Mata Hari #1,
Berger Books / Dark Horse
“A harlot? Yes, but a traitor, never!”
Margaretha Geertruida Zell-MacLeod, better known to history as Mata Hari. Well before the new media of film would popularise the “vamp” and “femme fatale” with iconic figures like Theda Bara (some of whose poses and costumes referenced Mata Hari’s), Louise Brooks or Marlene, there was Mata Hari, whose fame, and infamy, has lasted for over a century now (autumn of last yeark marked a hundred years since her untimely death). Performer, exotic dancer, artist’s model, liberated socialite, with a suitably adventurous if fictional history (a “Javan Princess” who was actually a wee lassie from the Netherlands), a free spirit in a buttoned-down, starched-collar era for men and even more repressed for women.
Her exotic dancing, erotica, her posing, her costumes, her many affairs with powerful men all over Europe, her liberated lifestyle she carved out for herself in this stuffed-shirt era, most of that is long-forgotten by most people today, who remember only that she was a spy, perhaps the most famous spy of the twentieth century, and she met her end in front of a French firing squad for allegedly giving secrets to the Germans during the First World War. Except, of course, many historians believe it was all nonsense, that she never was a real spy, that she was set up and left out to dry, either by the Germans she was accused of working for (a telegram the French claimed to intercept from a German embassy identified her, but it was sent in a code Germany was well aware France had broken), or by the French Intelligence services themselves.
Was she really a dangerous spy, or just a woman whose adventurous, liberal lifestyle drew her into the wrong company at the wrong time, the perfect patsy to blame – villified as a harlot and whore because of her lifestyle, often by many of the sort of men who had enjoyed her liberal attitude to romance and sexuality, a double standard we still see today, that dichotomy between men, especially the reserved, repressed type, desperately desiring sensual, free women but at the same time morally disapproving of them as “cheap” – never applying those standards to their own behaviour or morals, of course.
2000 AD alumni Emma Beeby and Ariela Kristantina bring all of these aspects and more out in this enticing tale. We open with Mata Hari naked – not an unusual state for her, of course, but here, rather cleverly, this is about as desexualised as nudity gets. It’s her in the Saint-Lazare prison (normally used for arrested prostitutes, which gives you an idea of how these holier-than-thou men in authority saw her), watching the dawn come up through the barred window, writing her last words. This isn’t her normal nudity as seductress, enticing, liberated, free of society’s straight-jacket constraints like her peformances, photos and paintings. No, this is nudity as vulnerability, about to be dressed for her last day on this Earth, powerless to change her fate decreed by men with important moustaches who railed against this “wanton woman” and “spy”. Except, as a nun helps her dress for the final time, a little spark of that carefree, liberated woman shows as she arranges her hair, turning to the nun and asking “Tell me the truth, how do I look?”
This cuts to a younger Mata Hari in 1913, posing topless with a severed head for an artist’s painting of Salome. “You make the perfect Salome,” the artist at his easel tells her, “do you want to see?” “I want everyone to see,” is her cheeky reply. There’s a bitter irony in these Salome panels of the seductive woman with the head of her victim, given that after her own death Mata Hari’s body was given to the medical school for dissection, where her head was severed and stored for many years (before later mysteriously vanishing). The first issue takes in her final day, preparing for the execution, while multiple flashback take us to various points of her international, glamorous career, the earlier trial (if it can even be called that, so biased was it against her), even her childhood home, these moments all flit around as the end approaches for Mata Hari. And something else too, her dancing exotically – appropriately for her – to the gods, asking for forgiveness, protection, revenge. Is this just a fantasy element added in, a daydream of a doomed woman, or is there a real supernatural element being woven into her tale here?
Kristantina’s artwork manages a delicate balancing act, clearly evoking the raw, feminine, sexual power and attraction of Mata Hari that so many men found irresistible (although plenty of the hypocrites would later damn her for those “wanton” attitudes they so coveted). But Kristantina also takes care to make this powerful icon of free sexuality erotic rather than pornographic, something to take pleasure in visually, to celebrate and enjoy rather than leer voyeuristically, and I approved of that approach, it showed a huge amount of respect both artist and writer had for the subject, not to mention empathy and sympathy in how she could be depicted.
It seems like a good subject for the new imprint set up by the brilliant Karen Berger; it tackles history (and fake history), myth, media, sex, war, love, feminism, patriarchy, rampant nationalism and war-mongering and more (a microcosm, perhaps of gender and sexuality issues to come through that century and beyond), all wrapped up in that exotic, erotic tinge that still colours the very name Mata Hari, even after a century. Richard Burton’s supposed dying words were apparently “she still fascinates me.” He referred to Elizabeth Taylor, another great twentieth century icon of feminine beauty, but those words could equally apply to Mata Hari herself, even after all this time. I suspect Mata herself would have loved being the centre of attention like this…
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