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Vixen, DC Comics’ Stumbles and Cinematic Redemption on “Arrow”

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Vixen, DC Comics’ Stumbles and Cinematic Redemption on “Arrow”

Last August, an animated “Vixen” series based on the African female superhero from DC Comics premiered on the CW Seed website. Nigerian-American actress Megalyn Echikunwoke gave voice to the superhero, and will soon reprise the role in live-action as The CW recently announced the character will make her live-action debut in episode 15 of “Arrow” Season 4.

The small-screen cinematic treatment of Vixen will be a very significant milestone for the character for a number of reasons, some less obvious than others.

Vixen, the superhero identity of African model Mari Jiwe McCabe, was created in 1981 by Gerry Conway and Bob Oksner, first appearing in “Action Comics” #521. She was created with the intention of starring in her own series, shortly after appearing in a Superman comic book. That did not come to pass, and her fictional history has been one of peaks and valleys at DC Comics.

Born and raised in a fictional African nation called Zambesi, Mari was the rightful recipient of The Tantu Totem, a necklace created by the African trickster god Anansi to grant the wearer animal-like powers. The Tantu Totem was passed down through Mari’s family. Mari’s mother was killed by poachers and her father was killed by Mari’s uncle, a General who wanted the totem.

Mari fled to America, became a wealthy supermodel, traveled back to Africa, stopped her uncle and seized the Tantu Totem. She became the superhero Vixen in America. Death, and lack of control over herself and her powers, would plague Vixen for decades. Vixen joined the Justice League of America, two of her teammates were killed in battle, and the group disbanded.

She returned to modeling, lost control of her powers, and joined The Suicide Squad (a government unit partially comprised of criminals and murderers) in the hopes of regaining control of her abilities. Vixen left the Suicide Squad, worked for another government organization called Checkmate, and later worked with the Birds of Prey, a covert operations female superhero team led by Oracle. While working with the Birds, Vixen was brainwashed during a mission and had to regain control of herself.

After her short stint with the Birds of Prey, Vixen joined a global super-military unit called The Ultramarine Corps. During her membership with the Corps, guess what happened to Vixen?

She was brainwashed by Gorilla Grodd, the super-intelligent simian seen in The CW series “The Flash,” and sent to fight the Justice League of America.

For the better part of two decades, Vixen was clearly a mismanaged character without a clear arc of development, relocated from group to group, and disempowered. Two well-known and highly-regarded writers attempted to smooth out the convoluted nature of Vixen and set her on a proper path.

Dwayne McDuffie, Co-Founder of Milestone Media, Inc. and writers of the animated shows “Static Shock,” “Justice League Unlimited” and “Ben 10” served as the writer for DC’s “Justice League of America” series. During his run, McDuffie went back to the roots of Vixen’s character and used the African trickster god, Anansi, to put Vixen through a great challenge.

Anansi explained that the changing nature of Vixen’s powers and her personal story was his doing. He changed Vixen’s history to test the character’s mettle and see if she had the strength to be a true champion. In this way, McDuffie used metafictional storytelling, with Anansi personifying DC Comics and the various writers (including himself) handling Vixen throughout her publishing history. By the end of that story, Vixen was clearly defined enough to be set up for future stories, her confusing past now resolved for the character and readers.

G. Willow Wilson, writer of the critically-acclaimed “Ms. Marvel” series from Marvel Comics, penned DC’s 2008 “Vixen: Return of the Lion” miniseries. In that story, Wilson had Vixen return to Africa and fight the warlord responsible for her mother’s death. As a twist in the story, Superman and Black Canary from the Justice League were brainwashed by voodoo magic and set to attack their comrades.

Whether or not Wilson purposed flipped the pattern of mind control used for Vixen throughout the years onto the White superheroes is unknown. What is clear is that, like McDuffie, Wilson went back to Vixen’s roots to create a story that fleshed her out more as an African woman, a daughter, and a superhero.

Vixen made appearances in other DC Comics’ series afterward, but none of those stories had the equivalent impact or apparent intent to set the character right. The animated series “Vixen” did a solid job of establishing the character’s origin, personal arc, and standing in the television universe with the other two CW series “Arrow” and “The Flash.”

Unfortunately, one of the adjustments made to Vixen’s origin put Mari’s sister in the role of her enemy. The two sisters fought over the right to be the bearer of the Tantu Totem. Now, the mainstream introduction of this Black female superhero involved a Black female sibling catfight.

I doubt Black women want to see themselves fighting each other, especially when there are so few Black female superhero stories on screen. In fact, when it comes to a Black female headlining a series, few would really be none, and Vixen would be the leader.

While there was criticism about Vixen’s introduction in animated form as opposed to live-action form, the hope from fans that a live-action appearance was inevitable was not in vain. This presents both an opportunity and burden for “Arrow.”

Vixen can set a new standard for cinematic representation of Black female superheroes. In comparison with actress Halle Berry’s highly-criticized portrayal of the Kenyan-American superhero Storm from the “X-Men” comic books and movies, Megalyn Echikunwoke’s portrayal of Vixen can show a depth resulting from shared heritage between actress and character.

A younger Storm portrayed by actress Alexandra Shipp will be seen in “X-Men: Apocalypse” and Misty Knight, another Black female superhero from Marvel Comics, will be portrayed by actress Simone Missick in the Netflix series “Luke Cage.”

Echikunwoke’s Vixen will be first, however, and probably viewed with a more scrutinizing eye by the fans as a result. Will the character of Vixen expand beyond one episode of “Arrow,” and become as much of a member of the DC Comics’ cinematic universe as Caity Lotz’s White Canary of the “Arrow” and “Legends of Tomorrow?”

If so, will DC Comics/The CW respond with a new “Vixen” series to exploit the character’s increased visibility?

All to be seen.

In a recent discussion with a friend about the “Finn” character from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” he made a great point about the burden of Black male characters in popular franchises. To represent so many good things in one character, due to a lack of company from many other Black male characters in similar positions.

Vixen may be the Black female superhero “Finn” for the present.

Hopefully, her appearance on “Arrow” will earn the character a more unified and positive reception than the one given for the ex-Stormtrooper.

Joseph Phillip Illidge is a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics and the corporate politics of diversity. In addition to his coverage by The New York Times, CNN Money, the BBC and Publishers Weekly, Joseph has been a speaker at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, The School of Visual Arts, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.

Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels and web-based entertainment.

His graphic novel project, “The Ren,” about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war, will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.

Joseph’s newest comic book project is the upcoming Scout Comics miniseries “Solarman,” a revamp of a teenage superhero originally written by Stan Lee.

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