By Keith Grayeb
Hot take alert: Natasha Alterici is the real deal. I did help Kickstart Heathen, but that is not the reason I am claiming this. Nay, I am taking this take because Heathen Volume #1 is a stunning celebration of self-identity and acceptance… and also because Alterici once let patrons color her dinosaur prints with crayons at a Convention. She did not even get mad if you colored outside of the lines. In fact, if I learned anything from Heathen it is that some people may prefer to color outside of the lines and that is okay. It is also okay to color inside the lines, on the lines, on the table, on yourself and even on other people if they are also okay with it. The only wrong way to color is to tell someone else that they are coloring incorrectly. Why am I still talking about coloring you ask? It is because Alterici employs Heathen and its tale of the shunned Viking warrior, Aydis, to teach the same lesson about love (much more effectively, I might add).
Heathen is set in a Viking society rife with the influence of the Gods. We soon find out, however, that our mortal hero, Aydis, is planning on exercising some influence of her own. Her target: Brynhild, leader of the legendary Valkyries. According to legend, Brynhild defied the will of the God King Odin by striking down a mortal King, whose victory Odin had already declared. For her crime, she was banished from the Land of the Gods and cursed to marry a mortal. Oddly she was able to set the terms of her own banishment choosing to hold vigil within a circle of magic flames at the peak of the ominously named, Mount Hinderfall. Only the truly brave could traverse the flames unharmed and claim their God Wife. Aydis empathizes with Brynhild's plight and resolves to face the trial and free her. For the very existence of Aydis defies the moral authority of her clan. She was discovered sharing a forbidden kiss with Liv, a female companion, leaving her father to choose her fate: marriage or death. In a desperate ploy to spare his cherished daughter from a life of hetero-normative bondage, he faked her death and set her free.
The first volume of Heathen reads like a fairy tale, with the moral serving as the driving force of the narrative. Alterici branches into numerous subplots, each presented as an almost self-contained mini-fable. She deftly intermingles Norse Mythology and history, even taunting the discerning reader with a horned helmet, before offering a historically justified explanation. Mythic tidbits like Saga the wight-horse with a Napoleon complex and his interaction with the wolves I assumed to be Sköll and Hati keep the world rich and interesting. There is certainly a feminist angle to Heathen, but it is welcoming to all with an open mind. One aspect I found peculiar about Heathen's world are the casual interactions between Gods and mortals. No one seems particularly impressed or fearful of the Gods. The book maintains a light-hearted tone throughout, but I still feel the Gods should have a little more oomph to them. Then again, I have never met a God, so what do I know.
As much as I enjoy Aydis and Brynhild, the true hero of this story is the art. Alterici maintains a dreary aesthetic with blues and browns and then ignites the page with a burst of orange to punctuate the action or emotion. Her stylized characters have pleasing yet believable figures and are brought to life by her mastery of facial expressions. There is never any doubt as to how even a silent or background character is feeling. I cannot express how refreshing the modest designs of the characters are. Even Freyja, Goddess of Love and Beauty, is shaped like an actual, unenhanced human being. The nudity is presented fearlessly yet tastefully.
What I love about Aydis as a character, is her certainty. Her journey is not one of self-acceptance, nor is she trying to prove her worth to the world. Aydis defies the coming of age trope of self-doubt, serving as a righteous, self-assured beacon of hope to all around her. She is never rescued by a mentor, nor does she wish to be. When Liv apologizes for causing trouble with her "unnatural" inclinations, Aydis assures her that they did nothing wrong. When the pansexual Freyja offers her refuge in a pleasure palace free of judgment, Aydis declines, citing her responsibilities as a warrior. In this world, not even the Gods are perfect and Aydis has doubts and temptations, but she overcomes every challenge with confidence and faith, not in those imperfect Gods, but to her own moral code. Aydis teaches us that self-acceptance is not an end, but a beginning. When Aydis tells Odin that she is coming for him, I believe her. I also believe you should read Heathen and then go color however the hell you want to.
Heathen Volume #1
Writer & Artist: Natasha Alterici
Publisher: Literati Press/Vault Comics