January 20, 2008

The new, improved Dawnstar

A few days ago I ripped into Dawnstar, the 31st century Indian superhero, for being bland and stereotypical. That raises the question of whether the character is hopeless or whether she can be salvaged.

Ideally, one shouldn't criticize a problem without proposing a solution to it. So here's a hypothetical origin for a new, improved Dawnstar.

Days of future past

In the centuries leading up to the year 3000, Native Americans saw their views increasingly marginalized and ignored. The United Earth government practiced a policy of manifest destiny: finding, terraforming, and colonizing new worlds. Remaking them in Earth's image and destroying their alien and indigenous beauty.

A coalition of Indians, environmentalists, and others demanded that Earth end its colonial policy of organizing and exploiting the galaxy for its own purposes. Buoyed by popular support, the Earth's government refused. Frustrated, the anti-progress coalition grew increasingly radical. Fringe elements began committing terrorist acts.

The public grew angry toward these anti-colonization Indians and their followers. The Indians were reviled, shunned, demonized. They were treated about like Muslims were treated after 9/11: as enemies of the state. Their sincere beliefs and intentions didn't matter; what mattered was their opposition to the ruling credo of progress.

Fight or flight

The coalition's leaders feared they were about to be shut down, silenced, even imprisoned for their views. Rather than fight a losing battle, they decided to leave Earth. They would find their own planet where they could live according to their values. They would live in harmony with that world's nature rather than shaping it to their whims.

To maintain a strong, unified culture, they closed off their world (Starhaven) to outsiders. More important, they adopted a facade of being peaceful, inward-looking spiritualists. To facilitate this, they obscured all evidence of the hundreds of separate Native cultures. They adopted bland, stereotypical beliefs, costumes, even names (e.g., Moonwalker, Greatfire, Dawnstar) for public consumption. All this served to convince the United Planets they were no longer a threat to its hegemony.

Indeed they were a spiritual people who preferred to seek peaceful solutions. But this was only one side of their being--the public side. In private, they were still fierce, uncompromising warriors who opposed the UP's policy of colonization. But they knew from 1,500 years of history what happened to Indians who didn't toe the line. They would keep this side hidden so they'd never again face oppression, subjugation, or extermination.

Origin of the species

While the UP was perfecting its technology to transform worlds, it was also perfecting its technology to transform people. Whole populations were genetically altering themselves to make themselves compatible with alien ecologies. The people of Starhaven came up with a brilliant idea: They would give themselves wings--and with that, the ability to fly through space at incredible speeds.

Becoming winged would have several benefits. They would reduce their "footprint" on Starhaven, both literally and figuratively. They could travel between the stars without relying on the UP and its resource-wasting technology. And they would become unbeatable warriors. Flying at the speed of light, they could defeat almost anyone: a fleet of UP starships or a horde of Daxamites. Never again would they be vanquished.

But just as they were keeping their anti-UP views secret, they would also keep their fighting abilities secret. They would act as if they couldn't dismantle a star-cruiser or pummel a Validus into submission in the blink of an eye. Because if the UP knew how dangerous they were, it would unite against them. It would clip their wings in more ways than one. Secrecy, they believed, was their only chance for survival.

Summing it up

And there you have it. Dawnstar's other name, her private name, is something non-stereotypical like Maia Goldschmidt (her father is part Jewish). She's of the Haudenosaunee, a warrior people who established the Iroquois League to foster peace.

She joined the Legion to keep tabs on it and mold its thinking--perhaps to change it from an imperialist tool into something better. She could defeat most supervillains in single combat, but her people have sworn never to use their powers to the fullest extent. She's adopted an innocuous New-Age personality so no one will suspect she's the most radical Legionnaire of all.

Just think: This origin wouldn't invalidate anything written about Dawnstar before. But it would take a cardboard character and make her infinitely deeper and richer. She would go from being a token minority to the conscience of the Legion.

Even if you don't buy every detail, it's an example of what could--and arguably should--be done with American Indian superheroes. There's absolutely no reason they should be generic warriors or shamans. Real Indians--like the new, improved Dawnstar--have real cultures and histories. They aren't just a pair of breasts with wings.

