The Many Faces of Barbara Minerva, part 2 (William Messner-Loebs)
Ah, Messner-Loebs. I have some serious problems with his run, which are only exacerbated by the repellent atrocity that is the later Deodato pencilling. But one thing I've got to credit him with, he did some good work with Diana's rogues.
The thing about Diana is that she's too practical and effective for the Joker Problem. She kills monsters and she saves victims, and she's really good at both. Run into her two or three times, and she either cuts your puppet strings, converts you, or decides you're too dangerous to live and sends you the way of Drakul and the khunds. You can't really sustain "can't be reformed" around Diana.
So there's only three real ways to do a lasting Wondy rogue. One, you make the villain flat-out more powerful than her. Circe's a good example. She's a freaking god, and not the chump kind like Phobos and Deimos either (moly weakness notwithstanding). No matter how much of a danger she is, Diana's not killing her unless Circe lets her. But that's incredibly hard to write - how do you defeat a more powerful foe without diminishing that foe or looking stupid or pulling a deus ex? Perez and Jimenez were awesome at it, but not everyone can be.
The second way is to make rogues who aren't actually malicious or even necessarily dangerous. A genial, swashbuckling gentleman thief, for example, who would never dream of actually hurting anyone. Then you have the problem of explaining why someone on Diana's field of play should *care* - Angle Man seems like a shot at this, but it's hard to justify Diana giving a crap about some petty theft when she's routinely embroiled in actual wars and armageddon events. At her power level, it's actually harder to write a believable amiable rogue story than a well-done conflict with a Circe or Darkseid. (A Mxy-like magical prankster who doesn't ever quite understand the consequences of his "harmless" jokes could actually work quite well, though, adding humor and giving her a regular opportunity to showcase her wisdom and diplomacy; really, why doesn't she have one of those already?)
The third way, somewhat tricky to establish but relatively easy to maintain, is to complicate the fuck out of Diana's relationships with them. Make them her friends, make her owe them or need them or feel responsible for them, make sure that "can't be reformed" is close enough to true that the enmity never ends, but is also a conclusion that Diana's constitutionally incapable of coming to. This was WML's go-to method, and he was actually pretty good at it (...at least, on the conceptual level).
So, last we saw Barbara Minerva, she was Chuma-less, fleeing Circe's rent-a-beasties, able to transform nearly at-will but slave to Circe's drug when doing so. Circe, of course, gets dealt with by the heroes. Dr. Minerva manages to find herself new trouble, though.
This place, which Minerva "should never have come back to," is Pan Balgravia, a lawless devil-worshipping pit of festering fiction somewhere in the Balkans. It is expected that horrible things will happen to her now that she's in captivity in such a place. And before you ask, no, at no point does WML ever deign to inform us just why the hell she's running around there in the first place or what's up with the dagger she'll later be going on about.
Now, WML, because he routinely fails to comprehend that Wondy is not about some ludicrous, juvenile "battle of the sexes" (he should go hang with Jelenic), makes Diana's motivation out to be "Cheetah = woman, woman = sister, sister = rescue." This is, of course, utter simplistic gryphonshit. However, what is true is that Minerva is very much Diana's responsibility; Diana accepted that when Chuma first entrusted the maddened Cheetah to her care, and Minerva only reinforced it when she helped Diana's people against Circe. So Diana going to save her does make perfect sense even at this early point in their acquaintance.
Anyway, in a fit of absurd out-of-character lunacy which I won't post for my own sanity and yours, Diana recruits Deathstroke - no, that's not a typo, I do mean Slade Wilson - to help her bust out the Cheetah, and they, um, sneak into Pan Belgravia by the entirely Wonder Woman method of public airline and Sydney Bristow-style fake identities.
No, I don't know either. Just nod and smile.
Meanwhile, back in the royal seat of Pan Belgravia, otherwise known as the Castle of Gratuitous Violence and Torture, there's some gratuitous violence and torture happening.
