Mata Hari 1: Discussion

by Mark Mitchell and Patrick Ehlers

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

Mark: One of the corollaries to the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the #METOO and #TIMESUP movements is the healthy reexamination of other women in history who were victims, in one way or another, of systemic misogyny. Though they were produced before the movements began, last year’s Oscar nominated film I, Tonya makes the case for re-examining the way the media portrayed Tonya Harding — regardless of her guilt — and FX’s 2016 American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson television series was a notably empathetic portrayal of lead prosecutor Marcia Clark. The point of these and other reexaminations isn’t to canonize these women, but to consider that the truth of their stories is more complicated than the convenient daytime talk show-like narratives that surround them.

Writer Emma Beeby calls out Harvey Weinstein by name in her author’s note at the end of Mata Hari 1, noting specifically that “now is the perfect moment to tell the story of what happens when women are without power.” Mata Hari is the stage name of Margaretha Zelle-MacLeod, a Dutch performer and accused spy who was put to death in the early 1900’s. We first meet Margaretha in a French prison for prostitutes at the end of her life; she’s putting her final affairs in order moments before her execution. What follows is a series of quick vignettes from different points in her life, all trying to help explain how she arrived at this end — her time on trial for espionage, as a model, a courtesan, a child in Holland — all passionately rendered by artist Ariela Kristantina and colorist Pat Masioni. Kristantina’s art does a lot of work in keeping the reader engaged through the disparate moments; it’s detailed and thoughtfully laid out in a way that allows multiple timelines to exist on a single page without descending into cacophony.

The idea of a five-part deep re-examination of an obscure historical player in a modern context is promising, but Mata Hari 1 is frustrating to discuss in isolation. The issue is a whirlwind overview of Margaretha’s life, but at no point do we get a sense of who Margaretha really is, or how she feels about anything outside of grief and confusion. My assumption is that since Mata Hari is not well known to most readers, Beeby has opted to give us the Rainbow Tour of her life as a hook, and that she plans to hit the brakes in future issues to allow for a look closer at Margaretha’s motivations. That’s my assumption, but it’s partly a leap of faith, given that Mata Hari 1 in isolation is interesting mostly only on a surface level. It’s engaging in the same way a Wikipedia article can be —  you learned something, but there’s no depth to the knowledge. The small insights into Margaretha we are given in the issue, such as her family’s loss of privilege when she was a child or a photograph of her daughter, practically have entries on TV Tropes at this point given how well-worn they are in the stories of fictional women characters (and what amount of this story is true and how much is Beeby’s invention is unclear).

But maybe that is in and of itself a superficial reading of the issue. All tropes have their genesis in something that was once original, and if Margaretha Zelle didn’t have the most breathtakingly Wes Anderson-esque existence, that doesn’t make it unworthy of examination.

The most effective moment for me in I, Tonya is a brief scene towards the end of the film when the media frenzy surrounding Harding is at its height where Harding warms up a microwave dinner in a cheap apartment while late night comics make easy jokes about her on the TV. Clearly, it’s more than likely that Tonya Harding was involved with the attack on Nancy Kerrigan at a criminal level, but it’s also easy to see how our perception of Harding as a human was colored by a specific narrative that society forces almost all groups that aren’t wealthy, straight, white, and male into. What’s interesting about Mata Hari 1 is that Margaretha Zelle maybe was a traitor and a German spy (we’ll have to wait and see if Beeby comes down on one side or the other), but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t also a victim of society’s attitudes towards women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Attempting to explore where those two lines intersect means Mata Hari is a book with a lot of potential.

What’d you think, Patrick?

Patrick: I think that conflict is really well identified, Mark. But I think there may be an inherent danger in hoping to see which side Beeby comes down on. To continue the comparison to I, Tonya, that film does present Harding as a victim, not only of society’s expectations of women (and fascination with a cat fight), but of a criminal conspiracy that erroneously places her at the center. The audience’s sympathies must be with Harding to make the punch of my favorite scene in the movie land: Harding stares at the camera and accuses the viewer of not giving her a fair shake. Beeby and Kristiana are perhaps being even bolder by never implying that Margaretha even deserved that fair shake. In that same letter at the end of the issue (which is great, by the way), Beeby describes the character as “often infuriating.” And I think that frustration with who is clearly a compelling character comes across clearly in this issue.

But, like, infuriating or not, Mata Hari is a damn compelling figure. Beeby and Kristiana make the size of her legend clear in the first couple pages by showing a portrait session in which Margaretha poses as Salome, complete with a the head of John the Baptist.

