Vault Week: Heathen Volume 1

Written and Illustrated by Natasha Alterici
Letters by Rachel Deering
Published by Vault Comics

When a young Norse woman realizes she only has feelings for women--and is sentenced to death for her "crime," she decides to stick it to the gods, starting by freeing Brynhild, trapped in a prison of fire by Odin himself. But going after the All Father isn't going to be as easy as just braving curses. Aydis must weave her way through the hidden agendas of immortals if she hopes to change her world once and for all in this first volume of an amazing series that shows the mythological side of Vault Comics.

Heathen was one of the first Vault series I read, after picking up the trade at ECCC. I listened to Vault's panel and came away extremely impressed with their concept as a publisher, and this book is a perfect example. Tapping into Norse myth isn't anything new--after all, Stan, Jack, and Larry Leiber did it when building a superhero universe, and there's certainly been other versions of Thor, Odin, and company over the decades since.

What makes this one different is that not only is it from the perspective of the people, not the gods, our protagonist is a young woman who fights for both independence from the male-dominated society and her own sexual freedom. Aydis not only has to struggle because she doesn't want to be a submissive wife, she also wants to be free to kiss other women. It adds a layer to the mix that makes Aydis's struggle all the harder, since she's under a double whammy.

It's a great idea, and Alterici makes it work perfectly. After all, if Brynhild can only be saved by one who loves her, why does that lover have to be male? And given how much men have oppressed Aydis, both on a local and a religious level, why not take that fight to Odin himself? That not only makes for a cool story--and let me tell you, as one who loves mythology, this is a really cool story--it also provides organic reasons for Aydis's quest. Given her feelings for women, Aydis would naturally be drawn to the Valkyrie, so their involvement (and the complication added by Freyja's presence) is a good place for the story to begin, as we see Aydis' admiration for them in the opening sequence:

This is also a great example of the varying styles Alterici uses in the comic. Here we have a splash of color, leading down to the sepia-tones of the imaginary battle. The figures are sketchy and not-quite-finished, adding to the feel that this is a person's vision of what epic battles look like, rather than reality. Nothing in this image of the Valkyries looks exactly as it should, with one figure nothing more than a Walt Simonson-esque scribble.

The nifty thing is that you quickly realize what Alterici's done here is merely leave her drawing in the draft stage. Her final figures are built off those loose body shapes we saw above:

While more well-defined than the battle, the shifting lines underneath the main figure work here is still visible. The coloring is purposefully imperfect, with whites showing through and brush strokes left in place in the blue-grey backgrounds. It gives Heathen a look that makes it stand out from other comics, especially in this genre. I really dig it.

I also like the way that Alterici isn't afraid to pick odd visuals to portray. Here's an example of what I mean, from a scene where Frejya has just taken Aydis for purposes unknown and now Aydis's horse, Saga, must motivate Brynhild into action:
It takes some bravery as an artist to make the first panel feature the characters from the legs down, but it emphasizes how earth-bound they are, as opposed to Freyja and the Valkries. We then move to a focus not so much on our human character, but the talking horse instead. Their glares in the final panel give us a clear indication that we aren't to dismiss the talking animal so easily. Grudgingly, Brynhild doesn't dismiss Saga, either.

This is another example of the art pushing the story forward. The male character, Shannon, does not speak, and so Alterici has to ensure readers know his goals by his body language and facial features. Unlike Aydis, Shannon accepts the love of Freyja. His peace is clear when compared to her restless looks. These characters reflect their positions within the story. It's amazing work that I wish I saw in every comic. Even when the people and gods in Heathen stand and pose, there's something about them that indicates thought and purpose.

Using familiar myths as its basis, Heathen is a story about defying the roles and expectations placed upon you. It's a heroine's journey that recognizes most of the fairy tales and myths we internalize are horrible to the women involved, shunting them to the side or making them awful witches. (There's a brief subplot where Brynhild literally puts the lie to that latter situation.) Aydis even rejects Freyja's offer of sanctuary from the typical ending, not because it isn't tempting--a place forever with beautiful women would definitely be heaven for Aydis--but because her goal isn't just to subvert the rule of Odin, but to smash it to bits.

I loved Heathen due to an amazing combination of great art, strong plotting and pacing, and a core message that resonates for anyone who doesn't want to just blindly accept the way things have to be. Plus, there's a bad-ass lesbian, and that's always going to be a point in any comic's favor, especially when they're drawn and characterized so well. This is a top-notch story that's rightfully being considered for an adaptation and I can't wait to read the second part of the comic whenever Alterici finishes it. Make sure you read this one now, so you can also eagerly await it!