We are living in a golden age of comics discovery. As more and more creators are finding ways to fund and get their comics out there, there are an ever expanding number of publishers interested in giving those talents wider exposure. Natasha Alterici is a prime example of both phenomena. Her queer, feminist, viking epic, Heathen is not only a crowdfunding success story, but it’s now the flagship title of Vault Comics!
Alterici’s art is some of the most forceful and unique that I’ve had the fortune to discover in a long time and Heathen is just one of many projects that demonstrates her significant ability as a writer. There has never been a better time to get on board with her work and I’m thrilled that Natasha took a little time off from being a comics badass to speak with us.
Noah Sharma: You started Heathen over two years ago. What’s it like seeing the early issues released now, when you and the world have changed?
Natasha Alterici: It’s a bit surreal. When I was looking for a new publisher to re-release the older issues and continue the series after that, I knew that we ran the risk of it landing flat. I feared it just wouldn’t feel relevant anymore, but unfortunately, current events have only made it resonate more with audiences. My feelings about that are conflicted. It’s good to have an outlet though, especially now that the series is going to continue, I’ll get a chance to touch on topics that I didn’t previously, and just dig into the world of Heathen more.
Looking back on it, are there any large things you would do differently. Is there anything that you value more with the perspective of time?
Not particularly. Since the book was on hiatus for a year, I had time to rework and redraw, and part of me wanted to, but in the end I felt like it was important to leave it be. I think part of the philosophy of the boom is about flawed people trying to do good and making mistakes along the way, so even the things I would consider “mistakes” in the story serve that philosophy. Leaving it sort of allows myself and the reader to grow with the characters.
In issue #2 we get an explanation for the horns on Aydis’ helmet. What were the best and most frustrating parts of working within the historical and mythological worlds of the Nordic people.
Heathen is first and foremost a fantasy story, but it is set in a specific region and time, and I try to be as faithful as I can to the cultures represented therein. In my early research of Viking and Scandinavian/Germanic/Norse cultures, I learned that like many cultures that were eventually overtaken by Christianity, there is little history that remains. What information we do have has been reconstructed and unfortunately a lot is still missing. Same goes for Norse Mythology, many stories are simply gone. So, understanding that, and understanding that my book would take place in both mortal and immortal realms, I tried to put together a world that would feel faithful to a time period when two cultures were colliding.
Though we, not entirely unfairly, tie it to a particular era in time, Norse Heathenry is still alive today, both in some surviving traditions and numerous revivalist movements. Unfortunately, for many, Heathenry has become connected to white supremacy (in spite of the historical multiculturalism of many Norse peoples). Was that connection ever a challenge for you in creating Heathen?
I have to admit, I chose the title Heathen for its common-use definition, as in one that doesn’t adhere to widely held religious beliefs. For my story it fits on two levels, first being the pagan/christian conflict happening in the wider world, and second that the main character is considered by her to be a deviant and sinner. I have since learned that Heathery still thrives today, and I’ve gotten feedback from some adherents, admittedly not all positive. Some of them have been angry men who’ve accused my book of misrepresenting not only Heathenism, but Odin specifically. To these claims I say, my book is a fantasy story, a fictional one utilizing mythological figures who are in the public domain. I’ve constructed the world of Heathen to tell a specific story, that of a lesbian viking destroying a patriarchy. Whether my book perfectly captures how it really was back then or not is a moot point. This is a story for a modern audience concerned with modern issues. One thing I want to make clear in the story is that no culture is superior to another, however the ones that hold the most power are the ones which we as artists have a responsibility to criticize.
Heathen is also an incredibly beautiful and striking comic. What defined the look of the series?
When it came to designing the look of Heathen I spent some time looking at how Vikings and Norse Mythos has been portrayed in comics, film, and fine arts. There is a commonality among a lot of them, repetitive designs and tropes popped up across different media. I ended up putting aside all these and just focusing on things I found visually interesting. For me this meant going back to nature for inspiration. I was lucky enough to get to take a trip to Ireland a few year back and I’ve used photos gathered on that trip to help design the environment. For the characters I wanted to go for a minimalistic look that I thought would complement the barren land. And then the few iconic pieces that would give it the Norse look, winged helmets, cloaks, and traditional weaponry. Overall I wanted the idea of a lonely warrior to come through.
