[identity profile] bluefall.insanejournal.com posting in [community profile] scans_daily
(Yes, I'm starting the Cheetah posts before I finish the Wondy posts. Variety is the spice of life, you know.)

It's said that every good hero needs a good villain. I don't know that I completely agree with that, but certainly the most iconic four-color heroes have a diverse array of equally iconic foes - Joker and Two-Face and Poison Ivy, Sinestro and Hector Hammond and Star Sapphire, Braniac and Lex and Zod, the Keystone Rogues.

Wondy pretty much gets the Cheetah. Sure, there's Dr. Psycho, and Giganta, and the Silver Swan (any given iteration), and you could even make a case for poor Veronica Cale, but basically, all of Wondy's rogues are either a) super-lame and not a credible threat to far weaker heroes, b) long since beaten, or c) spend far more time fighting other heroes in other books than they ever have on Diana, post-Crisis. [Or d) some or all of the above, ::coughGigantacough::]. Circe actually puts in a decent showing, and Psycho's a good villain when he's around, but the one and only Wondy rogue who's been present since the relaunch, kept up with her through every subsequent changing of hands, and focused on her to the exclusion of any other hero in the DCU like a proper arch-nemesis should, is the Cheetah.

Gaia forbid, of course, that that actually amount to any consistency in Diana's history, though. Because it is not, perhaps, completely accurate to say that the Cheetah has been with Wondy since the Perez days; certainly there's been a Cheetah with her in every run, but her portrayal has been so schizophrenic as to put Supertorso to shame. Hence, this project - a look at the many different iterations of the Cheetah - starting, as one should, at the beginning,* with the original Wondy maestro, George Perez.

*By which I mean the post-Crisis Wondy beginning. We used to have a good collection of pre-Crisis Cheetah stuff posted by [insanejournal.com profile] mosellegreen, but it was lost in the Great Disaster. It was great crack and I regret the inability to link you to it. However, it was also of no relevance to post-Crisis, so we shall carry on as we were regardless.

Also, photoshop warning again. As ever, the computer font is my work, the words are Perez'.

The Cheetah was actually the very first permanent rogue Perez introduced; her earliest appearance is back in issue #7. Diana has just hooked up with Myndi Mayer and her face, her story, and her lasso have been plastered over every form of media known to man, leading us to our first historic sighting of the then-mysterious Barbara Minerva.

A note on Dr. Minerva's name before we continue, because there's no way in hell it was accidental. "Barbara" is a Greek-derived name, which comes from the same root as "barbarian" and has the same meaning: outsider, alien, foreigner, stranger, not civilized, Not Like Us. Minerva, of course, is the Roman version of Athena - goddess of wisdom, of art, of war and strategy, and the goddess who Diana is (despite her name) most like. Thing about the Roman gods, though, is that while Athena's pretty cool and probably the most respected of the Greek gods (at least by the Athenians, go figure), Minerva is a spiteful bitch who the Romans really didn't have much use for.

Put it together, you've got Diana's dark mirror; a twisted reinvention of her, with the same strengths, the same talents, but added malice and added strangeness, someone powerful and familiar but also wild and alone, dangerous and tragic.

And right there in her name, in the very first five syllables we've ever heard about her, Perez tells you the fundamental heart of who she's supposed to be in Diana's life. Keep that in mind as we go through this series.

Anyway, here we see Dr. Minerva's character as Perez painted it; she's a treasure hunter, and the lasso is the ultimate treasure, so she wants it. Being a clever, devious sort, she first tries a simple deception; she sends a letter to Diana, saying that she's got an artifact which she thinks is the other Girdle of Gaia, and would Diana please meet with her and bring the lasso.

Myndi *would* drink sombreros, wouldn't she.

Diana takes her lariat and flies off in a horrified, teary huff, because this is Perez writing and his Diana is just too naive to live. Dr. Minerva, however, is not dissuaded, and decides that if deception won't work, there's always brute force.

There's a lot of reasons that the ritual aspect of the Cheetah transformation is important here, but I like it for the most simple and visceral one: ritual is power. The more difficult something is, the more complicated and expensive and costly the process, the more result we expect to see. Just human nature. So making the Cheetah transformation an elaborate and painful arcane rite emphasizes just how powerful she becomes in a way that a simple at-will shapeshift wouldn't.

Oh, yeah, the Cheetah needs to kill people in order to transform, which is why Tamsyn got mauled. More on that in a bit. First, we watch as Cheetah tracks down Wondy, who's sleeping in the Kapatelises' awesomely huge backyard, by the lake, in an attempt to get over Dr. Minerva's lie by communing with nature.

