January 11, 2008

Dawnstar returns

Dawnstar is one of DC's biggest Indian superheroes. She may be the biggest, which would be a sad reflection on DC's lack of diversity.

Anyway, she's back after a long hiatus. Here she is:

DawnstarDawnstar is a fictional character in the DC Universe of the 30th and 31st centuries, a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Dawnstar is her real name (she has no Legion code name), and she is from Starhaven, a planet colonized from Earth in the 23rd century. Her name is derived from the planet Venus, the "morning star." This is why Dawnstar wears an eight-pointed star ornament on her forehead. Dawnstar is of American Indian heritage, although no specific tribe was ever linked with her.

Dawnstar's unique powers include the ability to track life forms and objects across light years of distance and through interstellar space. She can survive in deep space for long periods of time without a spacesuit or oxygen. Dawnstar and other Starhavenites have pairs of large, white-feathered wings that grow out of their upper backs, the result of genetic engineering. In deep space, she can travel at faster-than-light speeds.
Recent appearances:In a JSA-JLA crossover story, "The Lightning Saga," Dawnstar (along with many other Pre-Crisis Legionnaires) is seen as a statue in Superman's Fortress of Solitude.

Dawnstar, with her wings and original appearance, unites with other Legionnaires in the 21st Century in a still-mysterious effort to save someone's life. (They hold rods that resemble those used for a similar action, to save Lightning Lad, in the original Silver Age Legion stories.) Although it was predicted that at least one was risking his or her own life, no one dies, and the Legion contingent returns to the 31st Century.

The Legion shown in this story is currently taking part in a story set in its own time and involving Superman, beginning in Action Comics #858.

Dawnstar is now being depicted as part of a Pre-Crisis Legion—highly similar to the original, though not identical—that is known by Superman.
Comment:  In the most recent ACTION series, Dawnstar has a modified costume. But her essential traits remain:

1) She's a buxom Indian princess type in a revealing costume. The revised costume has less fringe but is equally revealing.

2) She has no specific cultural traits or heritage. Her only Indian traits are an ethereal personality and a vague spirituality. She's a typical generic Indian.

3) Her tracking power is somewhat stereotypical, but it's mitigated by her unusual wings and extraterrestrial abilities.

4) She and her family members--Mistrider, Moonwalker, Greybird, and Greatfire--have clichéd Indian names.

The lack of a specific heritage is the worse problem. I believe the idea is that Indians in general colonized the planet Starhaven. And what...they all abandoned their individual cultures and became New Age pan-Indians? Tlingit and Ojibwe, Seminole and Hopi, Cheyenne and Mohegan, Oneida and Paiute...one big happy family?


dmarks said...

The "Star Trek: Next Generation" and "Voyager" Indians were rather "Generic" when it came to their identity by tribe/nation.

I'm thinking it is carelessness on the part of the writers/creators: they just did not bother, and Indian is Indian.

One could easily imagine some sort of future situation where Natives have pretty much given up tribal identity, but that requires creativity.

Rob said...

I've posted a long critique of Chakotay because of his ill-defined heritage.

Good point that tribal identities might fade in 1,000 years. But if that's what the writers intended, they should've stated it. If they don't address the point, I presume they haven't thought about it. And that Dawnstar is just another generic Indian.

Even an Indian from some unified tribe would have cultural traits. And the traits would be more than a superficial spirituality. Dawnstar lacks any trace of this. If she ever expressed a cultural thought, it was no more than a prayer to the "Great Spirit."

I've met lots of urban Indians whose cultural knowledge comes from distant relatives or books. Even though they're acculturated, they're not the same as you or me. They still think about issues that matter to Indians. They commiserate over Columbus, Wounded Knee, or boarding schools because these things are part of their history.

Dawnstar has never done anything like that. She's a one-note cardboard cutout, not a good character who has abandoned her heritage. Giving up one's heritage is as much a characteristic as keeping it, and Dawnstar doesn't have it.

Rob said...

Another point:

You're suggesting Dawnstar is an Indian the same way I'm a German. After 1,000 years, I've lost all ties to any Germanic tribe. I'm as generic a German-American as they come.

If that's the case, I don't leave with my fellow German-Americans to colonize a planet. I don't have anything in common with them except a nonexistent "Germanness" based on my name. I'd rather emigrate with the Indians because I feel more akin to them.

You see? A group identity requires shared thoughts and feelings. Dawnstar has a pseudo-Indian identity, but she doesn't have an Indian's thoughts and feelings. So her character rings hollow.

In other words, she's a cipher in Indian's clothing, not an Indian to the core. If she were an Indian to the core, she wouldn't be wearing a sexy babe outfit or mouthing platitudes to the Great Spirit. She'd be expressing whatever beliefs and values led her people to move to Starhaven.

You could apply this analysis to almost any generic Indian character. For instance, Wyatt Wingfoot or Dani Moonstar. They don't have any traits particular to their tribes, so they don't seem real. They lack the depth that a real Indian in their position would have.