Issue #3 really introduces us to Freyja, a goddess who wore many hats (if not much else). Particularly in a series that’s very concerned with the connections between monarchy, divinity, and literal and figurative patriarchy, what does Freyja’s character mean to you?
Heathen has three main characters, Aydis, Brynhild, and Freyja. The goddess of sex and love is incredibly important to the story, given that she is the one person in a perfect position to actually stand up to Odin. But somehow or another she finds herself subject to his authority, despite being a god of equal power. We see the same thing in modern patriarchal societies, we see women of such strength and intelligence and empowerment still somehow allowing men to take all the leadership roles, all the power and ownership. Why are we still letting them do this? We know better, and I think Freyja knows better too. I can’t get into too much more without giving it away, but we will definitely be seeing more of her.
I actually discovered you twice: once as the creator of Heathen and once as that lady who draws the gorgeous dinosaurs. Lots of people like dinosaurs when they’re young, but only a few of us carry that love into adulthood. What is it about their world that makes you want to explore it through your art?
I saw Jurassic Park when I was six years old, and have been obsessed since. I always enjoyed drawing animals, but there’s a certain kind of magic to drawing animals that have been extinct for millions of years. You’ve got to combine science and art to draw convincing dinosaurs, and for a nerd like me, it’s a perfect combo.
You did some work with DC’s Batman office recently. Especially with Heathen seeing a monthly release, are ‘mainstream’ or work-for-hire comics something that you’re interested in as an artist?
While I was very grateful for my opportunities to work on Gotham Academy and Grayson, I can’t see myself working in the mainstream way. I like working independently on looser timelines. Even if the money isn’t as good, it’s better for my soul I think.
Is there a character, particular or archetypal, that you dream of working with?
Not particularly. Maybe a Planet of the Apes comic? There is a novel by Sarah Waters called “Fingersmith” that I’d like to adapt into a comic book.
Your latest project is an extremely ambitious one, comics reviewing every lesbian movie ever! What makes a movie a ‘lez film’ to you?
This was the question I had to ask myself when I started searching for them, and it was surprisingly difficult to answer. Eventually I decided it was best to be as broad as possible. So to qualify as a lez film there a few questions as ask of any potential lez film: 1) does a main or supporting female character identify as a lesbian or bisexual? 2) does a main or supporting female character express romantic affection or sexual attraction for another female? 3) is there enough lesbian subtext or innuendo to reasonably argue it’s inclusion in the list? With these questions in mind I searched out and found over 200 contenders. I’ve watched about half of these so far.
Have there been any unexpected discoveries made watching lesbian films as a genre?
The biggest thing I’ve discovered is that there really isn’t a lesbian film genre, there are films that include lesbian characters which fit a wide array of genres; romance, drama, mystery/thriller, horror, musicals, biopics, action/adventure, etc. The one thing I haven’t found yet is a kid’s movie, or a film with a G or even a PG-rating that includes lesbian characters, which is pretty disappointing (though there is a kid’s movie with a gay male character, Paranorman). The best surprise I’ve had is finding that there are far more good lez films than I previously thought. And new ones are being made each year.
So often copyright and social stigma keep us from openly commenting on the media we consume through comics and, when we do, it is frequently in-universe fan fiction. Are there any particular challenges or joys in talking about film through comics?
I don’t worry too much about any copyright business, because reviews fall under fair use. As for the social stigma, I think that only motivates me more. The challenge is in the formating. I can write up a review no problem but trying to structure it as a comic was tricky. The one standard I had to look to for inspiration was Erika Moen’s “Oh Joy, Sex Toy!” which is a comic that reviews sex toys. It’s very cleverly formatted. Otherwise it’s just a matter of figuring out what it notable for each film; I usually watch them a couple of times each, read up on their IMDB page and if there’s any supplemental reading that needs to be done I go for it, such as, if a movie was met with a lot of controversy or something like that, I’d want to know more. The joy is in the films themselves, just finding a new way lesbians have been represented on screen is exciting, and potentially finding a new favorite movie.
Heathen #3 is on sale now at your local comic shop and on Comixology.