Mata Hari #1
Emma Beeby (Writer), Ariela Kristantina (Artist), Pat Masioni (Colorist)
Berger Books (an imprint of Dark Horse Comics)
February 21, 2018
Mata Hari, Eye of the Dawn, is one of European history’s most controversial women, and that’s saying a lot. According to her detractors, she’s responsible for more deaths than Lucrezia Borgia and Elizabeth Bathory combined. According to her fans, she was a self-actualized woman far before her time who used every advantage she could to take control of a life dominated by powerful men. Somewhere in that story is a real person doing the best she could, with a series of bad situations, and hurting more than a few people along the way. So why am I so bored by her comic?
Karen Berger is one of the most well-known and influential women in comics. The comics community being what it is, this has earned her a bit of controversy, as well. Mata Hari is one of the four initial titles put out by Berger Books, her new imprint at Dark Horse. After a five year “retirement,” she has returned to edit a new line of comics. Fans hoped this would include titles to rival some of the greats she helped bring to life, such as Swamp Thing, The Sandman, and The Invisibles. Currently, that seems unlikely.
The first issue of Mata Hari brings us a time-disjointed story through the framing device of Mata Hari writing a memoir for her daughter on the eve of her execution. The entire issue is spent on exposition and establishment, giving us glimpses of her childhood of privilege and poverty, her infamous show trial, and her career of sensual performances and sexual trysts. By page six, we know that the final betrayal she will suffer is that the man she entrusted to deliver her memoir to her daughter throws it in the river instead. Her daughter, like the world at large, will never know Mata Hari’s truth.
On paper, this sounds very compelling. It’s just the sort of story I was hoping for. In execution, I was not compelled. Rather than taking advantage of the time-disjointed structure to hit as many points in her life as possible, writer Emma Beeby chooses to revisit a handful of threads again and again, progressing three plots very slowly. The longer, more laborious scenes are broken up by interjected panels of Mata Hari in yet another time and place, dressed in a South Asian-inspired belly-dancing outfit, praying to Shiva. This cultural appropriation is not interrogated in any way, though we can assume it will be touched on when the story covers her time in Indonesia.
Artist Ariela Kristantina, whose work on Insexts was remarkable for the way it blended sexiness, emotion, and body horror, carries the issue. The story drags and feels a bit muddled, and Pat Masioni’s colors leech out what little life was in many of the scenes. But Kristantina’s art consistently positions Mata Hari as a woman facing life on her own terms. She feels more like a protagonist in the art than she does in the script. Kristantina’s art is also quite sexy, in the places where it’s meant to be, though decidedly less so than Insexts.
When the book was billed as historical fiction, I hoped they might lean toward the fantastic, emphasizing her life of sexy spy adventures or playing up the supernatural elements that were part of many of her performances. Instead, it seems we get mostly the history available on Wikipedia, with fiction filling in some of the gaps in the historical record.
Writing about the true facts of Mata Hari’s life in order to counter a century of propaganda and misinformation is important, and it’s meaningful to do so in comics, a medium with a different audience than history books. In order to do that successfully, though, the comic needs to have the elements that make most comics work, including tight pacing, excitement, and snappy dialogue. Right now, it looks like Mata Hari may fail to deliver any of those.