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Justice League #13

This is an issue that I’ve been waiting for ever since it was announced back in the summer. Justice League #13 is the first in a two part story that marks the first appearance of classic Wonder Woman villain the Cheetah ever since DC’s reboot in September 2011.

The Cheetah has always been one of my favorite DC villains, but she rarely gets the respect she deserves. She is arguably Wonder Woman’s arch-nemesis, having been around in one form or another since the 1940’s, but very few writers have bothered to tap the potential inherent in the character. It seems Wonder Woman’s villains in general have the reputation of being lame by creators and fans alike, but I’ve never really understood why. They are no more ridiculous than literally every other major rogues gallery, so their loser status is incredibly mystifying.

With this issue, writer Geoff Johns and artist Tony S. Daniel have set out to firmly establish the Cheetah into DC’s hierarchy of villains. Johns has stated that he plans on making her a “major villainous force in 2012 and beyond,” and that she will play a part in the upcoming event, “Trinity War.”

Within the issue itself, the creative team has made some alterations to the Cheetah’s  original story, some of which have added some exciting new layers to the character. Like in the previous continuity, the Cheetah is actually anthropologist Dr. Barbara Minerva, who has become the avatar for a ferocious jungle goddess. Beyond that, though, we have received some interesting new tidbits:

– Barbara was the first friend Diana/Wonder Woman made upon arriving in the U.S. They met at the Smithsonian, where Wonder Woman thwarted a terrorist attack that was actually a cover up for a robbery.

– Barbara began to aid Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor in various mythological adventures. She was eventually recruited by A.R.G.U.S (DC’s new equivalent to Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D), and was in charge of the Black Room, where mystical artifacts were cataloged and studied.

– Upon discovering a ceremonial dagger, Diana gave it to Barbara to study. Barbara cut herself (on purpose?) and became possessed by the Cheetah spirit, a goddess of the hunt.

– She displays the new ability to spread her curse to others. In the final pages of the story, she bites Superman’s neck, transforming him into a creature similar to herself. We’ll have to wait until the next issue to see what becomes of this.

Overall, I find many of the new elements to Minerva’s story to be interesting, at least on a conceptual level. Establishing her and Diana as friends provides a connection that wasn’t there previously, and adds a new layer to their relationship. Diana is naturally compassionate and has a desire to help everyone, but their previous affiliation gives her desperation an urgency that is a lot more palpable. In addition, I feel that involving Minerva with A.R.G.U.S and the Black Room is a masterstroke. She now has a connection to the DC Universe as a whole, specifically the magical side of it, whereas before she was isolated to the Wonder Woman franchise.

However, there are some potential downsides to this. We are told about Minerva’s origins through exposition by Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor, but we do not get the chance to see any of it. I would have loved to see their friendship and Barbara’s transformation play out over several story arcs rather than getting second hand information. Obviously, Johns has only so much page space in a title like this, where he only has 20 pages to divide his time between seven superheroes and the villains they face. It makes me wish Johns was writing the main Wonder Woman title so he could focus entirely on her world, and maybe revamp some of her other villains.

The other thing bothering me is the circumstances surrounding Minerva’s transformation. In the previous continuity, Barbara Minerva was dangerous even before she became the Cheetah. She was a borderline sociopath who was driven solely by her pursuit of knowledge, greed and power. Her origin established in the 1980’s involved her discovering the African tribe that worshiped the Cheetah, and willingly taking part in the ritual to become the Cheetah’s avatar in order to fend off invading marauders. To do so, she ruthlessly killed her expedition partner and feasted on him as part of the ritual, before forming an alliance with the tribe’s head priest, Chuma. In comparison, “accidentally cutting herself on a dagger,” while easier to say in a few sentences, is kind of bland.

But was it an accident? I’m not so sure. My main problem with making it a mistake on Minerva’s part is that it robs her of her agency. But in the opening fight scene, while Diana is trying to reason with her former friend, Minerva states “you are as naive as when we first met.” Given Barbara’s character in previous versions, I have the feeling Diana doesn’t know her friend as well as she thinks. That robbery at the Smithsonian is totally something the original Minerva would pull from behind the scenes. And I find it very hard to believe that Barbara would be so careless as to cut herself on a mystical dagger without knowing EXACTLY what would happen as a result.

So overall, though I have some misgivings, I’m really looking forward to what else Geoff Johns does with this character. She certainly hasn’t been portrayed as this competent a threat in ages, as she easily flattens the Justice League when they invade her place of power. Her knocking Batman on his ass was particularly satisfying when I remember that one issue where he somehow, despite all logic, knocked her out with a single punch.

Bring on part 2, and the Trinity War!

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