A Man Created My Goddess: Dawn and Me

Dawn and Beyond promo card. Art by Joseph Michael Linsner (1995)

I’m a pretty unabashed feminist. Even as a kid, I drifted towards statements of girl power before I understood the foundations working behind it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve continually worked on understanding the complexities of feminism and privilege, trying my best to confront my own privileges and learning how to be an intersectional feminist. I even got a non-compliant tattoo last February on Friday the 13th, with only two issues of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine DeLandro’s Bitch Planet out in the world, because it called to me harder than anything else I have ever gotten tattooed on my body. It was a reminder to myself of who I was and what I needed to work towards.

So, why the hell do I consider seminal ’90s cult comics creation, mistress of the butts and boobs pose, and goddess of birth and rebirth Dawn one of my biggest influences of who I am today?

It’s…complicated, but I can explain. It all started with a contest.

Dawn Look-a-Like Contest 2009. Credit to Dave Nelson.
Dawn Look-a-Like Contest 2009. Credit to Dave Nelson.

Dawn is the creation of writer and artist Joseph Michael Linsner, who had initially created her as a storyteller/cover character for his 1989 independent series Cry For Dawn. Usually portrayed as a redhead with three tears running from her left eye, Dawn is the Goddess of Birth and Rebirth and the embodiment of goddesses such as Kali, Isis, Aurora, and Gaia, among others. Basically, if a goddess in mythology covers birth and rebirth, Dawn was supposed to be her.

In 1995, her first mini-series Lucifer’s Halo started being published through Sirius Entertainment. During that time, Linsner recruited artist Eva Hopkins to help with coloring the books, starting a professional relationship which lasted nearly 15 years, culminating in the co-creation of the vampire horror mini-series Dark Ivory. Dawn has existed mostly in pin-ups, one-off stories, and one poorly received crossover with Vampirella, since the 90s, but all three of her mini-series were eventually edited and recolored by Hopkins and republished by Image Comics in the mid 2000s.

The Dawn Look-a-Like contest was a cosplay contest that started at Dragon Con in 1998 and ran for well over a decade. It was the Saturday night staple, replacing the Bettie Page Look-a-Like contest that came before it. (I never saw that one, but I heard stories.) The Dawn contest was in some ways a continuation of that, especially in the earlier years, but it ended up becoming a middle ground between the Friday night costume contest more dedicated to skill and the Sunday night Masquerade, which is just about how much you can entertain an audience and look good while doing it. Most of the contestants dressed up as Dawn, but other Linsner creations were allowed as well, such as supporting characters from the Dawn series, Dark Ivory, and his unpublished characters of Sinful Suzi and Obsidian Stone.

If they saw the Goddess in you, that was all that mattered.

Dawn had a lot of skilled cosplayers get involved over the years. I remember being in den groups with the likes of BelleChere and Yaya Han. However, the contest was not always about skill, but often about the spirit of the character as well. Linsner, Hopkins, and other people close to them were the judges. If they saw the Goddess in you, that was all that mattered.

I was seventeen and my dear friend Gretchen asked me to be her assistant for the Dawn contest that year. If you’ve participated in a DragonCon costume contest over the past few years, you’ve probably met her. She helps run the contests now, but then, she just participated because she thought it was fun. Not because she knew the ins and outs of the character. She was a theater kid like I was. It’s how we met. Getting on stage and being in costume just comes with the act.

I don’t remember too many details of that first year besides sitting on the floor in front of Gretchen for most of it and just being fascinated by everything around me. Everyone looked beautiful and everyone was considered beautiful. Some went straight with the contest, taking looks from the comics and various pieces of art Linsner would post. Others would make their own creations, taking a turn on the thought that all women were aspects of the Goddess and therefore could look however they wanted. Others were straight up silly; it’s why the contest implemented a “Most Ridiculous” award.

Gretchen gave me a basic example of the roses, the chains and the tears, but I needed to know more. I became enraptured by this idea of a costume contest where you had wiggle room to be creative. The first chance I got, I ordered the second book The Return of the Goddess from my local Borders. I had to know.

