By Natasha Alterici with Rachel Deering (Vault Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-939424-18-1 (TPB) ISBN: eISBN: 978-1-939424-19-8
The creation myths and heroic sagas of Scandinavia are part of a global grand storytelling heritage: classic epics of paragons that have been constantly retold and reinvented for more than a thousand years, subtly reshaded to suit every generation. Hereâ€™s one thatâ€™s boldly innovative and very much in tune and in demand at this moment in time.
In 2017 Natasha Alterici (Gotham Academy, Women of Marvel) began retelling those myths through a lens of female empowerment in an age still too much mired in gender subjugation. There are still talking beasts, fantastic beings and big brawny warriors aplenty and some of them are women, but here we get a look at what the consequences of a maiden bearing arms meant and what any act of female independence actually costâ€¦
Modern iterations of historical/fantasy scenarios are rife with glamorous women warriors, but whether the goal is prurient pandering (and what idiot believes skimpy chainmail bikinis and saucer-encased boobs count as armour?) or a well-meant attempt to balance scales of omission with the Sword & Sorcery equivalent of â€œcolourblind castingâ€, the truth is that that very few women fought beside male combatants in any combat. Against, most definitely, but thatâ€™s a wholly different scenario with their struggles being more in the nature of a violently resisting prize or momentary diversion from the macho business of butcheryâ€¦
Okay, maybe some pirates and legendary queens have been recorded as having joined in physical fighting, but traditionally, most women in combat were reduced to side roles or forced to disguise themselves AS MEN to even have a chance of surviving the attentions of their own allies and comradesâ€¦
A far more reasonable and rational scenario underpins this vivid reworking of the Valkyriesâ€™ legend, with fugitive Norsewoman Aydis riding out on a most private mission. Capable and doughty as any male, she shares with her horse Saga how Godking Odin created the fierce and beautiful Choosers of the Slain to escort menâ€™s souls to Valhalla â€¦if they fell in battle. She also relates how their leader Brynhild once disobeyed micromanaging, conniving, petty Odin and was punished by exile and compelled to marry a mortal.
Crafty Brynhild thought she had the last word, convincing her creator to allow her to test her suitorsâ€™ mettle. This was done by confining her atop a mountain behind a wall of magic fire, where only the bravest, strongest and most worthy would dare to goâ€¦
Aydis is inspired by this tale as she hunts a deer and meets again Liv, reexperiencing the moment they kissed and how it changed both lives. Their act of deviancy could only be expunged by death or marriage, but while Livâ€™s father married her off immediately, Aydisâ€™ sire had apparently opted to execute the degenerate fruit of his loinsâ€¦
Now, the almost-lovers meet over a slaughtered stag and ruefully ponder what might have been and how it might feel to not be manâ€™s property. They are interrupted by a rampaging bullâ€¦
Aydis easily defeats the maddened beast only to find it is shapeshifting trickster god Ruadan who lets slip that he is watching her on behalf of an intrigued god and that immortals live cyclic lives, reliving the same stories over and againâ€¦
Aydis is resolved her existence will break the eternal mould. Bidding farewell to Liv, she fashions a warrior helmet from the stag and sets out to free Brynhild and chart the course of her own lifeâ€¦
This initial collection gathers the first four issues of Heathen, and chapter 2 opens with wolf gods Skull and Hati idly debating food, entertainment and ending the world until one sibling steps into a metal trap he cannot break. Happily, Saga – whom they were disinterestedly stalking – is a most unique special steed and frees the godlingâ€™s paw, even as high above them all, Aydis clears the flame wall and rouses Brynhild.
She does not seek to marry the Valkyrie, but rather prove her own bravery and liberate a fellow captive of fate from male-ordained doom, but itâ€™s not that simple. Nothing ever isâ€¦
When they reach solid ground again, Brynhild reveals a shocking secret about Saga just as other Valkyries arrive, led by their new chieftain – love divinity Freyja. The scheming immortal takes one look and kidnaps Aydis to her heavenly citadelâ€¦
The saga diverges here as Aydis becomes a guest of hedonistic Freyja, leaving the defrocked Chooser of the Slain and Saga to roam the Nordic lands, seeking allies to help them challenge the gods in their own kingdom. More secrets are shared and Aydis learns hard truths in heaven, winning an ally in mute mortal Shannon, even as on Earth, Brynhild experiences the unjust status and roles women must endure. Eventually, she reunites with a tragic hero. Centuries previously, Sigurd was the last man to free her from the flames and in these new times, he still lives, thanks to wily Odinâ€™s divinely pedantic curseâ€¦
The final chapter sees an end to Aydisâ€™ time in heaven, while on Earth, her would-be rescuers wander into another savage situation caused by humanityâ€™s hidebound rules on who and how to love. This situation is further exacerbated by a new sect called Christians, who not only frown on â€œunnaturalâ€ love, but will not tolerate wise women and witches dispensing potions and advice. Typically, Brynhild has a most forceful and fast-acting resolution to a growing hostage situation and building riotâ€¦
And for Aydis and Shannon, a Rubicon is crossed as the outcast warrior declares war on the father of the godsâ€¦
Thrilling, compelling and beautifully illustrated, Heathen ran to 3 volumes (now available as a Complete Omnibus edition since a movie adaptation imminently looms), but here the epic concludes with a gallery of the original wraparound covers rendered by Tess Fowler & Tamra Bonvillain, with variants from Alterici, Jen Bartel and Nathan Gooden sweetening the deal.
A delicious and wry alternate take on primal heroic myths, this book offers fresh ideals and a fair shake at last while proving the Good Fight can be fought by anybody for everybody.
Â© 2017 Natasha Alterici. All rights reserved.