Obviously, Beeby and Kristiana are evoking some powerful-ass women from that sketchy place between history and myth, but it’s even more interesting to consider that Margaretha herself is evoking these same figures. The exchange “Do you want to see?” “I want everyone to see” is genius. It creates a sort of knowing bewilderment, like Margaretha’s only goal stay ahead of what everyone thinks of her.

That naturally extends to her memoirs, which she hands off to Bouchardon in the hopes that he will have her pages published. Of course, he doesn’t — he’s too well acquainted her her tactics to be taken in by such an obvious ploy to drum up sympathy. Instead, he lets the pages go off the side of a bridge, scattering them to the wind. Kristiana allows these pages to drift between the panels, transgressing both the panel dividers and the unity of time in the scene. A chyron at the top of the page identifies this action as taking place “Midday” which is, incidentally, the only time one of these boxes pops up with information that doesn’t reveal a specific date in history. The time of day is what’s on the creators’ minds here. Bouchardon throws the pages to the wind and look what happens:

The pages of her story flitter about from day until night. The sky has grown dark and the street lights are on — meaning that time has passed but her memoir is still stirring. The story has staying power, whether or not we can tie clear morality to any one player in it.

All of which says to me that Beeby has no intention of judging Mata Hari one way or the other. Telling her story is compulsory, and Kristian and Beeby make a strong case that being excited to read it is similarly beyond our control.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?


One comment on “Mata Hari 1: Discussion

  1. I’m surprised that I actually hadn’t heard of Mata Hari until I read an interview for this comic, because she sounds like the sort of historical story I would have loved. The story of that sort of legendary figure of espionage sounds like the sort of thing I would have come across.

    This issue certainly fails to properly let us understand Mata Hari, but what it does do so well is get us to understand the way her life was defined by misogyny. I wodner if it would work better for someone already familiar with Mata Hari, who knows the basic beats an can focus on the smaller choices being made here. Because while I didn’t come out of this knowing a lot about Mata Hari, I did come out with a strong sense of the way misogyny has shaped both her life and, in some ways more importantly, her story.

    Getting thrown into a prison for prostitutes, despite the fact that she should belong in military prison, is the most obvious manifestation. An intentional act of shaming her, of degrading her and punishing her. And the punishing thing is important, as she hasn’t been convicted yet. Ultiamtely, she’s being punished for being sexual, for exerting her own power in the patriarchy and of being a woman.

    But I think the really revealing part is the prosecutor, whose case for espionage reads more as slut shaming. Too often, the prosecutor can’t describe Mata Hari’s crimes without sexual innuendo, and that is when he isn’t blatantly calling her a slut or a whore. And that’s before he describes the arrest, where the interplay between the narration and the visual makes clear that the real crime was not resisting arrest, but of being a beautiful woman. In a normal setting, the gross misogyny would be disgusting. In the court of law, seeking truth on matters of national security, it is even more shocking.

    WHich may explain why we are gettign the misogyny first, and Mata Hari’s character second. From my understanding, this book is attempting to be as biographical as possible. From what I read, Beeby has done her research and tried to piece together as true a history as possible, with minimal dramatic license. However, she has also disagreed with historical consensus on certain events, because, she said, she believed that consensus was corrupted by sexist perspectives and therefore made her own perspective on events, from her PoV. However, no matter how well Beeby crafts her perspective, she cannot avoid the fact that there is only so much you can do to fix that, with the information available. As the programming phrase goes, Garbage In, Garbage Out, and working with inputs as corrupted by misogyny as Beeby s, her own work is never going to be purely accurate. And so, we are instead primed to see Mata Hari as a woman whose story is shaped by the misogyny of the men around her, whose life and facts have been defined by men who hate her for being a woman. And that is the main thing we learn this issue, and when we start reading hte second issue and learn about Mata Hari as a character, it will be through the lens of the fact that the first thing we learned is that her story has been corrupted by misogyny.

    Also, I,Tonya was a brilliant movie that was overlooked by the Oscars (why was that ignored, and movies like Three Billboards or Darkest Hour praised). I think one of the smartest things it did was while it always made clear that the exact truthfulness of the movie was in doubt (my favourite scene was when Tonya lied about talking to the FBI, only for her ex-husband to immediately tell her he saw the transcripts. The perfect demonstration of just how little truth there is among these people. They were all willing to lie for their own gain), the movie depicted the version of events that the FBI concluded. Which raised the obvious question. While we may never know the truth, why was the media judgement of Tonya Harding so different from the legal judgement? What does it say about us as a society that out narrative was so much harsher on Tonya than the systems designed to find the truth could ascertain?

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