Mary meets the Goddess. [Joseph Michael Linsner and Eva Hopkins, "Dawn: The Return of the Goddess," 2002]
Mary meets the Goddess. [Joseph Michael Linsner and Eva Hopkins, Dawn: The Return of the Goddess, Image Comics, 2002]
Looking back over the books, The Return of the Goddess is probably the closest the series comes to matching what the Dawn Contest stood for—at least, the backstage culture of it. The story is mainly about Dawn herself coming to the aid of a 16-year-old witch named Mary after her best friend Bridget sacrifices herself, making a plea to Cernunnos, to protect the witches of the world. It goes a lot into religion, personal choice, and what power we give to worship. Granted, not particularly well, but when you’re on the precipice of adulthood and you live in a small town and are too smart for your own good, these very basic ideas find their way into your brain. Not to mention all these years later, I still feel slammed by that moment when Dawn embraces Mary in the alley outside of Bridget’s wake, telling her that she is the goddess she prays to and that Mary will never be alone again. That was the Dawn that called to me. In that moment, I could understand. For whatever vague kind of pagan I am, the seeds were planted reading that book.

Plus, it pretty much paints Lucifer and God (who is constantly referred to as Ahura Mazda despite being a blonde and white pretty boy) as angry exes. I don’t know why that kind of narrative still appeals to me, but there you go.

In 2008, I participated in my first Dawn contest. When my original plans of being a punk Dawn fell through, I decided to go the route of trying for Most Ridiculous and went with a creation called “Guitar Hero Dawn.” It was so basic, with me stealing a chain from our old hanging pot rack to go around my waist, pulling together some of the most Hot Topic pieces to look like a rock star goddess, and using my Guitar Hero controller for my Wii to pretend to play to the song “Alicia Amnesia” by Butch Walker. I tried to write a long intro talking about the details of my costume and what Dawn meant to me, but that got shot down near immediately.

It was my first time doing a costume contest since I won a giant dinosaur plushie at Publix with my Dorothy Gale costume my mom made when I was 8. I had no idea how to do my makeup and depended on Gretchen to do it for me. I was terrified.

…At first.

Taken by a Dragon Con photographer in 2008, who's name has since been lost to the sands of time.
Taken by a DragonCon photographer in 2008, who’s name has since been lost to the sands of time.

As the night went on, my nerves began to die down as I got to be around the community more. Everyone running the contest was super helpful, encouraging, and not judgemental in the slightest. I sat next to a woman who called herself Spider, cracking jokes and trying to find ways to stay warm. I intently watched the screen while other contestants were on, just in awe of what those girls (and a few boys) could do. One girl even whipped the host Voltaire with a flogger and I was dying laughing at just how ridiculous and amazing the whole thing was at the time.

Being on stage was a blur of nerves, especially when my music started as soon my name was announced. I pretty much exploded onto the stage, pretending to play on the plastic buttons of the controller in time to a staple of Walker’s power pop era. Every time I think about it, I remember how I felt more than the actual details of the situation. Nervous, excited, hoping nothing fell off on stage, trying to make sure I didn’t spend too much time on stage, happy that Voltaire said my last name right, and loving the cheer of the crowd when they saw my controller.

Somewhere that would take me for what I was, not judging by my very beginner cosplay skills or my looks. I was beautiful and amazing. I was a goddess. I was a part of Dawn.

As exhilarating as that was, I just sort of assumed that I was going to be forgettable. The eventual Best in Show winner that year came on stage right after me after all. However, Eva Hopkins ran up to me at the contest after-party a few hours later, pointing excitedly and telling me how awesome I was. It was that moment I felt like I had found something special. A piece of home. Community. Somewhere that would take me for what I was, not judging by my very beginner cosplay skills or my looks. I was beautiful and amazing. I was a goddess. I was a part of Dawn.

Plus, the exclusive prints that the Linsner team gave the contestants didn’t hurt either. I had three of them, by the time all was said and done.

I became obsessed with Dawn after that. She wasn’t a character that was published often around that time, so most of my way to buy merch that wasn’t on the Linsner store was through eBay. On top of the official books, I had a bunch of the pin up books from the 90s and early 2000s, an action figure that sat on top of my printer, and even a Cry for Dawn t-shirt that I wore all the time. I even wore that shirt to my first trip to Walt Disney World in 2011. My prints were among the stuff that decorated my dorm room walls in college.

I wasn't kidding about wearing that shirt to Disney World...
I wasn’t kidding about wearing that shirt to Disney World.

Dawn was my patron. Something that felt essential to my DNA. She was the portrayal of the Goddess archetype, my first real understanding of what that was. The Goddess and the people who breathed life into that one particular portrayal of her loved me for who I was, so it made it easier to love myself and learn the lesson of not giving a damn. Through Dawn and her Look-a-Likes I learned self-love early on in college. Not to say that the struggle isn’t, or was never, there, but I trace those moments and that love for what she represented to me to the ways I ended up breaking out of my shell in those early college years.

