A series of stories commissioned by the Travelers insurance company imagines the unfinished lives of people killed by distracted driving. The newest installment is a 28-page comic book called “Zaadii: The Legend of Z-Hawk.” It immortalizes a 3-year-old Flagstaff boy who was killed by a distracted driver in 2015. He was almost never without his Batman costume and cape. The comic envisions a grown-up Zaadii as a protector of the environment and Native lands, and is one of only a handful to feature an Indigenous superhero. The project brought together a team of professional comic book writers and artists to also encourage mindful driving. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with Zaadii’s mother, Rachel Tso Cox about her son and how “The Legend of Z-Hawk” was born.
Ryan Heinsius: Tell me a little bit about Zaadii. Who was he?
Rachel Tso Cox: Zaadii was my boy, my only son. He was born 11/11/11 in Tuba City in the Navajo Nation. Hi full name is Zaaditozhon, which means Speaks With the Power of Gentle Water. He spent a lot of time making superhero noises. He loved the [superhero noises] and pretending he was a superhero. He got that suit and he just fit into it, it was like he became that character.
RH: The life you’re describing almost to me seems like the origin story of a superhero. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about how “The Legend of Z-Hawk” came to fruition.
RTC: We started the Zaadii Foundation right after he died to raise awareness about distracted driving. A group found out about Zaadii who was creating a database of people who had died due to distracted driving. They got together this just amazing team – Gail Simone, who’s this fantastic writer. She’s written for Batgirl, which was the first thing I heard that I was like, oh, she’s got to be good if she’s writing for Batgirl and got to be perfect. We really hit it off and then she so very carefully and skillfully took those stories of Zaadii’s life and the projections of what Zaadii could have been and wrote them into this comic book story like I think nobody else could.
RH: And of course Navajo culture is very prominent in “The Legend of Z-Hawk.” How is it represented?
RTC: Because he’s going to be a clearly Diné, Navajo superhero it was really, really important that the story got that right. It’s evident in his costume in that he’s a protector, so he has arrowhead symbols. He’s got this cape with these great feathers. Zaadii grows up to be this environmental lawyer who is fighting to protect the water and to protect an Indigenous nation’s land.
I think this is the first comic book that, at least I’ve ever seen, that has a Navajo amá sání in there, a Navajo grandma, detailed in this comic book and they’re based off of real people and it’s just beautiful. I saw hawks I think every single day of my pregnancy with him, and since he died I see a hawk it seems like every time I go outside. When I see hawks I think about Zaadii. I often kind of imagine that he’s riding on the back of the hawk and visiting me that way.
RH: What would Zaadii have thought about being a superhero?
RTC: I think Zaadii would have absolutely loved it. I actually took it to the gravesite and read it to him. And I would take each page and put it down on the grave so that he could see it. And I just felt like he would love it and I wanted to share it with him. What this book is doing is raising awareness for mindful driving, and so that’s heroic. So his character has gone on to truly be a superhero.
RH: Has this project given you solace and helped you recover?
RTC: You know, I don’t think we ever recover from grief. I think that what we do is we just get stronger. With each passing day, with each time I talk about him, with each moment of sitting with the grief, I get stronger. Grief is just love, it’s just the flipside of the coin of love. Through the process of making this comic book, in a lot of ways it was kind of therapy.
I got to imagine, and thoroughly imagine, what his life could have been. Trying to tap into his own 3-year-old superhero imagination to imagine what he would want to be when he grew up – it’s a gift.