Diana's not invulnerable, obviously; she can be cut or pierced by something as meager as a blow-dart, and certainly she takes damage from magic swords (Heinberg). But she heals quick and seems to be less hurt by any given wound than a normal human would be. I think her "she drew blood!" here is less "wow, a big dangerous predator can cut me!" and more "wow, that's really deep and... wow, no, really, that's really deep, and it's been forty seconds and it's not getting any less deep and holy crap, look how much that's bleeding." Diana can heal a sword wound to the gut faster than a gouge from the Cheetah; clearly divinely magic claws are a new and uncomfortable experience for her.

Diana manages to get lucky and snare the Cheetah with her lasso, but -

So the Cheetah gets away clean, after very nearly killing Diana. And then, true to Perez form, she doesn't show up again for another twenty issues. It would be nice if more modern comic writers could manage to pace their new bad guys like that, it's a lot more compelling than immediate oversaturation and gives the character a much better shot at actual longevity. Though I suppose sixty issues of the same writer isn't common enough anymore to do that kind of pacing even if you wanted to...

... and wow, I'm completely the hell off topic. Back to the Cheetah.

We're some time later now, after the Invasion crossover where khunds tried to conquer the planet. Diana happened to capture a couple alive, but DCU hostile meta management being what it is, they fall into dangerous hands pretty easily.

The khunds agree, naturally, and are able to ambush Diana while she and Steve and Etta are on their way back to Boston. Diana deals with the khund who attacks her easily enough, but Steve and Etta have some trouble with the second.

Rather living up to her namesake here, isn't she?

So the lasso is gone, much to Diana's distress. Our Amazon's no dope, though, and after seeing Dr. Minerva's face on the cover of Julia's Archaeological Digest magazine, she realizes that there's a damn good chance Minerva's responsible for the theft. So she heads off to England (under pretense of joining the JLE, amusingly enough), and stops by the Minerva Manse to have a chat.

... Aaaaand Chuma drugs her tea. Because Chuma is badass like that.

And here we go, the all-important origin story!

Perez' Cheetah is sort of an amoral Indiana Jones figure, an adventure archaeologist, fearless in the pursuit of knowledge and unique artifacts. Here, that pursuit gets her ambushed by worshippers of the Cheetah.

I mentioned that she's totally amoral, right? But notice she's also decisive, quick-thinking, undaunted by danger, a surprisingly effective leader, and finds new knowledge of new cultures completely compelling. Sound at all familiar?

So Minerva and Leavens find their way to the Temple of Urzkartaga, where they see the remaining members of their party hanging by their feet in the middle of a drumming, dancing, knife-weilding frenzy. The ambush wasn't, apparently, to protect the temple, so much as it was to acquire sacrifices.

Turns out some of the members of the expedition escaped the slaughter and went back to civilization for backup. Which they got. In well-armed spades. Chuma's all "oh, shit, the Cheetah's dead, the circle is broken, I totally failed, let me go throw myself on the rifles and grenades," but Minerva knocks him into the relative safety of a collapsing tunnel.

Of course, then she pulls a gun on him and says "give me a reason not to shoot you, you treacherous bastard," but she is a bad guy, after all.

Yeah, geez, how weak, giving up under horrible torture. Spinless indeed. You tell him, Chuma.

Anyway, the tortured guy led some outsiders on a hunt into the jungle and got mauled by the Cheetah for his trouble. This being the first time an actual worshipper was hurt by their goddess, the tribe freaked out, and started feeding priests to her. This just offended their gods more, and the Cheetah's human form got weaker and frailer. Chuma hoped that Minerva's expedition would provide the outside sacrifices to make her healthy again, but obviously that didn't work so well either.

Then Chuma gets down to the important bit - explaining how the Cheetah thing actually works. Urzkartaga, the god, takes a human wife. She drinks blood mixed with the leaves of the plant-god and transforms into the sacred tribal guardian, the cat-god Cheetah. And most pertinent, this allows her to live forever. The woman who just got shot? Centuries old.

Oh, Barbara. What are you doing? I know immortality sounds nifty and all, but honey, always read the fine print.

Anyway, lucky for them, poor dumb Leavens shows up just then, and agrees to bring some explosives to free Chuma and the good doctor. Anyone have any guesses as to how they reward him?

Poor dumb Leavens.

Man, I know she's evil and all, but that's just cool.

About that fine print, though...

So that's the story of the Cheetah. Like Diana herself, she's a quasi-semi-demi-goddess, granted absurd power by divine favor. Unlike Diana, though, she's a tragic figure; the only time she isn't wracked by pain is when she's in the thrall of profane bloodlust.

At this point in Chuma's narration, Diana decides she's learned all she wanted to, reveals that she was faking, and tracks the Cheetah to Egypt (Dr. Minerva still has her lariat, after all).

What's in Egypt? The Bana-Mighdall, of course, and the actual other Girdle of Gaia.

Seems the lariat doesn't like being stolen. Fancy that. Curious that it leads her to the Bana, though; a simple case of like calling to like, or did it actually intend for the Cheetah to steal the Girdle from its owners? It seems quite possible, since the whole Bana storyline is deeply weird and kinda troubling that way. But I'm off topic again.

