Published on October 7th, 2015 | by Lauren McPhee0
10 Questions With… Natasha Alterici
Natasha Alterici is a comics creator relatively new to the industry, but after coming across her book, Heathen, on Comixology, I was intrigued to find out more about her work, her experience entering the comics industry, and what more we might see from her in the near future. Heathen, meanwhile, is the story of a Viking woman attempting to tear down the patriarchal rule of the god-king Odin. Sentenced to either marriage or death by her tribe as punishment for kissing another girl, Aydis’s father leads her into exile. Then, in order to prove her strength and bravery, as well as defy Odin’s decrees, she goes on a quest to free the Valkyrie, Brynhild, imprisoned on a mountaintop of fire until a mortal brave enough can rescue and then marry her. A story inspired by Norse mythologies, speaking to social issues that persist in their relevance today, Heathen is beautiful, relevant, engaging and well-told. Which brings us to our ten questions:
NTC: Heathen is a comic about a young, queer woman in a very strict patriarchal society. Obviously, this reflects issues that are very prevalent in society at the moment, and it important to reflect that in art, literature and culture. How does the Norse setting and mythology contribute to your telling of this story and the representation of these issues?
NA: Heathen got it’s start as a costume design for the Renaissance Fair, just a horned helmet and a fur kilt that I crafted myself in defiance of corsets and puffy sleeves. The costume was so much fun to draw I kept drawing it even after the fair, and when I saw this character beginning to appear over and over in my sketch book, I decided to write her a story. Before I began there was one thing I wanted to keep in mind; this book should feature a marginalized person as it’s hero.
For the vast majority of human history, women have been subject to men, locked up, abused, silenced, and controlled by their fathers and brothers and husbands, and even considered the legal property of men. This was no different in Norse culture. Men and women had distinct roles, strict gender lines that were not to be crossed. And marriage was expected, men and women who avoided it were shunned or even punished by law. Needless to say, same sex relationships were entirely out of the question. So with all this in mind, which marginalized person from Norse society could I mostly easily relate to, and already happen to have a killer character design for? A lesbian named Aydis.
Even though modern western culture has made great strides towards equality for women and LGBT people, we still have a very long way to go. I grew up in a rural town in Oklahoma. “Heathen” was a word I learned in Sunday school, used to describe anyone who didn’t follow that expected path, anyone who rejected the traditional norms. Too often does the “heathen” also turn out to be the marginalized person.
NTC: You did a lot of research in order to produce this story. How deeply does Norse history and mythology penetrate Heathen’s own mythology? Other than Norse mythology, are there any additional influences that drew or inspired you in your development of this series?
NA: When I started to concept this comic, I had little knowledge of Norse mythology outside of what was presented via Marvel, but I’m doing my best to avoid any of those more iconic characters like Thor and Loki. I knew there must be different (read: female) characters that I could focus on. So, I headed to the local library and gathered as many books as I could on the subject. The story that struck me the hardest was that of Brynhild (also spelled Brynhildr or Brünnhilde). I completely fell in love with her. She was a warrior, a queen, beautiful and deadly and certainly a figure that would terrify any Norseman. Despite all this power, she was still subject to a man (Odin), still subject to the patriarchy. He jumped at the chance to put her in her place when she stepped out of line, made an example of her. And the curse he laid on her was uniquely demonstrative of how unacceptable her disobedience was, it was articulated in such a way as to put her even lower than the mortal men she used to strike terror in. It’s as if Odin was saying, “In spite of all your might, all of your power, at the end of the day, you are still just a woman.” This tale drives Aydis, it perfectly illustrates everything she sees as unjust in her world, and therefore it drives the rest of the story.
I try to pull in other existing characters and stories from the Norse mythos, but in such a way that it ties back to the Brynhild tale, so we have a central focus. Some of the other things I wanted to bring in were the Norse idea of cyclical time and the concept of “wyrd” (similar to the fate or destiny, but more flexible), the tale of Sigurd who released Brynhild from the fire prior to the Heathen timeline, and others.
NTC: You do a beautiful job of representing gods and immortals in your story, from Saga, to Ruadan, to Skoll and Hati. The goddess, Freyja, for example, is particularly striking and evocative in her design. Yet, these immortal characters remain very accessible. How did you approach representing such iconic characters, and in what ways did you attempt to put your own spin on them?
