Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Heathen Vol. 1. Written and illustrated by Natasha Alterici (Illustrated Girl), this collection of the digital series’ first four issues is an exciting, atmospheric reinterpretation of Norse mythology through a queer lens. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Banished from her tribe for kissing another woman, young Viking hunter Aydis sets her sights on a more mythical object of affection in Heathen, a digital series from cartoonist Natasha Alterici that puts a queer spin on Norse legend. At the root of the series is the story of Brynhild, the Valkyrie leader cursed by the god Odin to live in exile when she defies his will. In Alterici’s version of the myth, Brynhild imprisons herself inside a ring of fire at the top of a mountain as a test for the mortal warrior that will free her through marriage—as dictated by the curse. Aydis is the latest brave soul to attempt the climb.
Alterici has a clear fascination with myths, and over the course of these four issues she incorporates more legendary figures like Sigurd, the hero most heavily associated with Brynhild in mythology; Hati and Skull, the two wolves that bring about the end of days when they eat the sun and the moon; and Freyja, the sensual goddess of love who tries to tempt Aydis away from Brynhild. The series operates on two levels: It’s a sweeping Nordic fantasy, but it’s also a personal story about coming out and coming of age in a culture that doesn’t accept who you truly are. The intersection of those two narrative planes is what makes Heathen so engrossing, and the grander elements of the plot have more emotional impact because they are tied to Aydis’ queer awakening.
It doesn’t take long for Aydis to rescue Brynhild, cementing her heroism and dedication to Brynhild early on. The qualities that make Aydis a formidable warrior are highlighted at the start, beginning the series with powerful, dynamic displays of female might both in Aydis’ actions and her thrilling tales of the Valkyries. But the intimacy of the narrative is also there from page one. Aydis is telling the story of the Valkyries to her horse, Saga, and while the majority of the pages are dominated by striking images of the Valkyries in action, there are also shots of Aydis and Saga roaming the land on their own, contrasting the bold grandeur of the Valkyrie myths with the quiet isolation of the exiled Viking and her steed.
Those shots of Aydis and Saga smoothly ease the reader into the main action, showing the two moving across different terrain and gradually getting situated in the forest as the Valkyrie story winds down. The tale ends with a dramatic shot of Brynhild surrounded by flames, immediately followed by a similar shot of Aydis standing in the same pose as Brynhild near a much smaller fire, drawing a connection between the two characters while contrasting their vastly different circumstances.
There scratchy detail of Alterici’s art in the early issues gives the environment and characters extra texture and dimension, but over the course of these four issues, Alterici learns that she can do more with less. Changing the qualities of a few lines can be just as effective as more intricate rendering, and she starts to focus on stronger graphic choices in her compositions rather that layering on finer details in the linework. The evolution of her style over the course of these four issues is remarkable; she begins with sketchy, atmospheric visuals heavily reminiscent of artists like Annie Wu and Christopher Mitten, but she refines the linework and intensifies the expression of the characters, so that later issues evoke the sumptuous, animated art of Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá.
The first volume of Heathen lands on the same week comics writer Alex De Campi (No Mercy) published an essay on slash fiction and Romanian fairy tales on her Tumblr, a piece that examines the value of seeing yourself represented in the old stories. She compares the treatment of women in Ovid’s myths, where they are consistently raped and abused, to the treatment of women in the Romanian fairy tales she read as a young girl. These narratives cast women as valiant heroes and often featured queer subtext in the relationships between same-sex characters, one of whom typically changes gender mystically to avoid any overt homosexuality.
The Romanian fairy tales’ portrayals of women gave De Campi legendary figures that she could relate to, and inspired her. De Campi writes: “There is an overwhelming resonance, a sense of place, that occurs when you find something very old, something that’s been around a long time, that whispers to you it’s always been okay to be like this… You have always belonged here.” Heathen is a new work, but it feels aged. The story deals with myths of cultures long past, and the washed-out coloring makes this world look older. It’s not quite black and white; this is a world that has color, but that color has faded with time.
As a queer reader, I feel that inspiration De Campi is talking about when I read about Aydis’ struggle to fully realize her sexual identity in the context of this mythical narrative. And Aydis isn’t the only one struggling: A subplot involves Brynhild protecting a closeted gay man and the woman that arranged his secret rendezvous with his lover. Incorporating queer plot points throughout the series makes the more conventional elements feel fresh, because this type of representation is usually lacking in these epic stories.
Queer readers hungry for this representation made it possible for Alterici to fund Heathen on Kickstarter. (The donors to that campaign are thanked individually in the foreward to this collection.) Alterici has taken advantage of the opportunities available to her as a comics creator in the digital age, first by crowd-funding the series, then by distributing the book digitally through Comixology. For aspiring creators and small-press publishers, Comixology Submit is a smart way to digitally distribute material, and eliminating the printing costs makes it possible to charge less for the work.
The individual digital issues of Heathen cost $1.99, and this first volume is $6.99, offering almost 100 pages of story for what it costs to buy two 20-page comics from one of the major print publishers. (Heathen can also be bought in print from publisher Literati Press, but the issues are $5 each.) The lack of numbers makes it difficult to come to any concrete conclusions about how creators profit from digital sales, but Comixology’s international consumer base and the absence of printing costs suggest that the profit is probably more than if these creators were selling print copies in local shops, at conventions, or through an online store (which also introduces shipping costs).
Having a digital presence is important in the current comics landscape, so it was puzzling when Aftershock Comics, a new publisher from former DC and Marvel editor Mike Marts, launched without digital distribution through Comixology. Aftershock has some serious talent behind their titles—this week sees the launch of American Monster, a new series from Brian Azzarello and Juan Doe—and having that digital option would have given the launch titles expanded exposure and availability. This week, Aftershock announced that it was finally bringing its titles to Comixology, and while it’s only been two months, those early months are especially important for start-up companies.
An Aftershock book like Marguerite Bennett and Ariela Kristantina’s Insexts, a Victorian horror romance about two insectoid lesbians, may not be the type of book that sells especially well in comic stores, but it’s the kind of off-kilter niche comic that could attract readers online. Insexts and Heathen make for an intriguing pair of queer takes on genres that are traditionally dominated by a hetero perspective, but Heathen approaches its subject matter with considerably more nuance than Insexts. Heathen is a more personal narrative, and Alterici does exceptional work making Aydis a relatable character and creating empathy for her struggle. Through Aydis, Alterici makes an important statement about not letting anyone define who you are. Even in the face of opposition from the gods themselves, Aydis won’t stop fighting for the woman she loves and her right to love her.