Vixen is a character that I have a lot of fondness for and a character that DC severely underutilises, not just in a general sense — although they do — but specifically as a lead character. Mari McCabe first debuted in 1981’s Action Comics #521 as an antagonist-turned-ally of Superman, who used her secret identity as an international supermodel to travel the world and target those who trafficked illegal animal products. In the years since she’s been a guest star and a member of the Justice League, the Birds of Prey and even the Suicide Squad! She even got her own animated show as part of the Arrowverse and showed up in live-action in both Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, but in the forty years since her creation she’s only ever received one series with her name on the cover.
Vixen: Return of the Lion spins out of Brad Meltzer’s Justice League of America, or more accurately the Dwayne McDuffie run which immediately followed Meltzer but kept the same core team line-up. Her inclusion on this new Justice League team was the most high profile role Vixen had received in the DC Universe to date and for one DC did the smart thing and capitalised on it by giving her a miniseries by G. Willow Wilson and Cafu, which sees her return to her village in Zambesi to get revenge on the man who killed her mother.
In late 2008, G. Willow Wilson had already made a name for herself in comics with the critically acclaimed graphic novel Cairo from Vertigo and earlier in the year had launched her first ongoing series Air, also with Vertigo. Vixen: Return of the King was her first real dabble with the superhero genre but it carries the hallmarks of her earlier work throughout it’s five issue run; it’s not so much a superhero story as it is a story about coming home and finding the missing part of you which you left to discover was there all along.
As a character who has been on a lot of teams and guest-starred in a lot of other people’s coming, there isn’t really a singular voice for Vixen within the DC Universe, but Wilson does a tremendous job of boiling Mari McCabe down to the essentials and making her feel like her own person. She’s a character that can be aggressive and impulsive, but she isn’t defined by it and G. Willow Wilson balances the different interpretations of Vixen over the years into one unified character in a way that she hasn’t been allowed to be for most of her existence. It’s her strong sense of who Mari is as a character and where she sits within the DC Universe that allows Wilson to make a case for Vixen as a lead, and gives us as readers a reason to buy into not just this story, but future stories which sadly never came.
The inciting incident that sends Vixen back home — she thought the death of her mother was a settled matter, but actually her killer is still alive — feels a bit stale in terms of motivation, but the scenes with Mari back home in Zambesi are really well done. Vixen returns home too confident from a decade or so hanging around the super-set and it costs her dearly at first, but she’s able to recover from her mistakes and learn that her power come from within, both metaphorically and literally. It’s the kind of story G. Willow Wilson likes to tell a lot but from different angles, and you can see it in Ms. Marvel and Wonder Woman too but she’s able to tailor the journey itself to the character in ways that it never feels like a cover version.
On the flip side of that, I don’t know whether it was an editorial decision or not, but there is just too much Justice League in this comic for my taste. At times it almost feels like a Vixen-centric arc of Justice League of America rather than a solo Vixen comic. I don’t know if DC thought maybe fans would want to see higher profile names to increase sales or what, but the back-half of the book especially leans a bit too heavily on scenes of the Justice League just acting like it’s their book. There’s nothing wrong with the scenes themselves and Wilson writes a great Batman, but it’s not a Batman comic; I don’t care about Batman right now, y’know?
The one thing I’d say is maybe missing from Vixen: Return of the Lion is the humour that we’ve come to expect from G. Willow Wilson’s work in recent years, but even then I don’t know that missing is the right world. Something like Ms. Marvel has a lot of humour and charm at its core, but that doesn’t mean it’s all Wilson can do or that such a tone is appropriate for every book that she does. Vixen: Return of the Lion doesn’t have those aspects that we maybe associate with Wilson’s more recent work but the comic doesn’t suffer from its absence.
It’s a crime that DC doesn’t see what a breakout star they have in Vixen despite creators like G. Willow Wilson and Cafu do everything they possibly can to set the character up as a lead. The final moments of the comic hint at a future Vixen story which would tie in the events of Return of the King with “The Second Coming”, a recent story in McDuffie’s Justice League of America but it never came. Vixen: Return of the King isn’t a particularly memorable miniseries in a lot of ways, but what it does well it does incredibly well and there’s plenty of characters who get way more chances with way, way, way worse stories. It’s definitely worth checking out if you have a specific interest in either Wilson’s early work or to see Vixen as a lead but not quite something I’d give a blanket recommendation for everyone to seek out.