NA: Writing immortal characters has been much more fun than I imagined it would be. I feared that since there are preexisting stories about them that this would put me in a creative box, so to speak, and limit what I could do with them. But I found that for many of the characters there was actually very little written about them, so I had to fill in a lot of huge blanks. Take Ruadan, all that I found about him was that he was a trickster and a spy. And pretty much nothing else, so I had to imagine that the best spy would be a shapeshifter, and that in turn would make him a bit of a showoff. Skull and Hati are said to be demon wolf brothers who eat the sun and the moon at Ragnorak (the end of the world). That’s an interesting start, for me the next logical step is that with nothing to do but wait for the world to end, these wolves would have to be bored out of their minds.
As for Freyja, well she has certainly been the most interesting and tricky character to write so far. In a story where a girl is punished for a kiss, the goddess of love and sex getting involved is inevitable. It was important for me that although she presents herself in a frank and sexual manner, modesty not being in her wheelhouse, her role is never that of a sexual object. Imagine an all powerful deity who chooses to concentrate her power on pleasure, she’s never wrathful, never vulnerable, just the pure embodiment of love. These are the things I kept in mind for her.
With every character it’s important to me that the audience finds something about them that they see in themselves or in people they know, in both the protagonists and antagonists. Good characters have weakness, motivations, history, and mannerisms all their own.
NTC: Along with costume design, what other influences inspired your distinct artistic vision of the Norse mythos in Heathen, such as character design, clothing, and the beautiful, simplistic landscapes that make up the background of the comic?
NA: It is my firm belief that all elements on the page should add to the story, never take away from it. Because of this I spent a long time designing the world of the story, the characters, and the overall visual aesthetic before ever starting actual page work. For Heathen I knew there were specific themes that needed to be addressed, both in the message of the story and in the emotional state of the characters therein. I’ll touch on the emotional aspect first; for many of the characters we see them battling with loneliness. A barren field or a cold lifeless forest are the perfect setting to support that feeling of isolation. I tend to shy away from cluttered panels, I find them not only distracting but visually tense and difficult to read. The only time I feel the need to fill the panel with background characters or other elements is in establishing shots, where that information helps the reader grasp where we are. But once that is settled, I cut them out again.
When it came to character and costume design, well as I discussed prior, the story only came about as a result of an actual costume I designed for myself to wear to Ren Fair. And in fact the costume Aydis wears isn’t much different than the one I wore (her’s is admittedly cooler as she has legit sewing skills that I lack). As I started to plan out an actual book, I did the usual; researched the historical clothing and armor of the time, as well as art from the era. Eventually I found myself moving away from the research, as I started to notice that most Norse influence works has a really similar visual style. My comic isn’t like the rest, so I didn’t want it to look like the rest. At the end of the day, I make this book for myself more than anyone else. I make a comic that appeals to me, satisfies what I want and need and can’t find on the shelves already. I’m just happy that there are people out there who find it does the same for them.
NTC: You mention “wyrd”, the Norse concept of cyclical fate, whereby the world ends in Ragnorak and then restarts again, and as Ruadan states, the immortals live cyclical lives. Aydis, meanwhile, is bucking the cyclical trend going on. Can you say any more about the themes of fate, cycles and repetition that are present in Heathen? How binding are these constructions?
NA: Wyrd is an interesting concept. I don’t generally gravitate toward a story where the main character has a “Destiny” or was somehow chosen for some important task. I don’t believe that’s ever true in real life. I think it’s ordinary people who can make a difference when in matters. So the entire idea of “destiny” to me is elitist and it isn’t something I would want to incorporate into a story of my own, but wyrd is different. In Norse mythos, they believe that time is cyclical, that world ends and starts anew and we all relive the same(ish) life again. So wyrd as I understand it refers to this cycle, it refers to the life were are living and going to live again and again, and nothing can change that. But, what’s differentiates wyrd from fate is that wyrd isn’t set in stone, it’s flexible. In fact, it’s said that at the center of this wyrd cycle is a tree where everyone’s life, mortal and immortal alike, are carved into the trunk by the Norns. A living, growing organism has the stories of all living things written in it, and as with any tree, it’s shape changes. So the Norse then believed that while some aspects of your life will always be true, always be part of that particular cycle of time, your fate could still be changed by your actions. So perhaps Aydis is always destined to be banished from her village, and Brynhild destined to be cursed by Odin again and again, but maybe together they can find a way to make these events work for the better. Perhaps.
NTC: After the first 4 issues are released as a trade paperback, will there be any chance for more stories featuring our lesbian heroine, Aydis? Do you have any other ideas in mind for her or will her story end with the conclusion of the series?