Greybird said...

I want to thank you for posting about my own favorite Legion (and DC) character. And for concluding your comments with the lovely Greg LaRocque portrayal of her that I had cleaned up and posted as part of the Wikipedia article, where I've contributed on many occasions.

You can easily guess from my user name — and from the portrait sampled in my avatar, and "taken" by another Legion fan — that, in part, I disagree with your take on Dawnstar. Only in part, though.

Yes, the diversity of tribal identities and the particulars of Indian/Native qualities were suppressed or made generic on the part of those who shaped Dawnstar as a character, over thirty years ago. I'm the last to say that this was accurate or well-informed.

I'll have to say, though, that the creators of Dawnstar — Mike Grell, in her visual traits, Jim Sherman, the first to draw her in ongoing stories, and Paul Levitz, in writing about her future origin and culture — intended a character that more generally respected Indian heritage and perspectives, and did honor to courage and the diversity of talents, from whatever source or background.

They made this explicit, as you can judge from reading interviews with them that talk about Dawnstar in the TwoMorrows book The Legion Companion, which is searchable at Amazon.com. (I contributed scans of two Dawnstar artworks to that book.)

The four-color mass-printed result does, indeed, end up flattening a wealth of detail and doesn't flesh it out, visually or verbally, as Indian diversity would call for. You have every logical and personal right to be dissatisfied with what came about.

I also believe, though, that with the compression of all such detail that the mass media indulge in daily, what ended up on the Legion's pages didn't end up dishonoring or dismissing Indians as such, either.

Dawnstar was shown as one of the most powerful Legionnaires. She was the fastest denizen of the DC universe, by far. (Role-playing handbooks pegged her at 32 light-years per hour. That outdid Superman, Mon-el, and their relatives.) Her being able to travel in space without hazard or oxygen suggested a degree of invulnerability that put her in the upper echelon of DC's otherworldly powerhouse characters.

Many of the later Dawnstar stories try to respect and amplify the Indian background of her portrayal, with consistent respect, albeit, yes, without showing the detail of tribal life. In this sense I can especially recommend (using the Overstreet Guide terms) Legion of Super-Heroes volume 2, issues 311 and 321-323, from 1984-1985.

The comics medium doesn't allow for nearly as much storytelling grist, in the sense of amplifying characters, as it ought to do. It never has, but sadly, this has only gotten worse over the past 30 years, with SF memes and psychological terror dominating the storytelling. (Too much of the latter is already part of the current storyline showing Dawnstar and the Legion, beginning in Action Comics 858.)

In any event, I simply hope that you'll take some pleasure in seeing such a character returning at all, as I am, after first seeing her in the Legion's pages 25 years ago. (And, by the way, both powerful and physically whole, getting past what some artists and writers did indeed do to disrespect her.)

Yes, she always was too much of the stereotypical princess, and always showed more skin than most would prefer — though far from the comics' extremes, then or now. She's beautifully portrayed by the current artist, Gary Frank, and that — along with the weaknesses of her Earth-colony backstory being put in the deep background — ought to count for a great deal.

I'll note in closing that Dawnstar's first and greatest appeal to me has always been her wings, shown to great advantage and utter beauty by a host of artists. Who also did often manage to suggest Indian and exotic features for her, at least attempting to make her a prominent visual aspect of the Legion's cast.

And this has extended to superb portrayals by Legion fans and by pros on their days off. I have a gallery of such fan(nish) art that does her honor at my page on ComicSpace.

Thanks for your own commentary, and for putting up with mine as well.

Rob said...

Dawnstar has appeared in, what, 50 or 100 Legion stories? Levitz and company had plenty of space to define and develop her cultural heritage if they wanted to. That she remained a cardboard character after all those stories is not a testament to the writing.

I don't know how much credit we should give the writers for "honoring" and "respecting" Indians with a generic princess type. This is the same argument people have always used--for instance, with sports team names and mascots. They're honoring a sanitized, romantic version of Indians while ignoring the complexities and contradictions of real Indians.

The fan art you linked to kind of proves my point. Most people seem to see her as a fantasy object, not an Indian person. If she didn't have a sexy body and costume, I bet she'd be about as popular as Matter-Eater Lad.

Any hero with super-speed should be a formidable fighter. But I don't remember her defeating a major villain singlehandedly, and certainly not a heavyweight like Darkseid or Validus. If she hit someone at 32 light-years per hour, I suspect he would fall down and stay down.

If she's that great a character, let's elevate her to her rightful place over Superman, Mon-El, and the rest. Until then, she's more of a token than a real hero. Like Tyroc, she exists mainly to create a faux multiculturalism, so DC can pretend the Legion is more diverse than it really is.

Anyway, thanks for your comments, Greybird. You've given us a lot to think about.

Matthew E said...

