Mata Hari #1
Even though biographical and non-fiction stories are traditionally not associated with the comic book mainstream, sporadic independent successes like Maus by Art Spiegelman or Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi receive praise to this day in critical circles. In recent years creative nonfiction has received a resurgence of popularity within the pages of comics with companies like Top Shelf and Dark Horse, telling the stories of historical figures like Senator John Lewis, Beetle's manager Brian Epstein, and, now, Mata Hari. Released by Dark Horse through their new imprint Berger Books, Mata Hari is written by Emma Beeby with art by Ariel Kristantia and features the controversial figure of the same name using her life story to pose interesting questions about patriarchal control of feminine identity.
For those unfamiliar, the performer known as Mata Hari was born in the Netherlands as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, later MacLeod after marrying her husband Rudolph John MacLeod, to parents Adam Zelle and Antje van der Meulen. Through a pampered childhood, troubled adolescence, failed marriage, career as exotic dancer, courtesan, model, and finally convicted spy, Zelle-MacLeod lived an eclectic life full of volatile relationships with the various men around her. She has gone down in history as one of the most controversial and provocative figures in history, earning the title “the original femme fatale." The Dark Horse Comic examines this history, using her 1917 trial as a spy for Germany in WWI as a framing device, showing flashbacks of various points of her life, including stage performances under her stage name Mata Hari. As the events unfold, Beeby and Kristantia put their own spin on the tale of Mata Hari, illustrating her actions as well as the actions of those around her, asking questions such as what formed her fate? Was she the victim of her own misdeeds? Or did her punishment reflect the attitude toward self-actualized women of her time?
One of the fascinating aspects of the comic is the stellar afterward by Beeby from the end of the comic, which provides further insight into these questions. Titled “Behind the Veil,” the prose offers typical behind-the-scene fair expected from an afterward, featuring the developmental backstory of the title and words of gratitude to the many who made the comic possible like legendary editor Karen Berger. Most thought-provoking of all, however, is when Beeby explained the rigorous research she did while writing and how all the varied accounts of Mata Hari had led her to find an interesting cultural phenomenon in relation to her. The broad strokes of Mata Hari’s life are agreed upon by all who cover her, with the exception being nuances and variation based on the contemporary attitudes of when her account is being relayed. And while Beeby makes no excuse for the many wrongs Mata Hari made, such as her numerous proven deceits or use of cultural appropriation to gain fame and attention, she still argues with fascination that the degree of her transgressions are perceived differently depending on who frames the retelling.
Keeping this in mind, Beeby’s own writing of Mata Hari’s life re-contextualizes the story while maintaining the authenticity of the era. Though she admits to some creative license to fill in gaps that history has lost or to ensure story flow, she does not rewrite history and takes great care to ensure the language and demeanor of her characters stay authentic to the time period. Then, using a century's worth of hindsight, Beeby displays parallels between the events of the book and other contemptuous treatment of women in the years following Mata Hari’s life. What makes Mata Hari’s story a compelling oddity is how it represents the repressive era of her time, but echoes the struggles that affect women to this day, a dichotomy captured well by Beeby. What’s also refreshing is how Beeby handles Mata Hari’s sensuality while never losing her humanity. Considering the sexual nature of Mata Hari’s life, it would be impossible to tell her story without some level of mature content, but having it written and illustrated by two women means that the sexuality of the story is displayed in a very natural way that avoids the male gaze.
Ariel Kristantia was the perfect choice as the artist of the title, with her linework being a displayed triumph on the pages. Kristantia is no stranger to the general era of the book, having covered Victorian settings and fashion quite well during her time penciling InSexts for Aftershock Comics. Not only does Kristantia bring those aesthetic and architectural skills to this book, her skilled character design is also on display, particularly in her depiction of the titular character's visage, particularly in a few pages that are direct replications of performances and photos featuring the model and dancer. Kristantia replicates the historical likeness of her subject but also brings her closer to her own style in a hybrid of artistic representation. Pat Masioni’s colors in the book excellently solidify the book's visual identity, utilizing a warm palette that creates a vintage almost sepia tone look. He also skillfully uses varying levels of shading, with childhood flashbacks featuring much lighter tones than the heavily shaded trial scenes.
Mata Hari is a fascinating use of a medium to explore its titles’ perplexing historical figure. Beeby, Kristantia, and Masioni have achieved an engaging read that captivates the attention from start to finish, in the same way the book's protagonist has captivated people one hundred years later.