GAME CHANGERS: Gerry Conway on VIXEN

Did you know that the first ongoing series starring an Black female protagonist at either DC or Marvel was almost published in 1978? And that because of a snow storm, that series would never come to life.

A snow storm.

Thus is the legend of the DC Implosion, the moniker given to DC Comics’ massive layoffs and line-crunches in 1978 after a winter of blizzards halted distribution and drove down sales significantly enough on their comic line that they had to shelve 25 ongoing and prospective titles in one fell swoop.

One of those titles was Vixen, and writer Gerry Conway was the mastermind behind the attempt to bring that character to life and add her to the diversity of the DC Universe in the late 1970s. In today’s GAME CHANGERS feature, we look at DC’s most prominent African-American female character and speak to her original creator about how the character we’ve seen on TV and in comics for three decades had come to be.

VixenBanner

Who is Vixen?

Alter Ego: Mari Jiwe McCabe
First Appearance: Action Comics #521 (1981)
Created by Gerry Conway
and Bob Oksner
Published by DC Comics

Action-Comics_521_Vol1938_DC-Comics__ComiClashLegend has it that the great African warrior Tantu asked the god-spider Anansi for a boon — a totem which would give him great power from the animal kingdom in order to protect the innocent. This Tantu Totem passed itself through many generations of tribal families in Zambesi until it reached the hands of young Mari Jiwe, daughter of the village reverend and tribal elder. After the death of her father at the hands of her bloodthirsty general uncle, Mari fled to the United States to restart life as a fashion model by the name of Mari McCabe.

Events would soon transpire to lead Mari to use the totem to fight crime, taking a costume and the name Vixen. Her powers, derived from the totem, gave her the ability to mimic any animal in the world and take on their strength, agility, speed, or flight. On rare occasion, Vixen has also been able to mimic super-human abilities she encounters in other heroes.

Shortly after encountering Superman on two separate occasions, Vixen became a member of the Justice League of America, as the team had recently trimmed its ranks and relocated to Earth in a small neighborhood inside Detroit, Michigan. A dedicated teammate and fierce fighter, Mari enlisted the aide of her new colleagues to avenge her father’s death, just before the team would disband in the wake of a worldwide Crisis.

As years went by, Vixen worked with many other super-humans, some for good and others not so good, but always with the goal of helping those in need. In one such prolonged association, Vixen became a member of the government’s Task Force X, code-named Suicide Squad, and assisted her more angelic colleagues Bronze Tiger and Amanda Waller in keeping the criminal elements of the team in line.

After a disastrous romance with Bronze Tiger, Vixen left the team, but not super-heroics. Teaming up over the years with Animal Man, the Flash, Black Canary, and ultimately rejoining the Justice League of America, Mari McCabe remains one of the shining stars of the DC Universe, and the fiercest of combatants one could hope to meet.

 

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A few words from her creator

Matt Santori-Griffith: What kind of thinking did Vixen come out of for you back in 1978 in preparing her ongoing series?

Gerry Conway: Well, I’m not sure I can give you a completely accurate architecture of the thought processes I had at the time, because it is many decades ago now. But I would say that what I was trying to address was what I perceived to be a lack of strong female leads in DC’s comics at the time.

Or, let me put it this way: there was an opportunity, as DC was looking for additional books. Surveying the titles that they have, it seemed to me there were some obvious openings for characters that had been underrepresented. One of them had been lead female super-heroes. They had Wonder Woman. To a lesser degree they had Supergirl, Power Girl (who I also created), and Wonder Girl. There were a lot of girls, but not a lot of full-formed adult female super-heroes operating at DC, so I wanted to create one.

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Interior art by Bob Oksner

I also wanted to create a character who was a minority, and the idea of a female Black super-heroine hadn’t been played up to any great extent at that point. I think Storm (of the X-Men) was around, but I don’t think there were very many other representations of that type of character in the field.

MSG: That’s true. I’ve done some digging and it seems to me had Vixen’s ongoing series launched in 1978, she would have been the first Black female lead to have an ongoing at either DC or Marvel. As a result, the first one wasn’t actually published until 2011 (with DC Comics’ Voodoo), followed by only one other last month (Marvel’s new Storm series).

GC: Wow. We sure missed it. I guess there’s room out there for this material!

We were just caught short. There was a moment in time when we could have brought her out as a single feature character and that moment passed.

MSG: You didn’t leave Vixen behind, though, as she ended up debuting in an Action Comics story you wrote.

GC: I really liked her and wanted to use her, just like I wanted to use Firestorm and Commander Steel, the other characters that were lost as a result of the Implosion. These were characters that I had a certain proprietary interest in, and I wanted to see them used.

21651-2943-24155-1-dc-comics-presentsPlus, I felt she really did fulfill a role at DC that was missing: a minority female super-hero. It seemed to me that this was such an obvious need that needed to be addressed, and I had the character with whom to do it.

I had the opportunity back then, because I was a fairly strong writer in regard to the relationship with my editors. They kind of let me do what I wanted to do. Not without oversight, but they’d give me my own way as much as was reasonable. If I was passionate about something, they’d say OK. “Give it a shot!”

In the case of both Firestorm and later with Vixen, they let me do an issue to see how it would turn out. And it got a positive response.

MSG: She had a very interesting origin, both having the ties to Africa and being a fashion model in the United States. It always struck me that Mari wasn’t the same kind of fashion model comic readers in the 1950s were used to. She was a businesswoman.

GC: Yes. She was kind of based on what we called supermodels at the time. It was a very strange social phenomenon that was starting to occur back then. You had these women who were obviously objects of the male gaze, but they were also extremely empowered. They took charge of their own image, their own business, and identity. I wanted to show that.

