I feel like I’m forgetting things. So much of who I am is tied up in what I do. You’d think it would be great, working with heroes. But they’re so competent—they’ve been doing this for so long—sometimes I feel like I’m just a third wheel. They’ve got their own hierarchy worked out. Their own inside jokes. Their own tensions. Sometimes—sometimes I feel like my life has been swallowed by the League, but at the same time I don’t really feel part of it. And sometimes I wonder if I ever will.
—Mari Jiwe McCabe (Wilson #2 11-13)
Okay, Vixen wasn’t exactly erased, but the way that Vixen has been handled from her inception definitely feels like she is little more than, at best, a peripheral character.
And, Vixen—Mari—is not anyone’s token. Mari Jiwe McCabe is stubborn and rash, brave and heroic, insecure and lonely.
Mari’s very much a complete person, and coming from DC, who has a history of not doing well by their women or people of color characters, that’s kind of surprising.
But, once upon a time, this wasn’t necessarily true.
Once upon a time, Vixen barely even made it to the pages of a comic.
Mari Jiwe McCabe, aka Vixen, was created in 1978 and was intended to be DC’s first woman superhero from Africa (Wikipedia “Vixen [DC Comics]”). Needless to say, due to a decrease in sales and a recession and any number of other contributing factors, Mari’s series was canceled along with more than two dozen other ongoing or planned series during the DC Implosion (Wikipedia “DC Implosion”). Subsequently, Vixen was published as an in-house publication (i.e., on the office photocopier) as part of the Cancelled Comics Cavalcade essentially for copyright purposes (Wikipedia “DC Implosion”).
This wasn’t the end for Mari—obviously not or we’d likely not being having this talk—because Mari’s character was resurrected from the ashcan in 1981 by Gerry Conway and Bob Oskner to appear in Action Comics #521 (July 1981) to join a variety of DC teams: the Justice League (a couple of different times), the Suicide Squad (that was still kinda an anti-hero group but nothing like the New 52 iteration of the Suicide Squad), Checkmate, the Ultramarine Corps, and the Birds of Prey.
That’s the thing though; Vixen has almost always been a secondary (at best) character: on the edges, brought in for melees and End of the World type battles, universe-wide story arcs, a plotline here or there.
Which is a shame and a travesty since Mari has so much to offer.
For the longest time, Mari was basically an African-American stock character (even though Mari was literally from Africa—born and raised) for DC, and due to her youth and the newness of her character, Mari was geared towards the younger audiences that DC (and Marvel) were courting (Comic Vine “Vixen”).
If that isn’t obvious by Mari’s non-superhero profession of being a professional model, it should be obvious from her costume, which looks like the worst stereotype of the Jive-speaking, disco-dancing person of color, and there’s nothing wrong with Jive or disco or gold-lame romper-pantsuits.
The problem has always come from white America’s perceptions of Jive as typified by H.L. Menken who wrote that Jive was “an amalgam of Negro-slang from Harlem and the argots of drug addicts and the pettier sort of criminals, with occasional additions from the Broadway gossip columns and the high school campus” (Menken qtd. in Wikipedia “Glossary of Jive Talk”). And, combine that with these other outer indicators of racially stereotyped American culture, Mari is being marginalized in ways that further racist readings.
And, if that isn’t enough, let’s throw in there that an African woman of color’s superpowers (originally) came from a totem given to her ancestor by the god Anansi that allows her to take on the abilities of any animal, and this is the perfect recipe for the worst sorts of primitivist reductionism.
So—nope. No. ALL THE NOPE.
Mari is too good a character for this sort of treatment, and interestingly, her stories—the few that are unique and (mostly) individual to her—subvert and undermine this imbedded, internalized racism.
Because, Mari isn’t like Ororo from the X-Men. Mari isn’t an African Princess or a Priestess or anything like that.
Mari is just a woman like so many of the women that live in Africa. She was born in a small village in the (fictional) nation of Zambesi on the (also fiction but likely based upon the Dagomba Plains in Ghana) Dagombi Plains. Her mother was killed by poachers—although, later, these poachers were reveled to have been minions of the War Lord Kwesi—and her father, who was a Reverend, was killed by his half-brother (DC Wikia).
Unfortunately, these are stories that are all too familiar coming out of war-torn African nations—actually to the point of being a trope in and off themselves when it comes to characters in the media.
Yet, for Mari, these events lead her to her eventual future as a superhero, as member of the Justice League.
These events caused her to become a freedom fighter and a defender of the innocent.
Because, that’s the only way that her totem—the Tantu Totem—will truly work: in defense of the innocent (Comic Vine “Tantu Totem”).
A token given by a god to someone who wanted to be a hero yet brought with it the loyalty of Tantu’s descendents to protect the totem for Anansi.
Which also means that Anansi—the Storyteller, the Storyweaver—can change the rules, can rewrite Mari’s powers on a whim so that she can no longer connect to the morphogenic field called the Red properly and, instead, steals the powers of other superheroes.
All as a test.
Isn’t that always a problem in dealing with the gods—any gods—the price just keeps needing to be paid.
Yet, in this instance, the test was to ensure that Mari was the person that Mari needed and wanted to be so that she could be Anansi’s Champion when the time came.
And, in 2008, Mari finally received her own mini-series dedicated to her: Vixen: Return of the Lion. A five-issue mini-series that depicts Mari’s return to Africa for the first time in 10 years and her defeat of Kwesi and her discovery that her abilities of mimicry do not come from the Tantu Totem but are focused by the totem, that her abilities come from within.
This series is as much about Mari learning to control her abilities without the assistance of the totem as it is about Mari remembering who she really is: her parents’ child, a woman of Africa, a Defender of the Innocent.
Not just those that live in America or wherever the Justice League (or any other of the teams Mari has been affiliated with) send her.
It’s about her finding that she is the child of many nations and has many homes and many families, that her abilities (inherent or granted) do not define her but are a tool by which she can assist others.
Sia reminds her that “Life here [in Zambesi] is not easy But if the strongest and best of us leave, it will never get easier. We are your people…come back to us” (Wilson #5 22).
That’s something to consider, something that Mari can teach us: we can run from our lives for awhile, but they’re always a part of us.
And, we’ll always have a longing for home.
Comic Vine contributors. “Tantu Totem.” Comic Vine. Comic Vine Wiki. 19 Oct. 2013 Web. 22 Nov. 2013.
Comic Vine contributors. “Vixen.” Comic Vine. Comic Vine Wiki. 16 Aug. 2013 Web. 22 Nov. 2013.
DC Wikia contributors. “Mari McCabe (New Earth).” DC Wikia. DC Comics Database, n.d. Web. 23 Nov 2013
Wikipedia contributors. “DC Implosion.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 Jul. 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.
Wikipedia contributors. “Glossary of jive talk.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 Oct. 2013. Web. 25 Nov. 2013.
Wikipedia contributors. “Vixen (comics).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Nov. 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.
Wilson, G. Willow (w) and Cafu (a). Vixen: Return of the Lion. #1 Vixen (December 2008), DC Comics; #2 (January 2009), DC Comics; #3 (February 2009), DC Comics; #4 (March 2009), DC Comics; #5 (April 2009), DC Comics. Digital Comic.