If you were among the many who watched WW84 and felt blown away by the chemistry Diana Prince and Barbara Minerva shared over their dinner date, suffice to say you were not alone. Furthermore, these two have a truly wild comic book history, full of the complicated feelings we got a taste of in the film, only with slightly less talk about high heels.
Barbara Minerva was not the original Cheetah, in fact, she wasn’t even the second. As they say, the third time’s a charm, and Minerva’s transformation into the Cheetah brought on a whole new horrific vibe to a character who was generally dismissed as a bit silly. In this way, Cheetah’s on-screen representation is somewhat accurate, but, let’s face it, there’s always been a lot more going on between her and Diana than can be easily defined.
Priscilla & Deborah & Barbara & Retcons
The first two Cheetahs, Priscilla Rich and her niece, Deborah Domaine, were both fully erased from continuity as of DC’s New 52, and both became nothing more than two names that Barbara Minerva used as aliases at various points in her life. Yet, there is something to be said for Priscilla, who set some of the personality traits that continue to define The Cheetah to this day. First appearing in Wonder Woman #6, Priscilla was an angry, spoiled debutante, jealous of all the attention Wonder Woman got. Rather than attempting to do good things to garner attention, she aimed to destroy Diana and take her things. Her strange fixation on Diana and the fact that she coveted her belongings and the attention she received both continue to be major markers for a Cheetah story. These possessive, envious traits have gone on to define much of the character’s persona. Still, even with this groundwork laid out, the early issues of the George Perez run on Wonder Woman would introduce us to a very different Cheetah.
Barbara Minerva is an immensely wealthy British archeologist whose massive privilege still can’t hope to protect her from the sexism of her peers, the disability that pains her, or her own mortality. She discovers legends of The Cheetah, a guardian of the plant god Urzkartaga, and agrees to become this guardian in exchange for immortality. Naturally, this is all just a horrible curse in disguise. Rather than being a guardian, she is often reduced to the role of lackey. Her pain grows only worse when she is Barbara, and she is murderous and utterly out of control as The Cheetah. Despite this, she remains loyal, and carries out the malicious intent of Urzkartaga.
Much like Priscilla, Minerva was motivated by a desire to possess Wonder Woman’s magical objects, fixating on her Golden Lasso of Truth. This motivation would waver and change over the years, and the conflicts between her and Diana would become more personal. One thing is for certain, and it’s that this version of Cheetah was utterly terrifying. Once, Priscilla and Deborah had to amplify themselves in some way to pose a threat to Diana, whereas The Cheetah was equally powerful and much more brutal than Diana could ever hope to be. Created by a bloodthirsty and misogynistic god, Barbara had always been a creature of pain and spite, but she became truly monstrous as The Cheetah. Cheetah was now something straight out of a horror comic, and her clashes with Diana were nothing less than jarring.
Still, Barbara Minerva has continued to change over time. Her first appearances did fairly extensive work to make her into an irredeemable villain, representative of the sins of British colonialism on indigenous populations, a woman defined by greed and anger. Follow-up appearances have gone to some efforts to make her more relatable and even occasionally heroic, allowing her to form a closer bond to Diana, and, in some tellings, maintain a troubled, on-again off-again romance with Etta Candy.
As The Cheetah has evolved, her interactions with Wonder Woman have followed suit. After the first visceral battles between them, Barbara actually chose to help Diana during the events of Wonder Woman Special, Vol. 2, #1 and Wonder Woman, Vol. 2, #63. Barbara was taken captive by a demon looking for a superpowered female body that could withstand the trauma of becoming the host for his also-demonic bride. If this sounds messed up, it’s because it is, and Barbara underwent massive amounts of torture and degredation before being deemed ultimately unsuitable for the purpose. Diana was the next target, but when given the chance to flee, she stayed in order to help Barbara.
Barbara was moved by this gesture, and even in her weakened state, she heroically leapt into an unknown vortex to condemn the demons from continuing this process. In Wonder Woman #94 & 95, Barbara showed up in tangent with Poison Ivy and Cheshire, and they worked together to defeat Diana. They very nearly succeeded, but, in the eleventh hour, Barbara helped Diana. The two parted on strange, relatively friendly terms, with The Cheetah promising her that she’d get around to killing her at some point.
Much of this complexity between them went mostly unaddressed over the Cheetah’s next many appearances, either posing as a savvy but self-serving businesswoman in Gail Simone’s run or teaming up with Professor Zoom to commit various murders during a short crossover. Still, she remained a compelling villain throughout this time, and the seeds for redevelopment as a tortured villain with occasionally altruistic whims had been planted.
In Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman, Vol. 5, we meet a new Cheetah once again. Though this is still Barbara Minerva, key elements have been changed, granting her a great deal more sympathy than her original appearances. She is a neglected girl who lost her mother at an early age and her father pays her little attention except to criticize her “flights of fancy.” She does all of the work to become an archaeologist and yet her career is constantly thwarted by her male peers. She seeks to find Themyscira, and that leads to her becoming a great friend to Diana, who cannot find her way back after leaving to help Steve Trevor. When Barbara undergoes the transformation into The Cheetah, it is due to a series of greater machinations and manipulations by other characters that leave her a cannibalistic monster. The worst thing is that Barbara is aware of what she’s become, and when she’s given a second chance at a life free of the monster, she is tragically forced to become The Cheetah once more.
While Barbara’s feelings around Diana are generally a notable admiration that twists into envy and rage, Diana has grown only more open to Barbara over time. In the beginning, she was rightfully put off by her ravenous attacks, but she’s extended kindness to Barbara more often than not. Rather than meeting her with violence, Diana almost always feels acute sympathy for Barbara, seeing a woman who has been twisted by forces greater than her body can bear. She refers to her as a sister even in the early ‘90s before Barbara had done anything even remotely redeemable, and, unlike so many villains, this act of kindness does impact Barbara. Though Barbara’s feelings towards Diana change with her moods, Diana’s feelings towards Barbara are almost always the same. She is unsettled by what Barbara becomes, but never loses sight of the very real pain at the root of her transformations.
To say the least, Diana and Barbara have a lot going on between them, and the vibes have been fairly “will they or won’t they?” in the more recent comics just as much as they were in WW84. Still, it must be said that Barbara’s most recent incarnations have seen her as a woman not only capable of love, but driven by it. Her struggles with her disability and her relationship with Etta Candy are both crucial parts of her current narrative, as is her friendship with Diana. Chances are, there are plenty more changes on the horizon, but hopefully there’s also a greater opportunity to explore these elements of her personal life more fully without losing what makes her so terrifying.