This was the 70s, so I hope female readers today will give us a bit of a pass on this. There were not that many active role models regarding careers for women at that time where you could reasonably say: this woman would have the resources to maintain a career as a super-heroine. What were the jobs available to women in the mid- to late-70s? Clerical work. Teaching jobs. There were very few potential jobs that would provide the potential resources and money that a character like Vixen would need to carry on a super-hero career.

That’s a horribly sexist reality we were dealing with. Plus, she’s a minority, and that adds another whole layer of disadvantage that she has to overcome. So, it was a bit of wish fulfillment (for that character, not necessarily for me as the writer), and a bit of practicality to reflect something that was real in our society, i.e. the advent of these take-charge, supermodel/businesswomen.

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Postcard design by George Perez

MSG: Ultimately, you introduced Vixen into the Justice League when that team’s roster changed over. Can you talk a little about your choice of her in particular for that team?

GC: Well, I wanted a grounded character who could relate to the environment I was putting the team into. Even though Mari had many connections that go well beyond the urban, almost ghetto, environment — she’s a woman from Africa who doesn’t really have the American Black experience; she’s a fashion model, so she’s certainly not ghetto in that sense — there was a sense she could be a relatable character to that community. This would give her access to storylines, some of which I never ended up being able to develop.

Also, I had this other character in the book, Dale Gunn, who was another African-American character. I wanted to balance the book out. I started moving in the direction of creating this kind of romantic triangle between Mari McCabe, Zatanna, and Dale Gunn, which was probably pretty cheesy of me, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

TheVixeninJusticeLeagueofAmericaAnnual21984

Interior art by Chuck Patton

I was trying to give myself as much story potential as I could, and was grounding the book in an urban sense, which was the overarching goal of bringing the team to Detroit.

MSG: Oddly enough, as a young reader, I didn’t even just think of what you were going for as a triangle, but more of a square — Vixen also seemed to have a strong connection to the Martian Manhunter.

GC: Yeah, it’s true. Maybe a quadrangle. It’s not quite even in certain places and it stretches out in others.

My whole purpose in creating the Justice League Detroit arrangement was to have the opportunity to have multiple layed relationships, potential hook-ups that would not be possible with the traditional team.

MSG: Vixen also seemed like a bridge character, too. She didn’t seem that junior, but she also wasn’t part of the varsity that had been carried over.

GC: Right. The reason is, the team was not her goal. She had a life — because of her career, and because of her prior history going back to Africa. In many ways, the Justice League was not a step up for her. It was just a sideways step. She could be with them or not be with them. While she might be junior to them, that was irrelevant to her. It just had nothing to do with her sense of status. She wasn’t like Firestorm, who wanted to be part of the team. It was more like, “Yeah, that will fit with what I do.”

In a certain sense, it was a very mature place for her, as opposed to a lot of the characters who get into with these group books.

MSG: Maturity is one way to put it. I think she has always had a real sense of dignity to her character from the start.

GC: I agree with you. She was of course from a higher end class status with her family. She had that innate bearing, even though she lost her family as a child. I also wanted to get across that, in the tribal culture that she came from, her status was superior. She was a little bit like Diana Prince in that regard. There’s a sense not of entitlement, but a sense of security in herself that many characters who have to struggle against perceptions of other people wouldn’t have had.

Interior art by Chuck Patton

Interior art by Chuck Patton

MSG: Since Vixen has been around for so many years since you wrote her, I have to ask if you’ve followed any of her appearances in the years past?

GC: I did read the mini-series by G. Willow Wilson a few years ago, which I liked quite a bit.

As a writer, I’ve messed around with other writers’ characters quite a bit, so I have no beef when people take things and change them. But I’m actually very happy with the way Vixen has been developed over the years at DC, because I think it stayed true to what were the stronger elements of the character at the start — and fixed a lot of the problems that I might have inadvertently created with the character. Some levels of insensitivity or stupidity on my part. So, yeah, it makes me look good. I’m happy to see it! To the extent that I’ve been following it, I’ve been really pleased. I really like her new costume by comparison to her first one. [laughs]

I’m just happy to see her still out there. It’s great.


“In a world and industry which continues to narrowly embody Eurocentric standards of beauty, the short haired, dark skinned supermodel Vixen is a welcome respite.

While her ongoing solo series from the 1970s never came to fruition, her inclusion in the animated series Justice League Unlimited and Batman: The Brave and the Bold signify her potential for mass media distribution. Like Marvel’s Storm, her origins direct link to African ancestry and mythology make her an ideal model of diversity for DC Comics and Warner Bros to expand the potential reach of their publications and films.”

J. Skyler, Comicosity

 

Where can I read more?

  • Cancelled Comics Cavalcade #2 (1978)
  • Action Comics #521 (1981)
  • DC Comics Presents #68 (1984)
  • Justice League of America Annual #2, #233-261 (1984-86): Justice League Detroit
  • Suicide Squad #11-47 (1988-90)
  • Animal Man #10-12 (1989)
  • The Flash #45-47 (1990)
  • Animal Man #44-50 (1992)
  • Birds of Prey #69-73 (2004): Between Dark and Dawn
  • Justice League of America #1-40 (2006-10)
  • Vixen #1-5 (2009): Return of the Lion
  • Justice League International #1-7 (2011-12)
  • Justice League #16-18 (2013): Throne of Atlantis

 

BONUS: Original art from Vixen’s never widely-published #1 issue in 1978! Some pages are easier to read than others, but such is the difficulty of finding pre-internet original art online. Enjoy!

 

 

AND a look at Vixen’s many transformations into three-dimensional toys and statues:

 

 

For a full list of Comicosity’s Game Changers, please visit our index.

 

 

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