As a historian, I have really enjoyed the recent uptick in popularity of historical fiction and period pieces. I have always believed that fiction is the best way to truly bring the past alive, and recent works such as the musical Hamilton to the new Wonder Woman film have proven that talented creators can enable modern audiences to engage with the past in the same way they do fantasy or science fiction settings. And I am happy to say that Emma Beeby and Ariela Kristantina have proven their ability to do just that.
The Mata Hari (real name Margaretha Geertruida Zelle) is a figure shrouded in legend and myth, with her exploits and abilities being frequently exaggerated in order to sensationalize her story. And certainly the temptation for any author writing a comic about her to do so would be great. Rather than give in to that temptation, however, Beeby has instead decided to weave an enchanting narrative by picking and choosing the most interesting and interconnected parts of Zelle’s life and showing them to us.
We see snippets of the end: her refusing to take a blindfold for her execution, the biased and degrading trial she was put through before she was found guilty, the prostitutes’ prison she was held in as an insult, and her attempts to evade capture. This is interspersed with other, key parts of her life, some well-known, others not well-known.
Instead of the fictional back story she created for herself (as a Javanese princess of high Hindu birth), we see her real origins: a once wealthy family that fell into bankruptcy. We also see her, dressed in eastern jewelry and performing Indian dance, a familiar image to anyone who is even passingly acquainted with her story.
The premise of the comic is contained in Zelle’s actions in the first issue, where she writes an account of her own innocence before her execution and hands it to Bouchardon, the man who prosecuted her. He later tosses it into the river, signifying that this is an account of her innocence that was never read, and that this story is Beeby’s venture into what Zelle would say in her own defense, had she been able to do so.
The comic is exciting and engaging, but still historically accurate, even using actual dialogue known from Zelle’s trial. This is not a story about spies and intrigue, it is the story of one of the most fascinating women of the time. A woman who was flawed and selfish, but who dared to live the life she wanted, regardless of society’s opinion for her. Beeby’s careful research and treatment of the subject matter does not shy away from Zelle’s imperfections or attempt to excuse them, but rather puts them in the context of the time and Zelle’s life, allowing readers to judge the Mata Hari’s guilt or innocence for themselves.
The art is also excellent, the style and coloring really captures the time period and delivers this as a serious, but gripping period piece. Kristantina does a marvelous job with facial expressions and the clothing is so accurately rendered that I never once questioned the setting.
I greatly enjoyed this issue and am looking forward to more. To anyone who is interested in history, particularly women’s history, this comic is a must. Dark Horse’s Mata Hari is as beautiful and seductive as its titular character, and I give it my highest recommendation, as both a comic book fan and an early twentieth century historian. Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Art: 5 Stars
Plot/Accuracy: 5 Stars
Dialogue: 5 Stars
Cover: 5 Stars
(W) Emma Beeby (A/CA) Ariela Kristantina