I have no doubts that Dawnstar's Indian heritage is insufficiently detailed and insufficiently specific. And it's certainly fair to say so, to critique her portrayal on that basis. And for someone who is coming at the subject from the point of view of looking at Indian characters in pop culture, she's going to come up short.

One thing Greybird didn't quite say is that, despite this, Dawnstar was nevertheless a memorable and well-written character. She may not have been a good Indian character, but she was/is a good character. And if her cultural background was poorly sketched out, well, so too were the cultural backgrounds of the rest of the Legionnaires.

I've written more on Dawnstar here.

Rob said...

Thanks for your thoughts too, Matthew.

For more on Dawnstar, see the comments I posted on Legion Abstract, Matthew E's blog.

Oskamunda said...

Warning: This is a long post.

Okay, I know that this comment is over a year past the initial post date, but I feel I must say something in regards to this debate.

I understand the frustration with having a culture that you are passionate about be depicted in less-than-desirable terms, [I am of Scots descent, and I sure do get tired of what I call the Highlander Phenomenon] but you guys have all got to chill out a bit.

Rob, it seems like the entire point of this site is to point out the iniquities propagated against the Native American people. I would tell you that this is a fruitless endeavor, will only raise your blood pressure over the years, and serves no better purpose than all the Aryan Supremacy blogs and networks. All that is perceived is an anger, one that causes a loss of focus. You even mention Native Americans by [at least what I think is] the derogatory moniker Indians.

Take a look at Greybird's post. He actually offered a very thoughtful, if a little over-protective, defense of his favorite Legion character. He backed up his statements with specific interviews from the character's creators, cited his own work experience, external sources from the role playing extension of the DC Universe, and even listed specific issues that brought what he was saying forward. The response to all this intelligent legwork is: "Dawnstar has appeared in, what, 50 or 100 Legion stories?" and "But I don't remember her defeating a major villain singlehandedly, and certainly not a heavyweight like Darkseid or Validus."

Where's your legwork on this, Rob? I would heave to say from an objective point of view, I am much more inclined to take Greybird's conclusions over yours right out of the gate and mainly because of the attention to detail of the argument. The point you are defending in this article/post is not an invalid one, I think, but you are defending it as an ultr-conservative would defend against global warming; that is, over-using stock phrases [like Indian Princess] and having your main line of rhetoric being "You're wrong because I'm right." This, of course, really only amounts to "See, I spent some time with my like-minded colleagues and we all made up these words that sound official to back up our points of view and lend credence to an otherwise empty argument."

[Please note: I am a Republican.]

The main problem here is this:

She's a comic-book character. Pocahontas is a cartoon character. These are forms of media that are deliberately watered down to make them appeal to a wider customer base. The reason comic-book characters are generic [across all races and ethnicities] is because if any single character were over-specialized or over-developed, the printers would lose a significant chunk of sales. Look at the case of Image/TopCow comics, with their Spawn and WildCats lines [Heck, even Fathom, Darkness, TombRaider, and Witchblade]. They will never be able to hold on in the industry as long or as meaningfully as Marvel or DC lines because their characters are too specific and too developed. Their specific development yields the effect that only a very specific demographic will read them.

You said you are German-American. Do you take offense to the fact that almost every German-culture character in comics are either WWI-WWII era Nazis or ultra-genius, extra-modern scientists? I am about as Caucasian as you can get, and I don't take offense that the only two depictions of my race in comics are either the magnanimous do-gooder who will sacrifice all to right the wrongs of social injustice or the ultra-malevolent financial mogul who spends his illicit billions on the conquering of the world. The fact of the matter is that all of these characters are simply a device to move along a story. When they get too real, most of the customers tend to shy away, and the comic publishers realize that they have to go more general again. They only personalize characters for one-shots and limited story arcs. Not to mention that the creators of Dawnstar didn't have the access to information that we do today, and they may not have been able to afford to go to a reservation to talk to real Native Americans just to introduce a believable new IP.

You're spending all of your energy defending characters that doesn't even exist. And before you go on to talk about how the idea does exist and does cause harm and is disrespectful and is poisonous or any one of those tired arguments, realize that those statements are not automatically correct. If leaders of community and family and education would calmly display the facts of certain situations rather than allow the sensationalized elements of modern entertainment to rule their ideas and frame their relationships with other human beings, all would be good.

Until we ALL stop being so lazy and stop raising generations of latch-key kids, nothing will change, and you're wasting your time.

Especially when your arguments are not very well thought out and you can't properly defend against well-researched responses.

And please, if you really believe in your own rhetoric and it's not just some issue that you can pick a side on to validate some seemingly empty part of your life, then

[1] Realize that the Native Americans have had the appropriate number of reparations made to them, and that they were smart enough to make billions of dollars by preying on the white man's weakness to gambling.

[2] Recognize that there are plenty of well-rounded Native Americans - or at least not bland stereo-typical ones - in all media ranging from Predator to Wind Talkers to Flags of Our Fathers to the artist Dana Tiger.

[3] Stop calling them Indians.