Exotic dancer. Courtesan. Spy. Double agent. Traitor. The history of Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod, better known as Mata Hari, is fraught with controversy, but, according to an eye witness at her 1917 execution in Paris, one thing is true: Mata Hari was defiant to the end.
The third offering from Karen Berger’s new Dark Horse imprint, Mata Hari brings this enigmatic woman back to life. In a new series written by Emma Beeby, with art by Ariela Kristantina, colors by Pat Masioni, Mata Hari draws on biographies and M15 files to explore her life and final days in an attempt to tell her story through the eyes of the one person who knows the truth: Mata Hari herself.
Taking a break from writing both this series and Judge Anderson, Emma Beeby shares her thoughts on her vision of Mata Hari.
What does Mata Hari mean to you? How have your views been affected by your work on this project?
This story is one I’ve wanted to write for almost as many years as I’ve been a writer, so it’s of huge importance to me personally to see that ambition coming together in such an amazing way. Berger Books is the only place I pitched Mata Hari to (even though I’d wanted to write it for so long) because I knew both that I wasn’t ready to write it back then, and that it needed a publisher who would get the approach I wanted to take. The titillating myth of the stripper-turned-spy would be an easier thing to write (and market), but I’m not interested in perpetuating the myth, I wanted to show a complicated human and shine a light on a world that led her to become who she did.
The thing I love about Mata Hari’s story is it brings out these very strong and entirely different reactions in all who hear about her, sometimes she’s seen as a sexual liberator in a time of lingering Victorian values, sometimes as a manipulative femme fatale, sometimes a tragic victim of a punitive patriarchy, sometimes a vacuous celebrity who deserves no pity. I wanted to give the reader every opportunity to pity her, to admire her or to demonise her along the way. I don’t know if my view has changed, but my understanding has deepened, and I react, too. I can feel sympathetic one minute and then incredulous the next. It’s part of the process to think about that. I try to keep myself on the line between these reactions, to make sure the best and worst of her is shown.
You cite Professor Pat Shipman’s book, Femme Fatale: Love, Lies and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari, as the key to your sudden obsession with Mata Hari. What other resources helped stoke this flame?
I knew very early into reading Professor Shipman’s book that I wanted to write Mata Hari’s story, but I wanted to read more by other academics (Mary W. Craig and Dr. Julie Wheelwright stand out in particular). I watched documentaries, listened to podcasts, read the MI5 files, and any articles about her from the time from across the world’s media. I decided not to read any fictional portrayals, but I did look at Mata Hari in popular culture. It’s an… interesting Google search. I wanted to get a sense of how she’s understood by most people; what her name evokes.
The most difficult part was researching the time and the world she lived in: the colonialist backdrop, the first World War, the growing fetishisation of the East, and its women that she, frankly, built her fortune on. This was a period of time I knew only the basic facts about, but it was worse than I expected.
There are many resources on Mata Hari, including documentaries, biographies, movies, and more. What do you feel this visual medium adds to her story?
There’s the obvious things you can do in a comic— the beauty of the artwork and colours, the accurate portrayal of people and places brought back to life and colour, in a way budgets might not allow for in other media, but more than that, I wanted to do this as a comic because the there were visual elements that work best on a comic page. I wanted contrasting images there to be seen at the same time, to really use the unique qualities of the medium. The story is structured into interweaving narratives: we have her life story, her time in prison while being investigated, and there’s also the character of Mata Hari the dancer moving through the whole story, removing veil after veil, dancing alongside the action, she drapes her veil over the panels and moves beside and through them. It’s not something you could easily do in another medium.
How does writing Mata Hari compare to writing Judge Anderson, both technically, and based on their individual personalities and lives? In what ways are they similar? In what ways do they differ?
I have been writing a new series of Judge Anderson and Mata Hari at the same time. Sometimes, it feels like I have to engage a massive mental shift change to go from one to the other! Genre is obviously different, and I’m constrained by historical events in Mata Hari; I have to check everything, find visual references to work from. In Judge Anderson, Cassandra has psychic superpowers, and I’m constrained only by the rules of that world. I even decided to change my originally planned ending, an option not exactly open to recorded history.
The main thing they have in common is that in the “present” that I’m writing them in, they are both ladies over 40. They know who they are, they have been through their struggles, fought their systems in their own, very, very different ways. Mata Hari stood out and found some power in taking her clothes off in a time where that was unheard of, but Anderson’s power is almost in doing the opposite, in a medium most comfortable with female youth, tight clothes, and nudity, Anderson is a figure of older authority, in a uniform just like the mens’, including those big ugly green boots. Like Mata Hari, she’s often shown as young and sexualised. She’s in her 50s now, and I think she should be shown as such. I love that the whole Dredd universe goes forward in “real time.” The characters get to age and learn and progress. No one would draw Dredd like he’s just 21, but she’s not always treated the same way. I love getting to write a character that 100 years ago would have been near inconceivable. I think Mata Hari would probably have found Anderson quite appalling, and vice versa.
Mata Hari #1 will be available from Dark Horse on February 21, 2018.