Advanced Review: Mata Hari #1 And The Formidable Task Of Unraveling A Legend

by Rachel Bellwoar

Based on a real person, and part of Dark Horse’s new Berger Books imprint, Mata Hari #1 is the story of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle-Macleod, though when addressed by that name in court she insists, “That’s not who I am.”

Legally, she probably doesn’t have a case, but emotionally, it’s more complicated. As becomes clear after reading issue one, Mata Hari’s a tough character to pin down.

There’s the spy she’s convicted of being. The courtesan that goes on trial, and the artist who finds applause no matter what she’s trying her hand at–-dancing, modeling, the stage. Margaretha herself can’t resist (or escape) muddying the waters, when she starts to write her doomed memoirs. “In these papers I place the hope that I will be seen,” she writes, then crosses out, “as I truly am.”

For the most part Mata Hari has it narrowed down to two possibilities. In one version, Mata Hari lived for attention. In the other, she’s allowed more emotional depth, but which of these two portrayals comes closest to the truth?

Mata Hari opens with our title character getting dressed for her execution. From there, the issue is constantly moving backwards in time, never staying one place long enough to where we’re comfortable with her identity. This isn’t supposed to be easy and writer, Emma Beeby, intentionally throws oppositions our way, whether it’s how she transitions between time periods, or the interplay she creates between dialogue from the present, over images from the past. In that sense, issue one covers a lot of ground, but you’re not always sure how it fits together. The dishes have been thrown in the air, but they’re floating there, unsettled, snippets of a person we’ve learned about but aren’t any closer to understanding.

Sal Cipriano’s lettering helps keep track of who’s telling the story, as it changes hands from Mata Hari’s first-person account, to her prosecutor, Monsieur Bouchardon’s, version.

In an afterword, Beeby talks about how the process of trying to unravel the truth sometimes ‘exposes us’ more than the subject. I caught myself falling into that pitfall when I first saw artist Ariela Kristantina’s cover. There’s a training not to stare once you realize a person’s not wearing a lot of clothing, but there’s also so much more to appreciate in focusing on what’s there. The curved knife in her left hand is a much bigger takeaway than the skin Mata Hari’s showing, and you don’t want to miss the beautiful beadwork and necklace Kristantina’s designed.

Shades of clay brown set the unencouraging tone of colorist Pat Masioni’s court room, but because Mata Hari’s resilient, there are purples from her old life there, too. We see happier colors in flashbacks to her childhood, but with their former brilliance withheld.

The case built up against Mata Hari is unforgiving, relying more on disapproval than facts, but her plea of innocence is equally overly simplistic. The truth might not come out as quickly as Kristantina’s peek into the secrets of portrait posing (an artist using art to expose trade secrets — how cool is that?), and it might’ve helped to have an objective character to share the reader’s point of view, but this is Mata Hari’s story. It may be a monster to unfold, but it doesn’t get told without starting somewhere, and Mata Hari #1 isn’t trying to get the job done in a day.

Mata Hari #1 goes on sale February 21st. The FOC date is January 29th.