NA: Absolutely! This trade will not be the end of Aydis’s story. I have notes and outlines for the next four issues that will compose the second trade, which continues the same story line. I will take some time to write out the scripts and get new pages ready and then launch a Kickstarter for Volume 2 probably in the early spring. We had such a good turn out for the first one, and I’m so very grateful for every person that backed it, but I think it would be good to give all the new fans who came on afterward a chance to help produce the next installment. This won’t be an ongoing series, I have an endpoint in mind, and it’s probably around the issue 12 mark.
NTC: You’ve stated your desire to work on comics full time; with Heathen, how close have you come to achieving that aim? What are you most looking forward to or hoping for as a consequence of producing your own comic? And what are you plans for NYCC?
NA: It is my goal to go full time as soon as possible. I keep a part time job to help pay the bills and I take on a handful of commissions to pay the rest of the bills. Heathen is still a project of passion, I don’t make much money off it yet, but it’s still in a fairly small market. The publisher Literati Press has been vital in getting Heathen in print. It was about a year ago when I first pitched it to Charles Martin (Literati president and editor). I only had a handful of pages finished and a rough script for the rest of issue one, and nothing written for the rest of the series. He encouraged me to finish it, and now here we are 3 issues in. The Comixology team has been phenomenal in helping us reach an even wider audience, and I hope that after the NYCC exposure and buzz we’ll grow that fan base even more.
In an ideal world, I’d be working on a solo comic project as my full time gig, and either a handful of covers for other titles or a second comic project that I’m working on with a partner. And no part time job. And also I’d have a cat.
I don’t want to get my hopes up as for what will happen after NYCC, but I want to be selling enough copies of Heathen that I can dedicate more of my time to continuing the series and starting work on my next projects. During Comic Con I’ll be set up at the Comixology booth on Thursday from 3-7 pm and Friday from 5-7 pm, I’ll be signing and sketching, and in addition to the comic books, I’m bringing some dinosaur coloring sheets. All kids and kids at heart will be invited to sit and color with me.
NTC: You’ve also done collaborative projects as well as your own. What are the main differences, rewards or restrictions of individual vs collaborative work? What do you look for in a collaborative project?
NA: Heathen is the first big project where I’ve taken on both the writing and art (and lettering!). It’s been a vastly different experience that collaborating with a partner. While I’ve had the pleasure of working with some very talented people in the past, and I hope to do more collaborations in the future, going solo on this one was what I needed at this point in my life, for the freedom of it and for self validation. Having said that I would be remiss not to thank my fantastic editors, Charles Martin, Rebecca Rutledge, and Kristen Grace. I trust them completely to point out when I’ve got tunnel vision or I’ve made a character do something completely out of character or if something isn’t reading the way I intended. These three have been fantastic people to work with on this project, because I know they have good instincts when it comes to storytelling, and they are honest intelligent people.
Every now and then I get solicited to team up on a new comic book, and unfortunately I almost always have to decline. Largely due to scheduling conflicts, but sometimes too because I am getting more picky about the projects I want to work on. I want to build a catalog of works that mostly feature strong intriguing women, LGBT people, and POC. So as I go forward in my career I look to work with people that share that passion. And it helps if they’ve got an obsession with dinosaurs as I do.
NTC: Do you have any current or upcoming projects that you can tell us about? Or is there a particular project that you would like to work on in the future?
NA: I have been in talks with a couple people about potential collaborations, some stories that I’m pretty excited about actually, but not ready to announce anything yet.
I can tell you that I’ve been scheming a dinosaur themed project, which feels long overdue, since dinosaurs are the #1 thing I love to draw. In fact, if I didn’t have art, I probably would have been an archaeologist. I have several short stories that I’d like to pull together into an anthology. I was thinking about distributing it via Patreon, so every month or so patrons would get a new short kickass dinosaur-themed comic. Still trying to figure out the logistics of it.
NTC: We have a special Need to Consume Question that we like to ask: do you have a favourite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle? Who is it, and why?
NA: Hmm, I’d say Donatello. Because he’s a scientist, a problem solver, and he’s a peacemaker. And because in the arcade game his staff has the longest reach.
Thank you, Natasha, for speaking with us! We wish you the best of luck and I encourage all of our readers to pick up Heathen and if you are going to NYCC, stop by at Natasha’s table to say hi and colour dinosaurs for me! Here’s your reminder that Natasha will be at NYCC at the Comixology booth, Thursday, 3-7 pm and Friday from 5-7 pm.