Okay, so Dr. Minerva's got the two Girdles, at great cost to herself. Elsewhere, Diana is being blamed for the theft and getting a history lesson, none of which is particularly important to us now, because eventually the Bana manage to track the Cheetah to Syene Kesh, and go declare war on the city to get their sacred Pyx back.

No matter how many times I see that, it never gets less awesome.

"Do exactly as I be telling you" turns out to translate to "dump the lariat and girdle into the garbage pile out back of the hotel," which is pretty anticlimactic. On the other hand, the Cheetah does go to town on some Amazons, including the queen, which was a good time back in the day, before it turned into the DC equivalent of smashing buildings in a Kaiju battle. "Look! A big fight! How do we emphasize the bigness of this fight? I know, let's kill some more amazons, that never gets old."

Okay, there's a really cool, long, badass fight here between Diana and the Cheetah that takes up like, half the issue and involves Diana beating Minerva stupid with her own tail, but it doesn't say anything new and I already burned a lot of pages here on the Bana chapter of WWwA, so long story short, Diana has a hard time of it but manages to defeat her feline foe.

So Chuma's dead, which seems like a poor decision on Perez's part, given how important the Chuma-Cheetah dynamic is to this iteration of the character; but then, it seemed like Perez was pretty much done with her anyway, because she herself is a raving nut next time we see her.

There's... a lot more of that same, the basic point of which seems to be Cheetah as a demonstration of Diana's love and mercy; she was a relentless, brilliant, deadly foe, but she's fallen, and now she's just a pitiful creature in Diana's care. And Diana, being Diana, will treat her that way, no matter their history.

Unfortunately, all her compassion isn't enough to cure this one, so she ends up stuffing Cheetah in Arkham (as you do). And there she sits for thirty-odd issues until the War of the Gods crossover - at which point Circe busts her out of prison. Not really out of the kindness of her heart, though.

(Don't worry about the wider plot stuff here, it doesn't matter. On any level.)

So Cheetah actually gets a bit of a power-up from Circe, here; the trappings of the ritual are mostly gone, all she needs anymore is the blood plus the drug (good thing, considering that Chuma's death makes the ritual impossible). Not that it's anything she's particularly thankful for, considering her treatment - which is why Cheetah is the one who spills the beans on the whole nefarious plan to Diana's allies.

Of course, crossing Circe is dangerous at the best of times...

And that's where we leave Perez' Cheetah. Alone and on the run, and even more miserable than she was when we first met her, now that her life is unbearable in both her forms.

So what have we got, in all this? Who is the Cheetah, as Perez presented her?

First and foremost, she's smart. She's got a freaking doctorate, she's an archaeologist of some renown, and her intellectual curiosity is every bit as dominant a character trait as her selfishness. She doesn't just attack; she's devious and clever, and trickery and deception are her first resort, backed up by her formidable physical abilities but never overshadowed by them. Even Circe wanted her for her brain. She's a scientist, moving in scientific circles - and her area of expertise conveniently overlaps with Diana's life and culture.

Second, she's tragic. She's evil, certainly, but it's an evil of callousness, not malice. The Cheetah may love the hunt, but Barbara Minerva doesn't get any kind of enjoyment out of hurting people. She doesn't want to rule the world or destroy Boston or make people zombie slaves. She just wants to learn things and not be in pain. She's a lot like Freeze in that regard, and it allows her to be sympathetic; she's suffering, every moment, and her powers are a prison as much or more than they're a benefit. And saddest of all, she could have been great. She's talented, bold, clever, impressively egalitarian, a lover of knowledge, everything you need and more to be a boon to humanity. But she chose to become a curse instead, and cursed herself in the doing.

And third, she's lethal. She leaves marks on Diana that last for weeks when they fight, and she's so inhumanly fast, so impossibly strong, and so insanely durable that one mistake nearly cost Diana her life. She's a demigod, in the demigod weight class; it's worth noting that of all of Perez' rogues, she's the only one who can sustain fair physical combat with Diana for more than two pages. Wondy can put down a Hecatoncheries faster than she can take out Perez' Cheetah.

All around? This is a worthy and interesting foe, a valid candidate for defining arch-nemesis, and a just plain good character, if slightly hamstrung by a truncated return and significant but poorly explored last-minute change.

Next up: Good ideas if you can get past the art - Cheetah through the eyes and pen of William Messner-Loebs.

Date: 2009-03-14 03:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] magus_69.insanejournal.com
oh, Jesus, what are we going to do with Hawkman?

I don't know, but I'm already stockpiling the vodka. I think it will be needed when the time comes.

Date: 2009-03-14 04:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] unknownscribler.insanejournal.com
Someone needs to run a poll to show the mods just how much we all think their new tag system sucks.


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