In the new comic “Zaadii: The Legend of Z-Hawk,” Zaadii is a Navajo environmental lawyer who fights for nature by day and becomes the superhero Z-Hawk by night. Although Z-Hawk is a fictional character, Zaadii is not. The comic is based on the unfinished life of Zaaditozhon Tso, a boy from Flagstaff who viewed himself as a superhero. He was killed when he was just three years old by a distracted driver.
“Zaadii: The Legend of Z-Hawk” tells a story of how the little boy’s life could have been if it wasn’t ended early. The comic was published by Travelers Insurance as a campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving, according to its website.
Zaadii’s mother Rachel Cox, a lecturer in NAU’s School of Communication, said she played a large role in bringing the story to life over the past two years.
“It was more than just imagining it as it could have been realistically,” Cox said. “It was imagining it as it could have been in the mind of a 3-year-old who thought he was a superhero. It’s magical.”
Cox said Zaadii died in February 2015 when he was struck by a vehicle while he was crossing the street with her.
Later on, Travelers Insurance contacted Cox to hear more about Zaadii’s story. Cox said she thought they would run a late-night advertisement on TV that showed pictures of victims of distracted driving. However, it turned into something much more than that.
Cox said she didn’t hear back from the company for a while and forgot about the whole thing. A while after, she was contacted again and they told her Zaadii’s story was so moving they wanted to do something on him alone.
“He loved his life,” Cox said. “He loved his community, he loved his family, he loved his friends and he was very well-loved. He was this beautiful spark of love and light. He wasn’t afraid to be himself and he always did what he felt needed to be done.”
One of Cox’s favorite stories about Zaadii’s life occurred at school when an African drummer came to perform at a cultural assembly.
“As soon as he started to play, Zaadii jumped up and started dancing,” Cox said. “His teachers tried to grab him saying, ‘Come back, come back!’ But the African drummer said, ‘No, no no, dancing is exactly what you’re supposed to do when you hear this music.’”
Zaadii told the drummer his name was Batman, and the drummer told the school they should all be like Batman and dance together. Cox said after that, Zaadii led the teachers and students in a dance. That was one of the last things he did at his school.
The reason she thinks his story is so compelling was because he did everything right, Cox said, and his death should never have happened.
“Here’s a little boy who’s dressed like Batman who’s doing absolutely everything right — holding his mom’s hand in a crosswalk — and yet a distracted driver killed him,” Cox said. “We were a foot away from safety — a foot away from the other side of the road. So often when we hear about things, we think ‘Oh, this person was doing something wrong,’ and this was so very clearly unfair. It should not have happened.”
Cox worked with comic book author Gail Simone to bring Zaadii’s animated story to life. According to an interview done by AZFamily, Simone has written over 600 comics, but this was the first she’s based on a real person.
In the interview, Simone said the comic brought opportunities to make sure the story stayed true to Zaadii’s character, family and heritage and allowed his spirit and energy to continue on.
Zaadii’s godmother Jeneda Benally acted as the cultural consultant during the creation of the comic to ensure Zaadii’s heritage and family were portrayed accurately and respectfully. She said the story is full of Navajo symbolism that is important to Zaadii’s story.
In the comic, Z-Hawk’s emblem is made of triangles that represent arrowheads. Benally said in Navajo culture, arrowheads are a symbol of protection. Another symbolic aspect of the story is turquoise — both the stone and color. In the story, Z-Hawk’s costume is turquoise and he is also given a turquoise necklace by an elder. Benally said turquoise is a form of protection in the Navajo culture and identifies the people as connected to the holy one, and even Z-Hawk’s mask was well-thought out and based on traditional Navajo warrior caps.
“Being his godmother, I always felt like a protector of him,” Benally said. “For me, it was incredibly personal to take on this role of cultural consultant. [I wanted] his story — this imaginary story — to be written in a way that would bring honor and show the beauty of who he was and who his family and his people are.”
Benally described Zaadii as sunshine, imagination and laughter. She said although people were only able to enjoy his physical presence for three years, his family and friends will enjoy every memory they have of him for a lifetime.
On top of making the story culturally accurate and representative of his life, Simone said she wanted Zaadii’s character in the comic to be one that he would have thought was cool, according to the AZFamily interview. To do this, she equipped Z-Hawk with his own electric flying car and voice-activated retractable arrows.
“[Simone] is a mom herself,” Cox said. “But she was also a little girl who thought she was a superhero. We related in these ways that I think she felt connected to Zaadii personally, but also connected to Zaadii as a mom and connected to me — mom to mom.”
Zaadii completely took on the character of a superhero when he was alive. Cox said he never took his Batman costume off. He wore it to school everyday, he wore it to bed, he wore it in the bath and he even wore it to meet Santa Claus and tell him he wanted his own Batmobile for Christmas. He truly believed he was a superhero and Cox said she thinks Zaadii would have absolutely loved the comic book.
She said she strongly believed Zaadii would have grown up to be an environmental lawyer, just like his character in the book who fights for environmental issues on native land. His grandfather was a lawyer and his father came from a line of Indigineous rights and environmental activists. Zaadii’s full name, Zaaditozhon, means “speaks with the power of gentle water” in Navajo, and his grandmother said gentle water is what carves canyons and moves mountains.
Cox explained she liked that the comic focused on Zaadii’s imagined life rather than his death. Although she said she would much rather have her son with her in person than as a character in a comic book, the imagination of his future was a gift.
“Not being able to imagine what your child would have been like growing up is one of the hardest parts,” Cox said. “Not having the graduations, not having all of the typical things parents have with their children, and to have that imagined is a gift. It was beautiful to see images of my son that showed how he could have been. It was bittersweet.”
The goal of this comic is to inspire people to drive mindfully. Cox said everyone needs to drive as if they are operating a deadly weapon because they are. She said everyone needs to be aware of their surroundings, keep their eyes on the road, pay attention and most importantly, be aware.
“Even though he is not able to grow up and be the superhero that he thought he was, I know he is now truly a superhero,” Benally said. “And through this comic book, hopefully he will change minds and save lives, and he’ll bring awareness to the importance of being a mindful driver.”
Zaadii’s family started The Zaadii Foundation, which advocates for driver and pedestrian safety and gives people the opportunity to take a pledge to drive mindfully on their website. Zaadii did not get to finish his story because of a distracted driver, but he continues to be a protector through this comic book.
“He wanted to be a superhero, and he is,” Cox said. “Through this comic book and his life and stories that I tell or others tell about him, he’s helping to save lives. And that’s a super heroic thing to do.”