I did the Dawn Look-a-Like contest two more years after that. The second year I was Bat Dawn, which was inspired partially by a piece Linsner had done of Dawn wearing a Batman t-shirt and partially by Batwoman as she was depicted in Batwoman: Elegy, which was running in Detective Comics at the time. That year, I had been brave enough not only to wear a shirt that was too small for me, showing off my belly, but also to go on stage without my glasses, opting for sunglasses that were made to resemble the Bat mask. That alone was terrifying, but pulling off the record scratch between Danny Elfman’s Batman theme and Prince’s ‘Batdance’ and hearing Hopkins laugh loud and clearly as I changed my demeanor from serious to ridiculous made it worth it. As much as I loved Dawn, I never really got to know Linsner. I still love Hopkins though. She asked if I knew how much Joe loves Batman. I didn’t. I just wanted to combine my two favorite redheads in comics.

That year was hosted by Anthony Daniels instead of Voltaire. He came dangerously close to touching my ass when I took a picture with him after the contest. That was running in the back of my head the entire time I watched The Force Awakens.

The next year, I didn’t get a chance to think too far ahead for it. School had been busy and I didn’t find any sort of particular inspiration until a few weeks before the contest. Still, taking pieces of a makeshift tuxedo I owned, I called myself “Black and White Dawn.” My music was ‘Cold War’ by Janelle Monae, who was still somewhat obscure at the time, but her stock was rising after the release of The ArchAndroid. I still love Janelle Monae and she was the inspiration for that particular costume. My Aunt Cara came to watch and cheered for me the loudest. That was the most calm and relaxed I had been for the Dawn contest. I knew I wasn’t going to win anything, but that wasn’t what I was there for. It was ritual. This was my Saturday night.

2010 Dawn Look-a-Like Contest. Credit to Tad.
2010 Dawn Look-a-Like Contest. Credit to Tad.

Then, it was gone.

In 2011, the contest was cancelled and replaced with something called the Comic Book Babes Contest, which was still allowing Dawns that had already prepared for that year. Hopkins was still involved with the contest, but Linsner had burned all his bridges with Dragon Con and the two had parted ways professionally. These things happen. I was sad, but simultaneously relieved. I had gotten more into steampunk at the time and the steampunk band I was working for had been left on the hook about whether they were playing Dragon Con or not. By the time we got the notification that we weren’t playing, it was impossible to make other costume plans. It was no big deal at the time. I missed it a little, but it was nice to have Saturday night free again. I still remained friends with Hopkins and even participated in the new contest a couple of times. I didn’t really think about Linsner at all, but I still liked Dawn. I still think highly of those years in the contest. It’s part of who I am.

Dawn though…Not so much anymore.

In July 2013, Hopkins posted a note on her Facebook in response to published claims Linsner had made about her ripping him off, stating that he had verbally abused her for years and that his claims of her only being his color flatter were not true. It was my first real encounter with that kind of abuse in the comic book industry, but it’s so far the only one that personally broke me. Dawn was my beacon of self-love and acceptance. One of the first true communities I found when I left high school. And behind her was a man who had no qualms about threatening women—and claimed that any woman who got Dawn’s tears tattooed on them were his property. I tried so hard to parse out the parts of Dawn that were good to me. How I associated Eva, Gretchen, and all those women I had positive interactions with over three years with her more than Linsner.

I couldn’t do it though. In 2014, I sold my prints before my first HeroesCon. My once beloved treasures, I sold on eBay to a single buyer for cheaper than they probably were worth. I wanted them gone and I needed the money more than I needed those particular pieces. I couldn’t sell the books. My vengeful lizard brain was tempted to bring them just to throw in Linsner’s face when he tabled at Heroes in 2015, but I just stayed on the aisles with all the cool Marvel artists and House DeFraction instead. That’s where I really wanted to be. That’s what I had moved on to. I buried Dawn, ashamed of what I had once loved.

