[Guest review by Wayne Brooks; Wayne's local comics shop is AfterTime Comics in Alexandria, Virginia. The review contains spoilers.]
I love a great super-hero trade, and that’s exactly what Vixen: Return of the Lion is.
The five-issue 2008 miniseries collected here came about after the character had prominent new appearances in Brad Meltzer’s, and later Dwayne McDuffie’s, Justice League of America. She debuted in Action Comics #521 in 1981, created by comics greats Gerry Conway and Bob Oskner.
Vixen was one of DC Comics’s first female African American super-hero. Vixen is model Mari McCabe, who, thanks to her Tantum Totum amulet, can mimics the abilities of any animal. After teaming with Superman twice, Vixen was seen sporadically throughout the DC Universe, becoming a member of Justice League Detroit and the Suicide Squad (with an unfortunate Wolverine hair-cut). Vixen also appeared prominently in McDuffie’s Justice League Unlimited cartoon, and when McDuffie took over Justice League of America, he crafted a long storyline (from The Injustice League to Second Coming) that had Vixen learning the true source of her powers and made her an even more powerful asset to the team.
Eisner Award nominee G. Willow Wilson writes Return of the Lion with art by CAFU and Josh Middleton on covers. The story begins with the JLA busting an Intergang cell; the team learns that Intergang plans to set up a foothold in Zambesi, Vixen’s birthplace. But, they also learn that Vixen’s mother was murdered by a Zambesian warlord with ties to Intergang, and thus our heroine is off to get the killer (followed by the JLA). Unfortunately for Vixen, as Black Canary says, she “may have bitten of more than she can chew.” And she’s right. The Intergang forces are led by Batman foe Whisper A’Dare [the Greg Rucka villain appears here? Who knew? — ed.], and the warlord himself possesses quite formidable super-abilities.
Return plays more like a JLA story with Vixen as the focus, and it works in that way. In Second Coming we learned the origin of Vixen’s powers, and in Return we have Vixen forced to confront her past and finding her place in the present. We also are privy to how Vixen sees herself among the world’s greatest super-heroes. This is where writer Wilson shows her skill at story and characterization; you really get inside Mari’s head as she learns to accept herself and her role as a member of the JLA. Wilson gives Mari doubt but not defeat, and independence, not isolation.
As for the Justice League, from Black Canary proving she’s a damn good leader to Black Lightning Jefferson Pierce working undercover, Wilson plays to each hero’s strengths. They function like a tightly-knit team that totally trusts one another (this is the Meltzer/McDuffie League from just before Final Crisis). Jeff’s faith in Mari was great to see, and even Batman functions as a team player. There are some great light moments, too, from Red Arrow and an exchange between Black Canary and Superman.
But it was the moments of honest friendship between Superman and Vixen — or rather Mari and Clark — that was an unexpected but pleasant surprise. Even though they worked together historically only twice, Wilson plays on the rapport they established. Superman is very protective of Mari but wise enough to respect her space. And I love how Mari sees Clark as “my friend, my brother in exile, carrying within himself, as I do, a longing for a home to which he can’t return.” A funny moment was Mari’s sisterly warning to not interfere in her final fight with her mother’s killer; Clark’s response to her (and his reaction during the fight) was pure Superman.
CAFU does well here; with assist from inker Bit in the finale, the art has a lush feel. The action is fluid and on point (the JLA fights scenes are especially good). But it’s the scenes in the Zambesi outback where CAFU struts his stuff. Everything is rich and alive. No detail is overlooked and he draws the animals beautifully.
Vixen: Return of the Lion is not more complicated than “hero goes home to seek revenge only to find true self,” but it’s also a fun blend of friendship, self-discovery, and super-heroics.