Natasha Alterici Talks Queer Viking Epic 'Heathen'

Heathen- Publicity - H 2020
Natasha Alterici/Vault Comics
With the series completed, the creator behind the Vault Comics hit discusses its origins, influences, and what she'll miss.

This month, Natasha Alterici’s fantasy comic book epic Heathen came to a conclusion that was, at once, as epic and intimate as the acclaimed series required.

The series — in development as a movie, with Catherine Hardwicke attached — launched in 2017 from Vault Comics, with Alterici, who wrote the entire series and illustrated the first eight issues before Ashley Woods took over for health reasons.

Set during the Viking era, Heathen follows Aydis, a young woman who comes out as queer and in the process is abandoned by her community — leading to her setting out on a quest that will, ultimately, involve the Norse Gods themselves, as well as pirates and Valkyries. Across its 12-issue run, the series gathered a passionate fan following, and was selected as an American Library Association YALSA 2018 great graphic novel for teens.

To mark the series’ conclusion, and in advance of next month’s release of the final collected edition, The Hollywood Reporter talked to Alterici about the series’ roots, reception, and how it feels now that it’s finished.

Let’s start at the very end: Heathen is over. It’s something that started over three years ago, and has been a constant in your life to a greater or lesser degree since then. Are you fully aware of what you achieved through the series by now, or has it not sunk in yet…?

I don't think it's fully sunk in yet. Maybe when I'm able to hold the complete book in hand I'll sit down and read it front to back, and then I'm sure all the emotions will flood in and out and all over the floor.

As a reader, Heathen felt complete immediately; from the opening pages of the first issue, even. It felt very self-assured, and there was no period of the series finding its feet. Are there pages of rehearsals and false starts hidden from the rest of the world, or was it as fully-formed for you as it appeared to the rest of us?

Oh boy, I'm glad you feel that way. In my mind I didn't hit my stride until issue three at least, but that's just me being my own worst critic. If I'm remembering correctly, I believe I did about a half dozen different page ones before I landed on the one that the readers finally saw. And that's in addition to the many many character sketches and style tests that happened around the same time.

I was still learning how to make comics at that time, even though I had done a handful of projects before, I still had to figure out my techniques and visual language. It took almost six months to finish the first issue because I just kept starting over and tweaking things. I was lucky to have supportive folks cheering me on and challenging me to get it done and make it the best it could be.

After the first volume I made a concerted effort to maintain the style of art and story-tellling in that volume to keep the rest of it cohesive, repeating elements when necessary — for example, having an "Aydis-only" first issue for each volume was important to help recenter the story as the cast of characters expanded. This proved to be essential as my own skill set naturally changed over the years and even as a new artist took over for the final volume, I'm proud we were able to unify it.

This is, perhaps, me showing my ignorance, but does Aydis have a mythical pedigree? Obviously, in a story that features the Valkyries, Odin, et al, there’s some element of historical/mythical backstory in Heathen, but Aydis’ story feels at once timeless and very much of the moment. Where did she come from?

Aydis is fully fictional. She started out as nothing more than a Renaissance Fair costume design, that I just couldn't stop drawing. The more times I drew it, the more I started to realize that there was a character there. So then I gave her a bow, and then a horse, until finally I decided to write her a story.

She had that Viking look which was really great and powerful, so I leaned into it. I went down to the library and read everything I could on Norse culture, history, and mythology. I found myself fascinated by all the gods and demons and other immortals, specifically the relationship people had with them, which felt remarkably down-to-earth. Immortal beings were rarely regarded with reverence. In a lot of ways, immortals were just another form of living beings who had no more power to defy the fates than any mortal human did.

If Aydis had been a real person, she would have grown up with those stories, known the names of all these characters, but not necessarily thought of them as above her in any way. It's her interest in the stories that makes her relatable, anyone that reads or even watches TV/movies shares that interest.

The other thing that makes her relatable is that her world is dealing with many of the same issues we are. Issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, and general intolerance and exploitation of one another are, unfortunately, issues we have always been dealing with. Like Aydis, we are often hoping the stories and art we consume can help us either to escape from or affect change with those issues that press on us most.

Aydis breaks all manner of rules in Heathen, from societal ones to ones created by deities; there’s a metatextual element to that, when she appears to cross genres more than once inside the series. This makes her friendship with [supporting character] Ruadan feel like it’s foreshadowing, because… well, of course she’d befriend a trickster figure in that she’s almost one herself. Were you dropping hints with their relationship, going all the way back to the first issue, or was this a happy coincidence? Did you know exactly where you were going with this story from the start?

I would be lying if I said I knew where it was going even up until the final pages.

When I decided to write this story there were a few things I did know for certain; I knew I wanted a queer woman to fight to against a patriarchy, I wanted to focus on the legend of Brynhild, as it perfectly illustrates the evil of that patriarchy, and I wanted her to do so with the help of allies from all walks of life, mortal and immortal.

Ruadan was one of the first deities I read about who caught my attention, mostly because there was so little written about him, almost nothing more than that he was a trickster. Since I specifically had to leave out characters like Loki — couldn't have Marvel lawyers knocking on my door — it made Ruadan that much more vital. When I wrote the initial encounter Aydis has with him, there was so much personality and such a mystique to him that I knew he was going to be coming back over and over.

I don't want to give away any spoilers for those who haven't read yet, but his arc is particularly satisfying for me. I just love a bad guy trying to become a good guy story, and I love that someone like Aydis, even in all her self-righteousness, can recognize and respect that he's trying.

