By Dustin Cabeal
There is absolutely no joy in giving a bad review to the first issue of a new imprint. Frankly, it sucks to do that, but that’s what I’m here to do. At its core, the story here is fascinating. The era and setting are all things that are fairly new to American comics, at least from the vast majority of titles I’ve read. It’s just that Mata Hari actively makes it difficult for the reader to understand what exactly is going on in the story. Reading the first issue feels more like a punishment than something joyous or entertaining.
It’s not that the sum of its parts are confusing. It’s the strange order in which everything is told. Instead of having the present timeline and a flashback timeline, we have several timelines all running at the same time. It’s as if we’ve been thrown right into Mata Hari’s thoughts and they’re disorganized and sporadic. That is very realistic as anyone would contest, but when you’re reading a narrative, these sharp turns become exhausting to keep track of. By the end of the issue, I couldn’t really tell what had happened. All I know is that Mata Hari is a spy or at least accused of being a spy and that she was once a rich child but found herself very poor. She may or may not have a daughter, I couldn’t tell. Also, apparently the story we’re reading was thrown into a river… so I’m not sure how we’re reading it exactly.
There is a mystery unfolding in the story. You’re probably supposed to guess if she’s actually a spy or if it’s just a weird coincidence. The main problem is that we don’t know about any of her exploits yet, as the issue spends most of it’s time establishing that she’s on trial and makes a living showing her body in performances. There is nothing presented to us as the reader that either confirms or denies the allegations against her, making it irritating that the issue didn’t even dangle a carrot in front of us. It's not that the writer needed to follow a formula or do it the tried and true comic book way, but maybe it could have used one? There is just a lot of wasted pages in this comic, redundancies that are gone over in the dialogue multiple times and yet we still come away knowing next to nothing about how this character got to this point.
The artwork is the saving grace of the book, but even it can’t fully redeem the comic. It’s detailed, it’s realistic looking and the characters, especially for the era of the story, look like they belong. There’s nothing offensive about the artwork, but there also isn’t anything that particularly stands out about it either. That may be due to the coloring which is washed with reds. It’s as if you’re looking at everything from behind a red veil. It gives the artwork an oversaturated look and stifles any appeal the artist’s linework may have had.
Unfortunately, I can only judge what’s on the page. I can’t look at the resume of the creators and factor that in, nor can I look at the head of the imprint’s legendary resume and make this something it’s not. I’m sure there’s an audience out there that will enjoy this book, some might even inflate their thoughts about it due to the parties involved, but at the end of the day, this comic misses all the marks. Our protagonist is underdeveloped, her timeline a confusing mess and instead of being something entertaining and enjoyable, Mata Hari is a boring chore to read. Again, it’s not fun to say all this, but it wasn’t fun to read it either.
Mata Hari #1
Dark Horse Comics