Turns out the Baron is into a little Elder God wrangling, and he needs an insanely powerful metahuman female for bait/host body/wife/thing. Lucky for him, he happened to have one wandering around the grounds for completely, utterly unexplained reasons, and another on the way in the most moronic and unnatural-for-her way possible, leaving him plenty of leeway to notice she's there and lay a trap for her as well.
Yes, I'm skipping over vast swaths of plot here. Trust me when I say that it's better this way.
So, anyway, Diana's in a cage.
If you're curious about the "gift of illusion" business, don't be. That's just WML carrying on the fine Perez tradition of randomly assigning strange, a-thematic one-shot powers to Diana to serve the needs of the plot via the old "A god did it" chestnut. Basically, for the duration of this story, Diana can create sophisticated illusions (in this case, a blown eye, suggesting a concussion to make her seem less dangerous). It's just a random MacGuffin. Don't worry about it.
Anyway, Diana gets free.
If you think about it for a couple seconds, the Baron's plan makes no sense whatsoever, here. He wants to use the Cheetah as a host body for his elder god or whatever. Not Minerva, who's far too powerless, but the Cheetah. Remember what "the Cheetah" is? A god in a host body. That's like one of those spiders that lays its eggs in a caterpillar coming up to some huge, swollen caterpillar and going "ooh, lots of food for my babies, I'll lay my eggs here," only the caterpillar's all swollen because it's already full of spiders. You'd think the Baron's demons would be able to tell that Dr. Minerva's soul is currently No Vacancy.
It doesn't really matter, though, since the Cheetah transformation's gone, so they decide to go with Diana instead.
The next two pages are basically Slade getting his ass kicked by the demon, and not worth posting. I only include that first panel because frankly, it's too hilariously stupid not to share. That "good entrance" caption box, he's totally dead serious about that there.
That was Diana's temporary illusion power again, by the way. I have to say that Minerva's willingness to play bait is a little odd, but I suppose without her Cheetah form she doesn't have much choice but to follow Diana's lead. No comment on the blatant tentacle rape, or why Diana allows it to go on for so long.
Anyway, Diana springs out of hiding and lays into the demon.
More fighting, and holy crap, I'd forgotten just how much fucking Slade there is in this story. Anyway, Diana's not really cleaning house.
So here we see a minor retcon - the Cheetah only needs one drop of blood to change, and she doesn't need Circe's drug (no longer in evidence) to keep blood down and sustain her transformation. Very sensible decision IMO; Perez really hamstrung her as an effective villain by giving Circe permanent power over her like that.
At least the unpronouncable elder god recognizes that Cheetah's of no use to her. She really should invest in a better class of minions.
And that's that story wrapped. It might be worth mentioning that this is the first bit of Wondy that WML ever wrote. He does get better. (Then he gets worse again.) But so far his Cheetah actually cleaves pretty close to Perez' - she doesn't care who gets hurt so long as *she* escapes, but she does feel beholden to Diana and is perfectly capable of normal human interaction. And of course, she sees something unknown and interesting and dives fearlessly into it.
There are two big things worth noting, though. First, this Minerva is apologetic, marveling that Diana would come for her "after all she's done," and there's something deliberately redemptive about her diving into the portal and possibly saving Diana's life. Perez' manipulator knew all about the naive and the do-gooding, and would probably have expected a rescue from Diana. (And been annoyed to owe her, of course.)
Second, she refers to the Cheetah as her "true self." Perez actually did hint at that, ever so glancingly, but the relationship between his Cheetah and his Dr Minerva was much more complex than that. This is the first blatant, straightforward repudiation of Barbara Minerva in favor of the animal inside, made consciously and willingly by the human half. Add that to the things you're keeping in mind as we go through this series.
Anyway, thirty issues later, WML is a bit more in the swing of things, Deodato has taken over pencilling duties, and a woman named Sazia is trying to stake out a place in the massive gang war that's been raging through Boston since Perez left.
