Emma Beeby (Writer), Ariela Kristantina (Artist), Pat Masioni (Colours), Sal Cipriano (Letters)
Dark Horse Comics
13 March, 2019
It is 1917. Infamous seductress and spy, Mata Hari, stands trial for working against the interests of France. Though she vehemently denies the accusations, her counsel is given neither time nor access to the requisite materials to prepare for her case. Worse, with public opinion against her, the prosecution effectively needs only one person to believe Mata Hari’s guilt in order to seal her fate. How did one of the world’s most famous women come to such an ignominious end?
A comic book retelling of Mata Hari’s story seems like a great idea. The medium is fluid enough to encapsulate a long time-span, while also doing justice to the decadence of her extravagant lifestyle. Though this book more than encapsulates the latter, the former suffers greatly. Writer Emma Beeby is ambitious in her study of Mata Hari and tries to tell her entire life story in 130-odd pages. Her device for achieving this is by weaving several timelines together—the trial and Mata Hari’s memoir detailing her journey to becoming the well-known figure she is—alongside a moment in time when Mata Hari was dancing in prayer to Shiva. It’s a wonderful idea, but the execution is, sadly, lacking.
Mata Hari tries to pack in too much and ends up being confusing. I found myself trying to decipher the time and place of the story when reading almost every single panel. Needless to say, it was exhausting and not enjoyable. More frustratingly, the visuals often seemed dissonant to the words accompanying them, because there were too many timelines showcased concurrently. Sal Cipriano’s lettering was the only thing pinpointing the timeline of the story, and though Cipriano does a good job, it just isn’t enough. A linear approach would have made much more sense for a story spanning such a vast time-frame and so many countries.
The most egregious mistake in this book is that it doesn’t let readers into the mind of Mata Hari. Though it is meant to be told from her perspective, she feels almost secondary to it. We see Mata Hari do things, or rather have things done to her, but how these affect her, change her, drive her, is never obvious. We learn more about Mata Hari from Beeby’s essay about the discordant legacies Mata Hari left behind, than from the book itself.
At the start of Mata Hari, Beeby mentions having done a great deal of research to create this story, and when WWAC interviewed her about this book, she listed some of her resources. But though this book is obviously well-researched, this story never comes across as particularly exciting. Considering Mata Hari’s extraordinary life, the book tends to focus on the mundane and the more conventional aspects of her life, such as her romantic interests and her sexual trysts. We are told that she has a fondness for soldiers, and later, for expensive things, but where these interests come from and why is never explained.
Neither are we given many details about her life as a spy. Reluctant though she may have been to take on the role, Mata Hari’s being a female spy was one of the main reasons many modern readers would be interested in knowing more about her. This entire part of her life is explored only near the end of the book, and that too very briefly.
There are other aspects of Mata Hari that are touched upon but set aside. As we mentioned in our review of the first issue, Mata Hari becoming famous through cultural appropriation is barely examined. Nor do we get an idea of how she reacted to the seemingly endless non-consensual sexual encounters she endured. One need not be a modern reader to find these topics troubling, so why not examine them?
I ask this because writer Beeby is not an unbiased biographer. In her essay, she makes it clear that her research revealed the many flaws in Mata Hari’s personality, chief among them that she was greedy and selfish. But this doesn’t come through in the text. Also, though Beeby insists that Mata Hari’s story is one of survival at any costs, the book portrays Mata Hari as someone simply going with the flow throughout her life, rarely having to make a decision or take a firm stand.
With confusing timelines and a one-dimensional protagonist, the book’s only saving grace is its stunning art. Artist Ariela Kristantina captures the various nations and people that Mata Hari interacted with beautifully. Her double-page spreads are luscious and packed with detail. Every panel seems well-thought out, and every colour by Pat Masioni is wisely chosen. Mata Hari is a beauty to behold.
Unfortunately, gorgeous art can only do so much when the story isn’t strong and cohesive. Despite a fascinating character and a great deal of history to refer to, Mata Hari ends up feeling less like a historical epic and more like an anecdote.