Don’t Fall In Love: She’s The Mata Hari

by Vince Brusio

Hindsight is 20/20. It allows anyone to be an armchair quarterback, or Internet historian. When looking at the past, though, the question is what to do with the knowledge it gives us. Do we apply its lessons to current events and culture, or do we ignore it? Writer Emma Beeby poses such a challenge to the reader with her new mini-series for Dark Horse Comics that kicks off in Mata Hari #1 (DEC170049). The story is about a woman that many wouldn’t consider as a positive role model for impressionable youth. But is that all we can take away from such a life, Beeby asks. If we follow this woman's journey, can we see how some things have changed for women, while in other aspects of life the song remains the same? Read our PREVIEWSworld Exclusive interview with Emma Beeby, who tells us that to look in the mirror may be the best way to understand her new story for Editor Karen Berger.

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Vince Brusio: Mata Hari is a historical figure that comic readers may not recognize. After all, we’re going back to the early 20th century when we learn about her exploits. What made you want to tell this story? Why is it important to you?

Emma Beeby: Mata Hari was an adored celebrity dancer and a seductive courtesan, who dies a hated enemy spy. It has morality tale stamped all over it, but to me, that was not the story at all. There’s a whole other story beneath that fantasy sexy spy legend, about a real woman who used extreme reinvention to survive and to escape (at least for a little while) from tragedy.

It made me think about how we judge women, how much of these Victorian ideas have stayed with us all, on and under the surface. All these terrible things happen to her, but her lies, the way she lived, her sexuality, all those things push our sympathy to the point where it clashes up against those prejudices about what is acceptable for women to do. That’s what the story is exploring.  It’s up to the reader to judge her.

Vince Brusio: What research did you do into Mata Hari besides reading the Mi5 files? Did you consult other books or records? Were any foreign texts used?

Emma Beeby: I’ve read several biographies now, as well as the Mi5 files and as many articles as I could from the time of her life and following her death. Those were the most fascinating thing. No two are the same! She was Dutch, born in Holland, but the story varies - sometimes she was Javanese Indonesian, or Indian or Japanese (might be that the journalist misheard ‘Javanese’ and made up a story to suit) and where she lived, her life story, are often completely different. There’s stories from after her death where ex-friends tell of spying stories she told between dances, papers carry pages of her own exclusive confession, even a story of surviving a shipwreck. All total fiction, but fascinating. The centenary of her death was in October 2017 and looking at articles about that, I come across some of these inaccurate stories about her still being reported as fact. 

Vince Brusio: It seems as though sex was something that Mata Hari used to her advantage as she frequently performed “nude dances for Europe’s elite.” Is Mata Hari’s behavior something that would turn things upside down in regards to our culture and norms today? Is she a textbook definition for what a “window through time” would look like?

Emma Beeby: ‘Exotic’ dancing now and then had a very different meaning - around 1900 there was a fad in Europe for all things Eastern, and that’s when ‘exotic’ dancers first popped up. These were mostly white ladies in costumes that looked vaguely Indian, while they danced, usually really badly, in what they thought an ‘exotic’ way - it was an ugly colonial sideshow. Mata Hari did something a bit different (and kind of worse) - she changed her name from Margaretha Macleod to Mata Hari to sound more authentic, and added in religion and nudity. She performed a ‘sacred poem’ that happened to be a striptease. She knew what she was doing, that they came to see her take her clothes off, but she sold it as a rare glimpse of holy Eastern temple dances. It worked, and she performed for royalty and high society across Europe. 

As for using sex, she had few other options. Woman’s access to money was mostly through husbands or fathers: she had a bankrupt father and abusive ex-husband who denied her alimony and put an ad in the newspaper to prevent her getting credit or work. 

She tries to become an actress and has to deal with a string of Weinsteins, and can’t get work when she refuses them. The message was that she had only one thing anyone cared about - her body. Becoming Mata Hari was using that asset but in a way that also made her more respectable and very rich, for a while.

I don’t think it’s a window through time as much as a mirror. There are reflections in her story of the issues being faced by women today. It feels very timely to be telling this story now.

Vince Brusio: Give us an idea of who Mata Hari is as a person and character. What makes her tick? What would we see? How does she sound? Who wants to be in her presence? And why are we paying attention?

Emma Beeby: She was definitely a diva! She loved her clothes and furs and jewelry. Even now I think we have a hard time with a woman who is so confident of her beauty and her abilities, and this was in a time when women were supposed to be very demure. She was also charming, and she didn’t just charm men. One of my favorite stories about her is how the formidable mother of her married lover turns up at the grand house he’s put Mata Hari up in, planning to kick her out on the street, but is instead so charmed she decides to stay with her for six months.

I think she could gauge very well what would work with the audience in front of her, from an individual to a crowd. But it doesn’t seem like she let many people really know her. 

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Vince Brusio writes about comics, and writes comics. He is the long-serving Editor of PREVIEWSworld.com, the creator of PUSSYCATS, and encourages everyone to keep the faith...and keep reading comics.

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