Boom, flash, the Widow Sazia has found herself a Cheetah. She also breaks Cheshire out of jail (well, smuggles her a mirror, a length of twine and a plastic butter knife with which to break herself out, which is kind of lolarious), and recruits Ivy. She then sends all three of them to kill her mob rival Paulie Longo - who has just come to Diana for protection. Punching and kicking ensues.
The idea of Cheshire as a credible threat to Diana just makes me laugh. Ivy, I can see slowing her down for a minute, at least at her full power with plants at her disposal. But freakin' Cheshire? WML gives the girls more credit than me, but not *that* much, because Diana puts them down fairly handily before staggering off into an alley.
This leads to that famous pizza-and-bondage scene that got posted at the old S_D a bazillion times. (Apparently it's a foregone conclusion that Diana gets taken down, so we don't even see the fight; that seems entirely fair given the state Diana's in in that alley.) I won't repost it, because it's silly, it's been done, and most important, there's very little of interest re: the Cheetah here, apart from her accusing Ivy of being weird, and a quick panel with the Widow Sazia.
So, this Cheetah is competent and on-task, even in her Cheetah form -- she's got an entirely normal human brain (contrasted with the slightly insane Ivy here, or Perez' blood-hungry hunter). And her task, in this case, is working as a hitman.
Anyway, Diana escapes, naturally, and the girls give chase.
Meanwhile, Paulie Longo has hired some magical help to attack the Widow Sazia, so there's an assault in progress on the mansion that Diana just busted out of, which Ivy and Cheetah sort of get caught in.
I would think Ivy would be familiar with the word "golem" at least, if not the particulars of the thing's function. But I guess we're showcasing Cheetah's doctorate here, which I can appreciate.
So Ivy takes down the golem, but Cheetah disappears on her. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the grounds, Diana is still wearing the stupidest costume ever.
LOL again at Cheshire of all people about to kill Diana.
You know, I loathe everything else about this art style pretty much unconditionally, but I do actually kind of dig Cheetah's wild-ass mane.
(Ignore the caption boxes in this next, they're unrelated.)
And then... nothing. We never see the conclusion of this scene, we just jump to Diana dealing with Paulie Longo. After that, she goes after the Widow Sazia, who's sort of captive to the Joker, and while she's inside dealing with him, we see Minerva lurking out in the street.
Then the building explodes. And, strangely, despite Minerva's comment that Diana's the one who asked her to watch her back, Diana seems surprised to hear that Cheetah was at the scene.
That or she's lying to protect Cheetah, but even WML knew better than to have Diana lie. I assume we're to take this to mean that Diana asked Cheetah to watch her back against the golems and then let her escape in gratitude, and Cheetah interpreted that more broadly and kept following her into new danger.
In any case, Cheetah got bounced off to hell with Asquith, and the next we see of them, Asquith looks quite different, and poor Cheetah is not in a good way.
You know, that line really kinda makes me want to write Cheetah/Wondy. It's just so thoroughly "My boyfriend is gonna kick your ass for touching me."
Turns out she's right, though. Because when Diana comes looking for Asquith...
I know her facial expression mostly suggests that someone just let a really nasty fart loose, but it's actually supposed to be horror and rage.
I do like the reminder of her crazily keen sense of smell, though. Those enhanced senses of hers never get enough play.
So Diana rushes off to find Asquith and save Artemis and the Cheetah. This involves her figuring out that Donna Milton is Circe (which is the other really cool thing WML did with a Wondy rogue), which gets her teleported right to Asquith, who's busy with an obscenely sexualized slaughter of Artemis. Honestly, this would be a great finale if it weren't for the horrific, repugnant obscenity of the art.
Aw, poor Cheetah, warped into something feral and mad by Asquith's power. (As gods go, the cat-spirit bride of Urzkartaga is obviously not a very strong one, but I'd still say that subverting her will has got to be some pretty impressive magic. Very ominous, Randolph. Very ominous indeed).
