“Heathen” is the Queer Viking Warrior Comic of Your Dreams

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Are you waiting for a spinoff movie about Lady Sif, the female warrior of Asgard? Do you long for an all Brienne episode of Game of Thrones? Did you pump your fist and shout to Valhalla when Marvel debuted the new Thor? Then Heathen Vol. 1 is the comic for you. Written and illustrated by Natasha Alterici, Heathen is a queer take on the legends of Norse mythology.

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The book follows the journey of Aydis, a brave Viking warrior who is banished from her tribe after she is caught kissing another woman. In response, Aydis decides to take on Odin himself and sets forth on a journey to free the defiant valkyrie Brynhild, with some help from the queer, polyamorous goddess of love, Freyja. A queer lead character hell bent on kissing ladies and doing battle with the patriarchy? Heathen is all that and more.

Natasha launched Heathen through a successful Kickstarter campaign, and distributed the first issues digitally through Comixology, who went on to call it “the best self-published comic of 2015.” With its powerful, feminist storylines and it’s evocative, haunting artwork, Heathen is a welcome addition to the canon of queer comics. The first four issues, collected in Vol. 1, are now available online or as a trade paperback.   

To learn more about her work, we sat down with author and illustrator Natasha Alterici to talk about mythology, arts education, and renaissance fair costumes.

AfterEllen: Did you always want to be an artist?

Natasha Alterici: I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil. I remember at a parent teacher conference in elementary school, a teacher told my mother she was concerned by how quickly I’d rush through my work to flip the pages over and draw on the back! Thankfully, my grades were good, so they let me keep drawing. Later I watched the making of Jurassic Park special on TV hosted by James Earl Jones, watching Stan Winston talk about the art and design that went into making the dinosaurs, and I was very inspired.

 

AE: How did you get started in comics?

NA:  When I went to college I read my first comic ever, Maus by Art Spiegelman, and that’s when I knew that this was what I wanted to do. My school didn’t offer much instruction in illustration besides a single course, so I ended up creating an independent study for myself to work on a comic book project. After graduation I floundered around a bit, dabbling in all sorts of freelance art projects part-time. Just in the last 2 years have I really focused on making comics my full-time job. I started by collaborating with local writers on two books, Lucid and Illustrated Girl, as well as few short comics for anthologies. Heathen was the first full-length comic that I worked on alone, and I mostly began working on it to prove to myself that I could it. It had been my dream since reading Maus to write and illustrate my own books, so I set aside collaborative projects to go solo. It has proved to be a wise career move. 

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AE: I love how you took the world of Norse mythology and re-framed it through a queer sensibility. What inspired you to tell this story? Are you a mythology geek?

NA: I’m honestly not that much a mythology geek! I had to become one for Heathen. The story actually got its start as a costume design. Some friends invited me to go to the Renaissance Fair with them, and they were all dressing up. I was offered a Medieval dress, but that’s not exactly my style, so I designed and made a warrior costume for myself. After the fair, I found myself still drawing the costume. It was starting to evolve into a character, so I gave her a name, gave her a horse, and wrote her a story. Since I was doing this story largely for my own satisfaction, I wanted queer themes to run throughout.

As I researched Norse mythology, I found plenty of characters ripe for this kind of story. The story of Brynhild being forced into marriage seemed to echo the kind of injustice queer people would have had to endure at that time (and even today still). I could see it resonating with Aydis, this idea that the powers that be can dictate your future, decide who you can and can’t love; it’s a very powerful story and a perfect analogy for the patriarchy. Mythology is full of stories like this that are accessible and relevant to people everywhere; it’s part of what makes us human, we’ve been telling these kinds of stories since before we had written language. Reframing them to tell a queer person’s story is easy, and necessary I think. 

 

AE: In addition to writing/illustrating comics, you’re also an accomplished painter. Which came first? Is there one medium you enjoy more than the other?

NA: The illustration, writing, and painting kind of evolved together. I studied fine arts in college, i.e. traditional oil painting, watercolor, charcoal drawing, sculpture, art history, etc. I definitely think they influence each other: my style has been called sketchy, painterly, non-traditional as far as comic books are concerned. I can’t say that I enjoy one more than the other, but I can say that I’ve chosen to focus my work in illustration rather than fine arts, and I’ll explain why.

I grew up in a community, a part of the country really, that is severely lacking in arts education. Despite the odds, I’ve been lucky to get to pursue my love of art, to pursue higher education, to go to galleries and stand before the works of Monet, Picasso, Bouguereau, WyethO’Keeffe, and others. The greatest privilege I have though is to have an understanding of what the works I’ve seen and studied actually mean. I think that the Fine Arts world has an accessibility problem: it’s absolutely a luxury reserved for the elite, the upper class. It neglects those living in poverty and other disadvantaged groups. The Guerrilla Girls have been talking about it for years. Even if these people get the chance to go to a gallery, without any arts education, they are not likely to ascribe any meaning to the works they’re seeing. Meanwhile, the comic book medium, still looked down upon by the Fine Arts world, can be read and understood by people from all walks of life, and often can be checked out for free at a local library. So for those reasons, I prefer to work in comics. 

 

AE: Heathen features a trio of great female heroines: who are some of your favorite heroines, in real life and/or fiction?

NA: Some real life heroines: Malala Yousafzai, Harriet Tubman, Nellie Bly, Hedy Lamarr, Hillary ClintonBarbara WaltersAmy Schumer, Kathleen Kennedy, Rachel Maddow, Marjane Satrapi, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Ellen DeGeneres, my grandmother and great grandmother (for telling me men were trouble and I didn’t need one!), and lots more. Fictional heroines: Ms. Marvel, Furiosa and all the Vuvalini, Kimmy Schmidt, Wonder Woman, Dr. Ellie Sattler and Lex Murphy, Leslie Knope (and probably also Amy Poehler), Xena, Lorelai Gilmore. The list goes on! 

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AE: What are you reading right now? Any favorites from the past year?

NA: The only title I’ve been able to keep up with is The Wicked and The Divine. Issue 13 is hands down the best single issue I’ve ever read of any title. If I had the time and budget, I’d get caught up on the titles I’ve loved like Saga, Ms. Marvel, Low, Bitch Planet, Lumberjanes, Gotham Academy, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Rocket Girl, Rat Queens, Sex Criminals. My top 3 are probably The Wicked and The Divine, Lumberjanes, and Ms. Marvel, I recommend them all the time. 

 

AE: Tell us about the Dinosaur Project. Also, what’s your favorite dinosaur?

NA: The Dinosaur Project is an experiment I’m doing on Patreon, each month I do a brand new short original comic all about dinosaurs. I’ve had a lifelong obsession with dinosaurs, since seeing Jurassic Park at age six, and have been wanting to do a dinosaur-themed comic book. The problem was I had too many ideas, I couldn’t pick just one direction to go, and none of them felt big enough to do more than a few pages about. Then I realized I had an anthology on my hands, so that’s what I’m doing. A new short story every month, and at the end of the year, I’ll combine the stories into a book along with concept art and dinosaur paintings I’m doing as well. Favorite dinosaur(s) are 1) Carnivore: Acrocanthosaurus. 2) Herbivore: Corythosaurus.

 

Heathen Vol.1 is available on Comixology and at www.heathencomic.com You can follow Natasha on Twitter: @Alterici.

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