From the beginning of the series, Vault Comics’ HEATHEN has been a feminist lesbian Viking myth that speaks to the heart. As Ginnis Tonik puts it, it is a classical story of a timeless epic hero that changes the world for the better. This is a warrior’s tale about Aydis and her quest to break the control the patriarchy has over her and the ones she loves. Aydis is cast out of her village after a death sentence because of a single kiss with her friend Liv. As a result, the warrior woman finds herself more determined than ever to change the world so she doesn’t have to live under the crushing thumbs of both heterosexual normative and religious cultures. She also wants to change this for Brynhild, who has been trapped by Odin for hundreds of years in a magical prison, unable to be with her lover. Aydis wants to change the world for Liv, who believes she needs to “fix” herself because her father told her there was something wrong with her.
These are exactly the kinds of rejections that LGBTQ+ people experience on a regular basis. Personal rejections from friends, family, and even those they love. HEATHEN addresses these experiences in a genuine and mature way. It is clear that Aydis is hurting from the trauma she has experienced. But as a result, she knows who is she is and is stronger than ever. She handles the cruelty of others with grace. She is surprised when she is treated to Freya’s kindness, or Shannon’s. The unfolding of her character is beautiful to watch as she takes her inner fierceness and puts it to work outside the confines of a suffocating society.
Issue #5 was released recently, and it is an exciting new chapter in the world of Aydis. When we last saw her, she left the goddess Freya to head north to Heimdall. As the story goes on in this issue, the theme of rejection slips away. Shannon departs from his watch over Aydis and returns to Freya at the beginning of the book, leaving Aydis as the lone warrior once again. She soldiers on, only to find another adventure that helps her along her way.
Not many sailors want to go to Heimdall, but as usual, Aydis is the strong hero we all wish to be: she topples obstacles with a will of steel. She meets more creative, admirable women in the world that have made their own way with a similar resilience. She bargains with mythical creatures. She talks to a god. In issue #5, we get to see a continuation of her epic story arc as she completes yet another task in her journey to defeat Odin’s binding rules and we can’t wait for more. Aydis is the feminist Viking hero we need in our myths.
I had the privilege of speaking with HEATHEN author, artist, and colorist Natasha Alterici via email. She graciously answered the following questions about Aydis, her story, and her inspirations.
When did the story of HEATHEN first spark into life for you? Do you remember the moment?
HEATHEN actually started out as a Ren Faire costume design. I was invited to go with some friends who were all planning to dress up, so I was inspired to create a Viking/barbarian costume for myself. Complete with a faux leather helmet with paper mache horns. Being a stereotypical artist, I wanted to perfect the design in case I decided to go again the following year. But as I would sketch out variations of the costume it sort of evolved into a character design. I was no longer drawing a costume, I was drawing Aydis. So the next steps were obvious, 1) give her a horse and 2) write her a story.
What else drew you to Aydis as she came into being during your creative process? What are some pieces of her personality and her experience in her world that you see reflected in your own life?
My main motivation in writing Aydis’ story was making her the kind of character that I personally needed, a confident queer woman who would challenge the patriarchy. There are hints of my personality sort of weaved throughout hers; the fact that she’s a lesbian, that she’s knowledgeable of but rebellious toward the dominant religion in her society, her sense of self-sufficiency, her naivety and stubbornness. I even gave her my coming out story, or part of it at least. I wasn’t banished from my village obviously, but there’s a moment in issue #4 where she’s telling Shannon about her kiss with Liv, how it was the best and worst moment of her life. That’s about where the similarities end. I think she’s probably more so the person I wish I was, I mean, she fights a bull god and wins.
Aydis deals with rejection in a mature and determined way that we really love and admire. Is this a theme that happened naturally in the story as you wrote it, or were you thinking of it from the outset?
I think it was the sort of thing that naturally fell into place. If any story is going to talk about undoing the harm Patriarchal societies do, it has to also address the question of toxic masculinity. In the story Aydis is raised by a single father, learning all the ways of a hunter and a warrior, so she naturally skews “masculine”. Even in the way she dresses, which is essentially the same thing all warriors in her village wear, she is emulating the “lone warrior” archetype of her father and of the characters in the stories she loves. She could have easily slipped into violent lone wolf, an emotional femme fatale out for revenge, if it weren’t for one key component; her compassion. Every time Aydis is challenged on her mission, either in a fight with a bull (which ends in civil conversation) or Liv expressing self-homophobia (which ends in Aydis offering her reassurance) it is her empathy that guides her away from violence or anger, and thematically this is paving the way for a more empathetic society.
Compassion and empathy are definitely things our society is lacking, that we should all practice daily. What made the Viking backdrop the right setting for the story? Was it tied to the original costume from the Ren Faire?
It started with the costume design. I honestly didn’t know much about Norse mythology, just knew the look of her was definitely reading “Viking”. So I went down to the library and did some research, both historical and mythological. The story of Brynhild was the one that stood out the most to me; this strong powerful immortal woman being cursed to live life as a wife, essentially putting her below the very people she was created to terrify. That seemed so particularly cruel and terrible, and it fit with the feminist tone I wanted to bring to it. I thought, if Aydis grew up hearing this story, it might be something that would resonate with her as a deep injustice. The other thing I wanted to pull into the world was this idea of clashing cultures, I wanted to set it toward to the end of the Viking era, just as Christianity is sweeping in, so it creates even more conflict and gives the gods their own set of problems to deal with.
Could you tell us more about some of your creative inspirations? Whether they be art, books, comics, film?
I honestly don’t read as much as I should, I’m a terribly slow reader. When I do read a book, I prefer audiobooks that I can just let play while I’m drawing. I do read a lot of articles, lots of current events stuff or anything talking about the history of civil rights and feminism. I wouldn’t say those “inspire” so much as they “inform” my work, at least on the writing side. When it comes to visual inspiration I am an avid cinephile. I probably watch a dozen or more movies a week. Currently, I’m obsessed with the studio A24, all my favorite movies lately have been put out by them, Moonlight, The Witch, Under the Skin, Ex Machina, The Lobster, a bunch of others. Beautiful cinematography and brilliant unexpected writing make their films totally unique. I’m not getting paid to talk about them I swear, just a huge fan. I’ve been told my panels are cinematic, and that’s probably because I take a lot of cues for framing and setting up shots from studying cinematography.
Alright, thanks for sticking with us. Last question for you, besides the great visual inspiration you mentioned from studio A24, what would you recommend people watch right now that you’ve recently enjoyed?
Atomic Blonde, 100%. Charlize Theron kicking all the dudes’ butts, romancing a fellow spy lady, and it’s all set against a bleak neon punk background and all your favorite ‘80s music. It’s glorious. I might go watch it again.