The adventure Aydis goes on throughout the series was oddly reminiscent of something like the 12 Labors of Hercules to me, maintaining the epic feel of the story. What were the inspirations for Heathen, in terms of telling the story as it was published? Is Saga, the not-horse, a reference to the Image Comics series, for example?

Saga is named after the Image series, yes! At the time it was one of the few series I was reading that was drawn by a woman, and Fiona Staples was just such a huge inspiration to me, I had to give a nod even if I never thought she'd see it.

As for Heathen, when I considered the kind of themes that would inevitably be involved in trying to retell a mythological tale, it made sense to stick with the classic Hero's Journey structure. Aydis gets her call to adventure, albeit via banishment, is aided by a number of supernatural entities. She also has her trials and temptations, and so on until she ends up back where she started, forever changed.

It's a format that works and fits and didn't need to be overly complicated. So much of the story is about stories just like that, I tried to have a story told every issue to echo that concept and carry Aydis toward her resolution.

To say that Heathen is a romantic series feels like a significant understatement; almost every character’s actions is motivated by love, and in many cases, romantic love. It is, however, not a “Romance Comic,” as people perceive them; was that a concern of yours when working on the series?

As the series was still coming out, I had readers, reviewers, even my own editors asking "Who's Aydis going to end up with?" and I'd always have to respond "No, no. That's not what this is about."

I think I definitely underestimated how much people would want that for her, but at the same time, I was thrilled that they did. Because in a way, that is what it was all about for Aydis. Think about it; she has to leave her village for the crime of kissing another girl. In her mind, love was something that the fates couldn't afford her. She even repeats this lie to herself, "Warriors go alone", attempting to make it into some kind of noble burden. The most she can hope for is to have a grand adventure, help a cursed Valkyrie perhaps, dethrone a corrupt god at best.

And yet, all along the way, she finds love time and time again. What a magical thing for a lonely outcast who really thought she was destined to be alone. And what a joy to have been able to prove her wrong.

I’m curious how the series changed for you when you went from doing both writing and art to writing and colors, with Ashley Woods handling line art. Did it change the way you related to the story, either in practical terms — did it change your writing process — or emotionally? 

It certainly changed the process. I only started writing comics in the first place so that I could draw this story. My initial scripts were very light on the details, they weren't necessary since I already could envision it — n the first issue there is a double page spread of a massive Viking battle with the Valkyries swooping in to collect the fallen warriors, but in the script, the description for that entire scene was just the words "f***ing epic." That's terrible, don't ever write your scripts that way, even if you are drawing them.

Obviously, that wouldn't do when we brought on a new artist. So, I had to learn how to really really write comics. Emotionally, it was tough. I was an artist first, that's what I've been my whole life, so when, in the second volume, my hands started to fail me, I was really devastated. And then the idea of letting someone else step in, while it would ensure the story got finished, it felt like giving my baby away. It was very scary.

Even now as I work on new projects that will have to be drawn by someone else, I'm still learning to let go of the stubborn idea that I could just do it all myself. This is absolutely a collaborative media, it works best that way. I'm happy I have this third volume as tangible evidence of that to remind myself should I slip into old ways of thinking.

What was the collaborative process with Ashley like? 

Well, first and foremost, Ashley is an incredible artist, and with her previous experience on Niobe, she already had the skills to take on a grounded take on mythology like Heathen. Even with two volumes out, I wasn't looking for her to copy my style, her style was already a great fit.

Artists work best when you just trust that they know what they are doing. So we started by having her draw all the main characters however she envisioned them, and of course they turned out amazing. From there all I had to do was fill in with color and textures that would match the previous issues to keep the recognizable style. In the end, I don't think we could have asked for a better result. Ashley's amazing, and I am so grateful to have been able to work with her.

How do you feel about the series now? Not in terms of “what have you accomplished,” as I asked above, but — is it something you look on and feel happy with? Proud of? Are you able to appreciate it?

I'm proud of it, yes. I'm in a place now where I'm able to see it for what it is without remembering all the little things I might have wanted to change at the time it was still being made.

That's not to say I wouldn't change anything. I am still very critical of my work, but now I'm able to enjoy it and consider its strengths and weaknesses in a more academic way. I would with any other book, I can make those observations and let them inform the work I'm making now. From the beginning my goal was always to make a book I wanted to read, and Heathen is indeed a book I want and enjoy reading.

What are you going to miss about Heathen? Particular characters, plot threads, the audience, the deadlines…? Okay, maybe not that last one. It has been something that’s been in your life for a number of years, does it feel strange that it’s over?

I am definitely going to miss the characters. I'm not a very sentimental person in general, but now that I'm writing my next books, it feels a bit like I've moved to a new town. I get a bit homesick for Heathen, in a way, for those friends there.

They still find their way into my sketchbook from time to time, but other than that I'm happy to let myself move on. That it's over doesn't sadden me — I like a story that ends, even if that ending is a bit unresolved.

As for the audience, they'll always have Heathen, and hopefully with the upcoming film adaptation that audience will only continue to grow. I don't want to be too greedy, but I do hold out hope that many of them will connect with the characters in my new stories too.

All 12 issues of Heathen are available digitally now. The first two collected volumes are currently available in book and comic stores, with the third and final collection released Sept. 9 digitally and in comic book stores.