Review: Vixen: Return of the Lion trade paperback (DC Comics)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Vixen: Return of the Lion[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.
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  1. Whisper A'Daire first appeared in Detective Comics #743. Formerly an agent for the late Ra's al Ghul, Ra's gave Whisper a serum that grants her immortality and the ability to shapeshift. Partnered with Kyle Abbot, officially her bodyguard, she is a snake lady, and Kyle himself a wolf man. When Batman tries to free her from the immortal mastermind, Whisper refuses his help and disappears.

    The same serum allows her to create a small group of men who also have the ability to shapeshift into different animals. Usually the redhead seductress uses her mind control to force them to obey her orders, though a stronger mind can break free from hers by clinging to his free will.

    Whisper resurfaces in 52 week 11, with the formal role of a manager for HSC International Banking, a company connected with Intergang, which is flooding Gotham with strange futuristic weaponry. Confronted by the Question and ex-police officer Renee Montoya, she is able to flee without giving away other details of her current mission. In Kahndaq, Whisper is revealed as the leader of the Cult of Cain. Using her powers, Whisper brainwashes kidnapped children into being Intergang operatives. Whisper is confronted by Montoya, the Question, Black Adam and Isis and flees.

    She resurfaces several week later in Gotham, helping Bruno "Ugly" Mannheim fathom the secrets of the "Bible of Crime". Discovering that "the twice named daughter of Kaine", is Kate Kane, the Batwoman, she officiates with Bruno a rite meant to drown Gotham in a fire pit, sacrificing Kate while activating alien devices all over Gotham. With Batwoman drugged, shackled, and gagged, Whisper and Mannheim attempt to kill her with a sacrificial dagger, but once again, her bodyguard betrays her, siding with Nightwing and Renee Montoya. Nightwing is sent to interrupt the rite. In the ensuring fight Whisper is badly burnt.

    A burn-scarred A'daire shows up in Africa when the Justice League come to assist Vixen in liberating Zambesi villages from a local warlord name Kwesi. A'daire – representing Intergang interests – had been supplying Kwesi with advanced technology in order for him to appear metahuman or supernatural. She also gave him a modified datura based Vodun zombie poison that was effective on Superman as well as humans. Superman and Black Canary fell victim to the poison and, under A'daire's thrall, were forced to battle the other members of the Justice League

  2. I had completely forgotten about this book. Saw the art when it was coming out and always meant to pick up the trade. Vixen is a great character who I always think should get more exposure. Has she popped up in the new 52 yet?

    Thanks for this review Wayne, I will be getting a copy of this book.

    1. Vixen is a member of Justice League International and appears in both vol. 1 and 2. As far as I know, she hasn't been seen since that title was cancelled, but hopefully she pops up again.

      Great review Wayne, I ordered it on Amazon based solely on your recommendation.