By Clyde Hall. Was she a duplicitous espionage agent dealing in military secrets during World War I to fund an extravagant lifestyle? A performer who charmed all of Paris with her sensual dance and exotic beauty, willing to ply her gifts as a confidante for cash? Or was she duped into a high-profile role as a traitorous spy by men who found her deserving of an unseemly end, and who needed someone to blame for devastating Allied losses in such disastrous miscalculations as the Nivelle Offensive?
A century after her execution, Mata Hari remains an enigma and her exploits, real or imagined, the stuff of legend. Her very nom de scène conjures images of femme fatales plying beauty, seduction, ingenuity, and audacity while scoffing at society’s restrictions. I think that immortality would please her, based on the first issue of Mata Hari from Dark Horse Comics and Berger Books.
The latest examination of Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod’s life and eventual death comes in the five-issue series written by Emma Beeby and illustrated by Ariela Kristantina. Issue #1 jumps into the chaotic events of their subject’s tale from the perspective of her cell at Saint-Lazare Prison. The narrative weaves in chronology, skipping from Mata Hari’s time as a much in-demand performer in Milan, Rome, Monte Carlo, then to her childhood in Holland, all the while using her 1917 espionage trial as a touchstone.
That approach would be considered Gordian, but Beeby uses it well to impart the complexity of a forty-year existence spent building façades, changing fortunes, and eventually coming to a cruel fate. She unreservedly shows us a woman who embraced her role of courtesan, given to sins and shortcomings but maintaining her innocence regarding the accusations of the military court. Mata Hari may not have been a saint, but she was certainly a strong and charismatic female at a time when men both begrudged and were beguiled by such.
Beeby also examines the men who shaped her, often through misfortunes of their making, into an individual determined to chart her own course — ruinous or not, but her own. At least until the end, which may well have been a destination settled on by men in power precisely for her unconventional lifestyle. In the world of the time, Mata Hari made an easy target. It’s clear where the creative team’s sympathies rest, and they give ample support for the compelling questions that linger.
In her afterword, Beeby also states that her account “is not entirely accurate”, allowing for assumptions, simplifications, and some fictionalization. That’s always much appreciated by me when dealing with any historical topic, but from some quick research, I feel she’s delivered an exciting and fascinating portrayal with historical accuracy largely served. As Beeby says, the facts of Mata Hari’s case are mostly agreed upon, but her character and motivations remain open to interpretation. And that’s where her writing radiates its power.
Ariela Kristantina deserves highest marks for her artwork on this issue. It’s crystal that she’s labored researching photos not only of Mata Hari, but the settings of Europe and Paris from the late 1800s to WW I. The detail in each panel is extravagant, whether it’s the staid Palais de Justice, a luxurious childhood home, or the rat-infested lockup of Saint-Lazare. Already there are glimpses of this bygone world she’s revealed that will remain with me forever: A childhood gift of a delightful goat-drawn cart, leading to a scene of financial and family ruin, and the impact it has on an innocent youngster. Kristantina plots every furrow that comes to line Mata Hari’s visage as she nears the end of her turbulent life. Beeby’s writing is excellent, and Kristantina’s visuals take care to drive moments straight into your heart.
It would be easy to view the story of Mata Hari through a hundred-year-old lens and tsk at the folly, hers and the society she’s thrust into, its prescribed niche for women, the public display and denouncement of one daring to defy the status quo. But for all our 21st Century enlightenment, our social media stigmatizing of those who are ‘different’, the recent sexual misconduct scandals, Beeby rightly poises the question of whether someone like Mata Hari could hope for any better outcome today. With many parts of her story yet to be explored in the next four issues, I’m looking forward to the journey and deciding if any modern versions would also end with the condemned refusing a blindfold, defiantly but demurely staring down her accusers.
Dark Horse Comics/Berger Books/$3.99
Written by Emma Beeby.
Art by Ariela Kristantina.
Colors by Pat Masioni.
Letters by Sal Cipriano.
8.5 out of 10
Check out this four-page preview of ‘Mata Hari’ #1, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics and Berger Books!