A lot of things happened to comics in the 1980’s. Hair got bigger, costumes got smaller, ‘gritty’ became the order of the day (and some of the best funny comics of all time were created as a counterpoint) and of course, in DC-Land there was the Crisis to Start All Other Crises.
But also, there was Justice League Detroit.
In the lead up to the Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985), DC Comics addressed the issue of having its premier team book (Justice League America) made up of so many characters who also had their own title, by showing most of the heroes fail to arrive in time to help the Earth against a Martian attack. Among other disastrous results of this battle, the Justice League Satellite that had been their headquarters for nearly 15 years was destroyed.
Original founder Aquaman was so furious at this (and possibly also cranky that he didn’t have his own book) that he disbanded the group and set up a new charter, with only those superheroes who could dedicate their “full time” to the Justice League allowed to join. Have you spotted the potential problem with this concept? Oh, yes. The new team was made up entirely of superheroes who were not well known enough or popular enough to have their own titles (Martian Manhunter, Zatanna, Aquaman, Elongated Man), along with a bunch of new superheroes no one had ever heard of. Not exactly a formula for successful comics sales…
The new heroes who formed the core of this rebooted version of the Justice League were teenagers: Steel, Vibe, Gypsy and Vixen. Between them they summed up everything that was hot and cool and ‘now’ in 1984, and thus they became the most rapidly dated superhero team of all time.
Within three years the team (whose headquarters were a military installation/warehouse in Detroit) had failed to attract readers, even with the late addition of Batman to the roster, and a small massacre was arranged to trash, demoralise and disassemble the team. I have a bit of a soft spot for this era, having read it when the 80’s were a lot more recent than they are now. The writers were trying some things that were admirable, in challenging how a super team should work, and had also added some non-white characters to the DC Universe, specifically the young Latino hero Vibe and African heroine Vixen.
Interesting to note that the kids killed off to bring the team to an end were Vibe and Steel, the two male original characters, while fellow newbies Vixen and Gypsy (along with their leader the Martian Manhunter and magician Zatanna) were the ones who had to deal with the emotional fallout. That isn’t the way it tends to be done these days…
Of these four original Detroit heroes, Vixen (Mari Jiwi McCabe) is the one who has proven to have the most consisten popularity (though Gypsy made at least one more reasonably successful Justice League comeback). Never a high profile superhero, Vixen has continued to turn up from time to time in the DC Universe, including a speaking role in the animated series Justice League Unlimited, and her own comics mini-series exploring her African origins and the nature of her superpowers. She even managed to secure a position in the New 52, which is more than can be said of many female characters in the DC Universe.
Vixen was in fact not an original character devised for Justice League Detroit – she was introduced in Action Comics back in 1981, and as early as 1978 had been intended to be the first black female superhero to star in her own series before she got caught up in “the DC Implosion,” a sudden cancellation of more than two dozen planned and ongoing comics titles which was blamed on blizzards. And people not buying enough comics. And paper being more expensive. But mostly, blizzards.
Mari Jiwi McCabe was born in a village in Zambesi, a fictional African nation, and inherited a warrior tradition passed down through her family since ancient times, and originally bestowed upon them by Anansi the Spider. Mari has the power to mimic or express the abilities of any animal that has ever lived on earth. A great deal of her backstory was explored through her appearances in the title Animal Man, who has similar powers and may have received them from the same original source.
Mari/Vixen can tap into the Earth’s morphogenetic field, which she often calls ‘the Red.’ This allows her to focus on a specific animal in order to use its abilities. She wears her family talisman, the Tantu Totem, which features the head of a female fox. Mari travelled to the US originally to become a fashion model (and fight crime!). The move seems like an odd choice given the lack of convenient powerful animals in cities, but her totem allows her to connect to animals over a long range, so that’s OK.
Mari’s Vixen costume has changed over the years but is usually some variation of a sleek yellow jumpsuit. Her hair is usually cropped short, though she had a memorable oh-so-80’s braided triangular do in her Justice League Detroit days, and in her very first appearances, even wore an animal mask.
Some time after the dissolution of Justice League Detroit, Vixen was a regular part of Suicide Squad, under the control of Amanda Waller, and became romantically involved with Bronze Tiger (three black speaking roles in a single comic, don’t faint, anyone!). She also took part in one of my very favourite Justice League Task Force adventures, in which J’Onn J’Onnz formed an all-female team (including himself, as Martians can change gender appearance at will) to travel into the deepest jungle and save a man called Haggard from an angry matriarchal tribe of green ladies. Okay, it sounds dreadful but honestly, it was hilarious and awesome, and I refuse to re-read it now to check on its suck fairy status. Because I trust it. Ahem.
Vixen also made appearances in Birds of Prey, and returned to Justice League of America (Vol 2) when it was revamped after the 2006 event One Year Later. She even had a storyline that revolved around her own powers, and explored the ramifications of Anansi being the originator of those powers. In Vixen: Return of the Lion (her own mini-series!), Mari returned to her home village and went up against a warlord who killed her mother years ago, and has powers equal to or greater than her own.