Joseph Michael Linsner and Eva Hopkins, "Dawn: The Return of the Goddess," 2002
Joseph Michael Linsner and Eva Hopkins, Dawn: The Return of the Goddess, Image Comics, 2002

I re-read those books recently and I wondered how I could let myself be blinded to what really resided in its pages. While one book was focused on Dawn herself, the other two were mostly about a man named Darrien Ahsoka, a young man living in a post-apocalyptic but simultaneously medieval New York that’s also an avatar of Cernunnos…maybe? The text isn’t really clear on that. Well, a lot of the text really isn’t clear about anything. A lot of it reads like a college student who never really progressed beyond the intro classes for philosophy and world religions, but still thinks he knows everything about it. Stories are half formed behind muddled ideas and art that gets more focused on superfluous details and just how sexy Dawn will look in that particular page, forgetting that decent art will only get you so far in comics. Lucifer’s Halo especially has an abundance of the twisty butts and boobs pose. Darrien himself isn’t even particularly interesting. Most of his character is how obsessed with Dawn he is, which would be creepy on its own, but is made even worse by the fact Linsner admits that Darrien is something of a self-insert character, representing his anger as a young man to his own claims.

That anger is probably one of the most clear things about those stories. Not just the basic white man anger at religion, but also an anger at women. Linsner is obsessed with the virgin/whore dichotomy and the only other major female character in Darrien’s life outside of Dawn is his ex-girlfriend Adelle, whose only character aspect is her promiscuity to the point she refers to Darrien by multiple names because she’s slept with so many men. It doesn’t help she’s also the only woman of color in all three books and she ends up getting stabbed by a demon for her troubles. You know, for a series revolving around a character who is supposed to represent Kali and Isis among various other goddesses of birth and rebirth and is a part of all women, it’s kind of ridiculous that she’s always seen as a voluptuous redhead.

And by “kind of ridiculous,” I mean kind of racist.

Joseph Michael Linsner, "Dawn: Lucifer's Halo," Fourth Reprint, 2005
Joseph Michael Linsner and Eva Hopkins, Dawn: Lucifer’s Halo, Fourth Reprint, Image Comics, 2005

Not to mention creepy. Darrien is Linsner’s stand in, after all. Dawn is just his perfect woman, and anyone who doesn’t fit that particular archetype of what Dawn is supposed to be is just a worthless and wretched whore. There’s even one character, an evil queen named Calypso who toys with Darrien’s emotions, who is raped by Darrien as punishment for getting his best friend killed. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

Also, for a man who paints God and Lucifer as lovers, he gets rather homophobic in his writings. A demon calls Darrien ‘girlchild’ for his long hair and Linsner himself goes on about how gay Darrien looks in certain designs he gave him in the gallery for Three Tiers. Hey man, you drew him like that.

Re-reading these, I really began to question myself. Did I really think this was okay at some point in my life? How could I not see the obvious reflection of the author in the work?

Ironically enough, there’s a passage from Three Tiers that I think explains why I was so blind to it. Darrien wonders why he let himself see Calypso—with her angular face and heterochromia—as his beloved Dawn, which is when he has the following realization.

“I’ve been chasing a mask […] I’ve been carrying around a vision of my old flame Dawn, and have been projecting it onto other women. I’ve been so obsessed, so out of my mind with longing for her, that I was seeing things […] I wanted to see you as her so badly, that I projected her masking upon you. I saw you as a reflection of her […] [Y]’know what Dawn once told me? She said, “People choose what they want to see, and disregard the rest.””

Joseph Michael Linsner and Eva Hopkins, "Dawn: Three Tiers," 2006
Joseph Michael Linsner and Eva Hopkins, Dawn: Three Tiers, Image Comics, 2006

That’s what happened with me. I became so obsessed with the way the contest chose to represent Dawn that I willingly let myself be blinded to the more negative aspects of her character and story. Dawn as the loving and accepting goddess that all women are a part of, no matter size and skin color: that what was my influence, not the actual character as she stands. It’s something I’m learning to come to a balance with, remembering that I didn’t always know the things I know now. That I can still have Dawn as she was to me in my past while dismissing Linsner, and laugh at the irony of his turn on Vampirella bombing out critically after he declared he could have gotten rich writing her back in the 90s.

Still, I’m glad I never went through with my 19-year-old desire to get Dawn’s tears tattooed on me. I’d much rather have my comics tattoos be viewed as an extension of my bodily autonomy, than the extension of someone else’s brand.

Ashley Leckwold

Ashley Leckwold

Ashley is a writer based out of Atlanta with a penchant for all things nerdy. She's been featured in the "Killer Queen" and "27" comic anthologies from Red Stylo Media, but she's also written for websites like Nerdophiles, The Rainbow Hub, PopOptiq and Graphic Policy. She can often be found at her own blog and tweeting under the handle @misskittyf, where she cries about comics, TV, pro-wrestling and music.