicks can't handle power on a grand scale;Because unlike guys, we're all emotional and stuff and it makes us all cuckoo for eating planets, etc.

BTW, not to drift too far from your salient main points, but if you don't mind answering: Did Imra or any of the other female Legionnaires assume any leadership roles at all during Threeboot ? I've got big gaps in what I've read, so I wasn't sure. Just curious.

-- cleome45

5:02 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Sort of.

As far as official leadership goes, Cosmic Boy was the leader for the first thirty issues, with Brainiac 5 as co-leader for part of that time. After that, Supergirl was the nominal leader, but Brainy was manipulating her all the way. Since then it's been Lightning Lad.

But unofficially, plenty of female Legionnaires have shown their influence, including Saturn Girl, Phantom Girl, Shadow Lass, Jeckie, Theena, Triplicate Girl...

6:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Noticed a trend to take Irma down a few notches in recent years?First Shooter thrusts her in Jo's arms (and her odd "hurt me" sex play with Garth) and now Levitz retrofits a one-night drunken romp with Rokk complete with a morning-after mindwipe.Nowhere close to turning Irma evil,but it seems putting her anywhere close to being overvirtuous makes writers nervous.Male writers,anyway.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

That's not exactly my take on it. I agree that a lot of what Shooter did with Imra in the threeboot was jarring and out of character, but some of it was very much in character (her dalliance with Ultra Boy, her use of her powers on Timber Wolf). As for recent events in Adventure... there are many examples in Legion history of her, uh, responding to guys other than Garth, and this retcon of an early tryst with Cosmic Boy is just another one. There are many examples in Legion history of her misusing her powers, and this mindwipe of Cosmic Boy is just another one.

To me, the interesting question is why she thought she had to do the mindwipe. I have some thoughts about it, but I can't say I know the reason.

11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Knowing Levitz,he probably is setting up something down the road.Maybe in Adventure,maybe in LSH.Might even span both titles, though that may be a stretch.
Have you been over at the Legion World boards? Hilarious. They're just wibbering over iron-butt-space-hussy Irma's roll in the sack with Rokk.Either it's something Irma would never do or it's something they always knew Irma would do.Fans are also bickering about whether all this negates any comics published back in the Kennedy administration. Sobering peek in the minds of fandom.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Yeah. I did comment in that thread, but not much notice was taken of me. That's okay; anyone who wants to know what I think can come here, and anyone who doesn't is already fine.

And the Legion World boards are actually pretty civilized by internet standards.

5:45 PM  

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