Then came the New 52 and Justice League International. I’ve been saving up my Justice League International rant for some time, and today may well be that day. I was looking forward to this book. Justice League International was my favourite Justice League in the late 80’s-early 90’s, thanks to a successful mash up of popular and obscure superheroes (they got the formula right that simply didn’t gel in Justice League Detroit), funny scripts and great team dynamics.
Most recently, the brilliant mini-series Justice League Generation Lost had reunited a bunch of the old JLI characters to great effect, with strong art and powerful writing. The New 52 title Justice League International seemed set to continue what had been done so well in JLGL, and established a team of international characters to honour the concept behind the book, including Fire of Brazil and Ice of Norway, August General in Iron of China, Godiva of um the Planet Cockney, a new Rocket Red from Russia, and Mari Jiwi McCabe: Vixen, of Africa. (plus Booster Gold and Guy Gardner, representing the American patriarchy) The artist was Aaron Lopresti, also of JLGJ, who draws some of the best superhero women in the business – he often gets forgotten while everyone is singing the praises of such standout artists as Amanda Conner or Cliff Chiang, but Lopresti draws great, active and strong women. Even the name Dan Jurgens seemed a plus for me, as I remembered enjoying his work on Justice League back in the day (though in retrospect, he did use my favourite babies as cannon fodder for his Death of Superman storyline. Hmmmm.)
Despite my optimism, this version of the JLI went horribly wrong. The dialogue was flat and dull; the characters, especially the women, were lacking in individuality. I don’t know how you manage to make Vixen, Fire and Ice lack personality, but it happened in issue after issue. Then came the worst point, the explosion of the United Nations building. Yes, the one character killed off to make it feel like a Serious Moment was male. But I was still outraged by the fact that every SINGLE woman in the team was carried out of the explosion, unconscious or otherwise, by their male counterparts. It was one of those mysterious bombs that mostly targets women.
One female character from the team, Godiva, was walking around afterwards, while Fire, Ice and Vixen were all hospitalised in comas. GODIVA, whose power is having magical hair, was carried out but mostly unharmed, while the women whose powers are: being an ice goddess, turning into a body entirely formed of flame, and having all the strength/speed/abilities of any animal you can choose (and there are some pretty robust ones in the animal world) were all left in hospital beds so the men in their lives could talk over their heads about how worried they were, and whether they should/could protect them from further danger.
I will save my outrage about the poor treatment of Fire and Ice for another day, but let’s talk about Vixen. She is an awesome team-member to have. She’s snarky and smart, she is adaptable, and her powers are only limited by her writer’s imagination. Sadly in this case, the writer fell far, far short of the mark.
And that is why I stopped reading Justice League International, end of rant.
In ‘animated-series-treat-women-better-than-comics’ news, Vixen appeared as a semi regular character in Justice League Universe, voiced by Gina Freaking Torres, and while she was initially brought into the main storyline to be Green Lantern’s New Girlfriend after he broke up with Hawkgirl, the story didn’t fall back on cliche for the sake of cheap conflict. John and Shayera were great together and I shipped them like crazy, but Vixen and John are also great together. Their relationship is repeatedly shown to be calmer and more relaxed than the fire-and-fury thing he had with Shayera. More to the point, Vixen and Hawkgirl become pretty good friends and comrades at arms, putting aside the fact that they like the same boy, and getting on with the Saving the World While Being Awesome job.
The Vixen of the animated series (did I mention Gina Freaking Torres?) only has to touch the totem on her necklace to activate her power, even if she’s on a different planet to the animal she wants to channel, and an image of the relevant animal is briefly superimposed over her to depict this to the viewers. She uses this in inventive, powerful ways, like taking on the mass of an elephant just as she hits an attacker. In Batman: Brave and the Bold, in which she also appears, she also demonstrates the kick of a kangaroo.
One thing’s for sure – while Vixen has still never received her own ongoing series, 34 years after it was first mooted, she’s a character with great usefulness and potential. I want to see her back, fighting fit, now that Justice League International has been rightfully cancelled (I never thought I’d type those words, sob). Birds of Prey, perhaps? She could go team up with her old pal Zatanna in Justice League Dark, or go see what the Martian Manhunter is up to in Stormwatch? The possibilities are endless, as long as someone allows her to use her animal powers of healing to deal with those SPINAL INJURIES AND POSSIBLE PARALYSIS inflicted upon her by Mr Jurgens. Because, you know, the men of Justice League International (including new member Batwing who joined them because he was in town visiting Mari at her hospital bed) really needed to be inspired to do a bit better.
I hate comics sometimes.
In the mean time, I take heart that Vixen has been included as a playable character in the new Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes game. My daughter is totally getting that for her birthday.