Memo to DC Comics: If you want a smart, sharp story about a Legionnaire, here it is. Give me a call and I'll write it for you. I'm thinking it may be the best Legion mini-series ever, so let's do it.


Matthew E said...

Plausible. I'd call it backstory more than story, but that's okay (although I don't think it's more than the first half of the first issue of a miniseries). It does set up a situation where Dawnstar has to use her expanded, more formidable powers, as a Legionnaire, and the secret comes out at least a little bit.

The Legion's an imperialist tool? Really?

dmarks said...

I agree it sounds great. I never could get into the Legion that much before; this would change that.

I could go for a "Legion" that is like it is written by a cross between Alan Moore (a la "Watchmen") and Sherman Alexie.

Rob said...

Yes, it's more of a backstory than a story. My proposed mini-series would flow from this backstory.

Dawnstar wouldn't need much enhancing to be a formidable fighter. If she hurls a handful of pebbles while flying at light-speed, they'll go through anything short of inertron. Result: No more star-cruisers or Daxamites.

How many worlds in the United Planets has Earth colonized...dozens? What happened to the indigenous life-forms on those planets? What's the inevitable outcome when foreign species invade an ecosystem with no defenses against those species?

Has the Legion ever taken an anti-colonization position? Not that I'm aware of. It's explicitly or implicitly pro-colonization.

How many wars has the UP fought against alien races? The Khunds, the Dominators, the Dark Circle, and I'm sure I've forgotten some. How often has the Legion acted as a neutral broker rather than a UP strike force?

For that matter, how often has the Legion questioned or opposed UP policy? Maybe during the "five years later" series, but few fans consider that part of the "canon." The best thing about that series was showing how narrow and unimaginative the previous stories had been.

Matthew E said...

How many worlds in the United Planets has Earth colonized...dozens? What happened to the indigenous life-forms on those planets?

Well, if Blok's origin story is any guide, U.P. colonization was a generally benevolent process, although it didn't work out well that one time, for unrelated reasons.

How many wars has the UP fought against alien races? The Khunds, the Dominators, the Dark Circle, and I'm sure I've forgotten some.

Quite a few, but of course the Legion's opponents were always cast as the aggressors. In the real world it would be unrealistic for that always to be so but in superhero comics we kind of have to take it at face value.

How often has the Legion acted as a neutral broker rather than a UP strike force?

There were times. I can't give you a count but I know there were times.

For that matter, how often has the Legion questioned or opposed UP policy?

Quite a bit in the current series. There was some friction with the U.P. in the reboot, but mostly about things that affected the Legion itself. Didn't come up much in original-Legion continuity; even in the Five Years Later stories the U.P. was benevolent and Earthgov was the corrupt institution.

Of course, the central inspirational figure (in some ways) of the 5YL and reboot Legions was Lar Gand, aka Valor or M'Onel, who was known as the Seeder of Worlds because of all he did to promote the colonization of other planets with superpowered earthlings. So I think you'd have to say that the Legion is pro-colonization in that sense.

Rob said...

The idea that colonization would proceed benignly flies in the face of history. It's a peculiarly Western conceit that we brought civilization and progress to the rest of the known universe, not death and destruction. My take on Dawnstar would correct this myopic and self-serving attitude.

The idea that non-Western empires are warlike and evil is also peculiarly Western. In reality, aggressive expansion--i.e., colonization--is exactly what leads to wars. Only a child (or a naive comic-book reader) would believe the UP could expand and other worlds would accept it without conflict.

I'm not reading the current series because I didn't like the unoriginal and heavy-handed premise. Wow, an authoritarian government set in the future. I haven't read that more than a few hundred times. Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

Colonizing a planet doesn't have to involve destroying the existing cultures. Especially if there aren't any existing cultures; from what I've read of evolutionary theory, sapience is not simply not inevitable, it's spectacularly unlikely. Thousands of sapient alien species? Sure. But those thousands are going to be spread over millions, or more likely billions, of worlds. We're discovering new extrasolar planets pretty well every week; it's looking like stars have planets as casually as cats have kittens, and just as abundantly. That's an awful lot of room for colonization, especially if you can engineer yourself to suit your new environment.