Natasha Alterici Crafts A New Mythology As Heathen #5 Finally Comes To Comic Shops

by Noah Sharma

When up-and-comer Vault Comics arrived on the scene they had only four of their titles to tout. Three of them were brand new and fresh. The other was Heathen and it’s a big part of why they are where they are now.

A crowd-funded indie hit, Heathen returns this month with the first printing of its second arc. As Aydis continues her quest to dethrone the king of the gods, she finds herself back on Midgard, alone and in need of transport.

One thing that’s only now becoming fully apparent is how fun Heathen’s loose relationship with status quo is. Though Natasha Alterici does an excellent job of conveying the emotions wrapped up in Aydis’ isolation, now that our titular non-believer has parted ways with Freyja and Shannon, it’s clear that the adventuring party she misses never really got a chance to truly form and that introduces a nice feeling of adventure to the book. Anything can happen and anyone can stumble into this story.

It’s also great because being alone sucks, and our fiction usually either completely ignores that or makes it into the worst thing imaginable. As such, Aydis’ cheerful disposition and honest acknowledgment of her loneliness becomes a clear and charming definition of her character. It’s just nice to have a character who has legitimately suffered remain hopeful without dipping into willful ignorance.

And so, even more than most issues, Heathen #5 retains a fairy tale tone and cadence that makes it stand out in the most delightful way. Tripled characters and danger leavened by cheer call back to the bedtime stories of youth without conceding the thought and weight of more ‘grown-up’ tales. The term “stock characters” has some serious baggage, but from the mermaids to Shannon to Makeda, Alterici proves that, done right, they can not only break even, but elevate the story. Aydis’ trio of mermaids are just lovely to read and they open up a whole other section of myth and legend for the series, while Makeda provides a more grounded avenue for the series to explore its central themes.

One thing about fairy tales, though, is that they’re not known for their literal truth. If the presence of Mermaids left any doubt, Alterici’s writing makes it clear that she’s crafting a fantasy world, not a reflection of Viking reality or even legend. Those looking for heathen solidarity or fiction built upon the legends of the Norse people may be disappointed to find that Heathen takes liberties with the historical material.

Though it’s not likely to be a significant problem for most readers, the retelling of the loss of Odin’s eye at the issue’s start is probably the oddest symptom, removing the already ambiguous sacrifice of the Aesir chief in favor of highlighting his paranoia further. It’s an odd little change that feels like it’s supposed to make Odin more malevolent, but really just removes the sense of mystery, especially since the story acknowledges that Odin already had spies watching Midgard.

The mythological Odin was a desperate old man who eagerly acted outside of his prescribed gender role and was only lightly worshiped, especially for a head of a pantheon. Strangely enough, the world of Heathen may very well be less queer than the historical reality.

But, while this creative license might irk queer pagans and pedants like me, Heathen crafts a beautiful story that successfully carves out a place for people who have been robbed of their place in our cultural history. So seeing a crew of badass women making a living on the sea or a mute character treated with kindness and respect help give Heathen’s cold colors warmth.

Alterici’s empathic lines and subtle colors make Heathen one of the most eye-catching and distinct books on the shelves. It’s incredible how easily she transitions from rich, vivid compositions to loose, expressive cartooning and how often she does so within a single page or even panel. Combined with thick, scratchy inks, the careful linework and muted colors pop to an extraordinary degree.

The mermaid designs are a particular highlight this issue. At once fearsome, beautiful, and childish, the mers have such immense personality that they practically drive the last half of the issue.

We’re also treated to some rather breathtaking panels of a divine fox and Alterici demonstrates an intuitive understanding of layouts, designing pages with simple arrangements that flow together naturally without surrendering the power to make a statement.

A slightly lighter story opens this second arc of Heathen. And though one would not be wrong to say that it seems less ‘necessary’ than some of its siblings, Heathen #5 reminds us what a pleasure it is to explore this world, especially after months of waiting.

A calm start to the second arc does nothing to blunt this series’ momentum, introducing characters you care about, stories to latch onto, and visuals you can’t help but get lost in. With some of the most lovely art in comics today and overwhelming heart, Heathen #5 is an enchanting fairytale that mixes sincerity and innocence with just enough bite to keep you on your toes. It’s kind of like a mermaid that way…