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Playback STL Praises Radical Premiere: Mata Hari

Review by Sarah Boslaugh

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or a trend but this week I’m reviewing two comics, each of which sells for the retro price of $1.00. I hope it’s a trend* because it seems like a great way to get people to sample a series and thereby become customers for later, full-price releases, sort of like the friendly neighborhood dope pusher principle of “first one’s free, little girl” except that reading comics is certainly harmless and might even be good for you.

You’ve probably heard of Mata Hari, the exotic dancer and courtesan executed as a double agent (she was accused of causing the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers) in 1917. She was an archetype of the femme fatale and an international sensation long before television or the internet were around to hype her supposed deeds and misdeeds. I say “supposed” because many people (including Mata Hari’s writer, Rich Wilkes) believe she was innocent of most of the crimes she was accused of and was executed as a scapegoat in order to shift blame away from the incompetence of the French army leadership, which was facing a mutiny from soldiers fed up after three years of unrelenting trench warfare with no end in sight.

This special issue of Mata Hari (it’s a teaser for a graphic novel to be published in spring 2011) establishes Wilkes’ frame story—in 1953, a teenage girl is arrested for grave robbing and as explanation begins telling the story of Mata Hari—and introduces the character of Vadim Maslov, a Russian soldier with whom Mata Hari fell in love. The lady herself does not appear except in others’ descriptions of her, which is sort of a disappointment but certainly does whet the appetite for the graphic novel to come. That’s how it worked for me, anyway: Radical Publishing, consider me teased.

This issue also includes a six-page illustrated essay about Mata Hari, the French general Robert Nivelle and the historical context of the story, which is fascinating and informative as well as persuasive that the history you learned in school is not the whole truth. This prelude is particularly welcome if, like me, you’ve forgotten most of that history anyway, especially when it comes to WW I: I’m more of a WW II gal myself and I suspect I have a lot of company in that regard, particularly among Americans.

There’s a lot of exposition in this issue, but the art by Roy Allan Martinez keeps it interesting with a variety of page layouts and collages featuring several distinct styles to match the different contexts. The opening of the story is dark and expressionistic with canted angles and distorted viewpoints while the scenes recalling Mata Hari could not be more sumptuous (and quite sexy, of course) and the World War I scenes use a straightforward narrative style. His art goes beyond simple representation: for instance, he superimposes a scene of Mata Hari in a compromising pose with some unnamed officer over a horrifying scene of trench warfare while in the foreground we see a meat grinder (an apt metaphor for the unprecedented carnage what has been termed the first modern war).

The painting by Drazenka Kimpel is also worth noting because of her highly expressive use of color: in the opening pages, we are plunged abruptly from the muddy browns and grays of a Russian police station to the vibrant reds and golds used to depict the legendary Mata Hari. There’s a similar effect at the end of the issue, when we go from the dark brown of a pub to the bright red and blue of the stage on which Mata Hari is performing. You can see a preview of Mata Hari here:

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