Smash Pages Q&A: Emma Beeby on ‘Mata Hari’

The UK-based writer discusses her work on the Dark Horse/Berger Books title about the famous femme fatale.

Emma Beeby will perhaps always be known as the first woman to write Judge Dredd in the pages of 2000 A.D. She’s written other comics including Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter, Judge Anderson, Doctor Who, and created series for 2000 A.D., in addition to writing audio plays and games and films. She’s a contributor to the amazing (and all female) lineup of creators responsible for the 2000 A.D. Sci-fi Special, which was just released in the UK.

This year Berger Books has been publishing Mata Hari, a comics miniseries written by Beeby that explores the life of the titular spy and femme fatale. People might know the name Mata Hari, but much of what is known about her is myth and lies and misinformation. In the miniseries, Beeby tries to explore all of these things. Mata Hari is a hard character to love, a complicated antihero who dealt with a lot of things in her life that sound very contemporary and relevant.

Mata Hari #4 is out this week from Berger Books/Dark Horse Comics, and Emma was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and how she worked.

Emma, I like to ask people to start, how did you get into comics?

I was pursuing screenwriting, getting a few paid rewrite jobs, and going to a local screenwriting group, which is where I met comics & manga artist Yishan Li (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The first thing Yishan asked me was why I wasn’t writing comics. I was reading comics, but writing them had never occurred to me. But it was just about the best idea I’d ever heard. Of course, I had no idea about how comics are made, so I was incredibly lucky through that group to meet Yishan, and also Gordon Rennie (Judge Dredd) who I would later co-write with, and others in the industry.

What first interested you in Mata Hari and her story?

It was about seven years ago. I spotted the book, the name was vaguely familiar, and I was curious enough to buy it, I think expecting Victorian sexual liberation meets James Bond, which it really wasn’t at all. I wasn’t expecting it to have such a strong impact on me, I knew from about a chapter in that I wanted to write her story. I could see it in my head quite perfectly, and there are early scenes in #1 that I have notes for from back then. It was a very strange experience.

How did you end up connecting with Karen Berger and Berger Books?

The first comics I made the point to read every issue of were Sandman, so I came to know Vertigo, so I was excited to hear about Karen’s new imprint at Dark Horse. I was not expecting Karen to email me and ask if I wanted to pitch her something. I remember I’d left my phone alerts on and it woke me up and having then gone back to sleep I was sure I’d dreamt it. Karen asked about an interview I’d done a few years ago where I said I wanted to write about a woman who had scandalized Europe in World War One: meaning Mata Hari. I’d never pitched it anywhere else. I saw nowhere that was a good fit. I can’t imagine it in better hands. Karen more than deserves her reputation; she has real insight into every aspect of comics storytelling. As this is a hugely complicated story, I am so grateful to have Karen as a guiding light.

Talk a little about collaborating with Ariela Kristantina because she has this very hard task in the book. She needs to do research, to get a lot of details right, and also have this lush style that’s not entirely realistic.

I gather reference when I script, so I can see the real people and places, wherever possible, and that helps me to write them as well and make them more visually exciting. Ariela always adds so much more. I’m amazed at all the small visual details of costumes, interiors, and vehicles that make it realistic while being in her style, with all its art nouveau influence that reflects the time as well. She also has to deal with my asking her to do complicated spreads, intercutting between time periods, having Mata Hari dance between the panels. It’s a tough job, and she makes it rich, detailed, and beautiful. The visual storytelling is so strong. We’re incredibly lucky to have Ariela. And as part of that Pat Masioni’s colors really lean into the fact that it’s not entirely realistic, using lush colors, setting off the different periods by the tones.

Pat is mostly working from black and white reference and making it a full-color world, and if that wasn’t enough of a task, is visually having to do something different for flashbacks and again for the dance sequences. I love seeing his finished pages. I think I initially had in my head a very garish color palette, like her costumes, but I love the palette he chose, it gives it an authenticity that it needed.

You set up the book as being told from her perspective, the memoir that she wrote which the authorities destroyed. I was struck in the first issue that you’re simultaneously showing this romantic, almost idealized portrait of herself, but also making it clear that that is not entirely accurate. Could you talk about balancing those two aspects – neither of which is the narrative that authorities created around her.

There are really four narratives: the romanticised, fabricated life story of Mata Hari, the Javanese princess and temple dancer she describes in her memoir; the accusers’ story of an evil spy; and the dance which runs parallel to and through the story, all against the real events of her life. Balancing it is, um, a challenge, but it’s my favorite thing about it as well, how one set of circumstances can be twisted in so many ways to serve a worldview, from the harshest and cynical to the softest and abstract. I enjoy the counterpoints.

I kept thinking that she’s very Victorian. She had a public face and a private face. She tried to hide her background and live this very different life which she invented. She knew exactly what was expected of women – and ignored it.

Absolutely. She took it to the extreme. Mata Hari was a stage persona that she chose to embody full time. She left her older, disgraced and failed, private identity of Margaretha Zelle-Macleod behind, although it continued to haunt her. There’s a letter she writes late into her imprisonment where she described Margaretha and Mata Hari as being ‘two completely different people.’ She changed her name often, whenever an identity didn’t work out, she took on a new name and new public facade to go with it. She was acutely aware that she could not publicly be seen as disgraced and survive.

How much of her trial was just that World War I was a disaster, troops were revolting, Russia was in revolution, and she was a foreigner and a woman – two things that societies tend to blame for, well, anything they can get away with.

Yes, France was still reeling from the battle at Verdun, where more than 150,000 French soldiers died. She was a famous, openly promiscuous woman. She would attract a lot of interest at trial and give the people of France someone who deserved punishment, according to the morals of the day. The charges were flimsy with no evidence on many counts. I know the case was reopened a while back, but the court’s decision hasn’t been overturned, though it’s not a simple case.

I feel like Mata Hari is a name that people know. They might know she was a spy, there’s sex, but that’s about it. Does that make it easier to tell this story in some ways? That people don’t know what to expect? They don’t have a Judge Dredd or a Doctor Who in their mind.

Yes and no. I am writing a story about a famous female spy with very little espionage in it. A woman who is known for her sex life, but I also include her history of sexual assault and abuse, which is not so well known. A lot of adaptations of her ‘true’ story fall apart because there’s this tempting easy sell of the sexy spy which would be SO much easier: some mythical femme fatale who is as happy seducing her enemy as she is killing him. That’s not her story, though. I wanted to write the complicated story that hopefully reflects on that time and our time, and on the ideas of women in both.

You clearly did a lot of research before you ever wrote a word, but was there something that changed or something you discovered in the process of writing the book?

I was sent some information from a biographer about when Margaretha was starting out in Paris, she tried to be an actress, it seems to have been a dream of hers, but the dream died after being subjected to theatre producers. She got the casting couch treatment that reads just like the modern Weinstein revelations. She had come through damaging sexual relationships and had no desire to start more, so she refused, she left Paris, and gave up for a time. It cast a new light on the later creation of Mata Hari – she isn’t just meant to be a dancer, but royal and holy – an object not just of desire, but of reverence and worship, keeping admirers at a distance. I saw self-protection in that and her decisions from that time made a little more sense.

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