A Gorgeous Comic Tells Norse History With a Lesbian Bent

In her comic Heathen, writer and artist Natasha Alterici manages an impressive feat by turning one of the most beloved myths in Norse mythology into a gorgeously realized lesbian love story. Alterici originally self-published the comic online but the print trade compendium of the first four issues, published by Literati Press, debuted in January and is now widely available. She's currently running a Kickstarter to publish the second volume.

Heathen tells the tale of a young woman, Aydis, whose death had to be faked by her father in order for her to escape her village. Her crime was kissing another young woman. Not content to wallow or escape into anonymity far from home, however, she decided to leap into a tale so old it had already passed into legend in her time: the story of Brynhild.

The goddess Frejya (right) and warrior Aydis in Heathen

Brynhild (whose name is alternately and more commonly spelled Brünhilde) is an archetypal figure in Norse myth whose story has inspired countless retellings, perhaps most famously in opera—in Richard Wagner’s epic, 15-hour long Ring Cycle. She was the proud leader of the Valkyries, women warriors astride winged steeds who escorted the dead from the plains of battle to eternal glory in Valhalla, and who had the power to decide battles. Odin (also known as Wotan), had final say, however, on who lived and died, who won and lost. The circumstances of this vary in retellings, but in Heathen Brynhild strikes down a king that Odin had fated to win a battle. For defying him, Brynhild is cursed to lay in a deep sleep on Earth, where she will marry the first man who wakes her. Her last act of agency is to agree to the punishment on the condition that she be wreathed by a wall of fire that only the best and bravest of men might breach. Odin agrees, and thus Brynhild is put to sleep, awaiting her warrior groom.

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Heathen is the tale of a young woman who would be that brave warrior. The “groom” part, well, that’ll be ironed out later. With Alterici’s skillful storytelling and gorgeous art, everything old is made new again. Fidelity to the original tale is less important than Alterici’s artful emphasis on characters and themes that make these myths meaningful to the hundred-times-removed descendants of the original authors.

The story could be that simple, and yet what many other authors would’ve made a climax, Alterici renders as prologue. A fiery rescue begins a romance that makes up the brilliantly drawn drama, which includes a contest of gods and demigods, a love triangle (or quadrangle?), and a forced separation. Alterici is that rarest of comic writers whose sense of story and pacing is equal to her tremendous artistic skill. The color palette of Heathen is limited yet profoundly expressive—the comic feels like a sepia twilight of the gods. Meanwhile, the way in which the story unfolds, beat by beat, is almost geometric in its precision. It flows easily, and Aydis’ penchant for telling stories allows exposition to feel organic rather than forced.

The powerful Brynhild.

It actually puts one in the mind of Wagner’s Ring, which fused ancient Norse myths with a strikingly modern psychodrama. The opera’s bottomless emotionality made a high art of extravagant expressiveness—from forbidden lusts to bloody anguish—setting a pattern for our contemporary popular works that is now nearly banal. In the Ring Cycle, the characters’ inner-lives are rendered external and visible, given mythic proportions. Alterici follows on that tradition and gives it yet another twist. The forbidden love is there: gay men and lesbian women appear in a world that clearly despises them. At one point in the comic, the bare-bosomed portrayal of Freyja, goddess of love and Brynhild’s successor among the Valkyries, speaks to similarly unrestrained passions that define her character. But it’s the feminist message–one that situates Aydis as a heroine trying to tear down the patriarchal constraints that have come to fetter her people–that channels all of that expressiveness and its profoundly beautiful visual realisation into a potent, original take on a very old story.

My only complaint is that it’s all over too soon. I could read this queer Norse mythology for the next millennium.

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by Katherine Cross
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Katherine Cross is a PhD student and sociologist at the CUNY Graduate Center and a games critic.

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