Artemis fights the transformed Cassandra Arnold; Diana takes on the roid-rage Cheetah.
"She doesn't know me." This is really not dissuading me from that Cheetah/Wondy thing.
Anyway, fight, fight, hideous unspeakable art, more fighting...
So Circe saves Diana from the Cheetah, because we're just lousy with old enemies of Diana becoming her friends and sidekicks around here (more on that elsewhere). She's still too weak for Asquith, though.
And then Asquith kills Artemis and Diana kills Asquith and it's all very heroic and moving and pornographic. And Cheetah, Circe and poor Cassie Arnold are just... gone.
And WML leaves the book.
So, that's the Messner-Loebs Cheetah. She bears a lot of similarities to the Perez Cheetah, but she's got some distinct differences as well. She's still an incredibly powerful fighter, and she's still very smart and educated and rational. But she's not a scholar, and despite her initial dive into the unknown, she's not an explorer. She's a mercenary, apparently completely embracing the concept of killing for money, and spends all her time in service of other people's plots - first Sazia's, then Diana's, then (involuntarily) Asquith's. At no point does she appear to have ideas or plans of her own, or even motivations apart from "protect Diana."
Which motive is in itself is pretty interesting. I actually do genuinely dig that as a concept; Perez' Minerva was a self-interested and rather vile schemer, but she had human connections and she backed Diana against Circe. I find it completely believable that she would feel a sense of obligation to Diana for saving her life, that she could form the same sort of resentful dependence/support relationship with her that she had with Chuma, even that the two of them would get along fairly well when Barbara wasn't scheming. I love the idea of them doing a sort of permanent dance of amity-hostility; something somewhere between Xavier-Magneto and Batman-Harvey, where sometimes they rely on each other, sometimes they try to destroy each other, and Barbara never stops resenting Diana and Diana never stops trying to save her. And I do mean permanent. After all, the Cheetah is immortal; if nothing else, they're stuck with each other in a way that most hero-rogue pairs will never be.* The idea of them therefore almost having to reach some kind of accord because, over the centuries, they'll simply spend too much time together not to, is really appealing on a mythic level.
* Well, provided Diana remains immortal; I can't remember the last time Supes had to give up his heat vision in order to marry Lois or J'onn had to surrender his shapechanging as the price of living in the mortal world, but for some idiot reason Wondy writers just fucking love to rob Diana of her immortality. Fortunately it never sticks.
I don't think WML's execution of the concept was that hot, though. The conversion is too quick, too easy, too wholehearted, and his Barbara Minerva is straight-up nice to Diana. There's no sense of resentment, of her own pride and ambition, of the history and personality conflict that would make that bond unwelcome to them and interesting to the reader. And he does it at the cost of Barbara Minerva as a character, who becomes too embroiled in Diana's story to have one of her own.
One last significant point: WML's Cheetah is the Cheetah, not Barbara Minerva. You see this in the "true self" dialog, but more telling is the fact that we never see her human after that. Perez' Cheetah got twelve to maybe thirty-six hours of fur out of several pints of blood and a painstaking ritual; WML's Cheetah seems to be able to go a whole year on a single drop. Perez' Cheetah was a canny brilliant planner when human, but very physical, animalistic and vaguely bloodlusted when transformed - not Hulk mindless, by the end of his run, but something on the level of drunkenness - different priorities, feral catlike posture, less self-control, without complete access to everything that makes her *her*. WML's Cheetah never *is* human, but she acts perfectly human all the same; stands like a human and makes plans, waits around, takes orders and regrets missing her chance to make money while a big anthro cat. This was a bad decision, although you can't tell yet, as it's only the seed of the problem. We won't see it fully bloom until I get around to Pfeifer.
Next up: Deals with demons and yet another indistinguishable Generic White Cop with a Crush on Wondy, as we move onto Cheetah as perceived by ye olde John Byrne.