Writer-artist Josh Howard has killed many characters throughout the tenure of his creator-owned series "Dead@17" -Â not the least of which was main character Nara Kilday, who was resurrected by the end of "The 13th Brother" story-arc - but his most recent victim is perhaps the most tragic of them all.
In "Afterbirth," the recently concluded "Dead@17" miniseries published through Image Comics, Nara was forced to kill her longtime friend and ally Hazy Foss, both to end Foss' suffering and to save the world. But Nara's friend's death was simply one of many surprising developments that occurred over the course of "Afterbirth," as Nara herself ended the miniseries in Purgatory, an unchartered plane of existence for the heroic demon slayer.
Howard spoke with CBR News about his work on "Afterbirth," the process of killing off Hazy and what readers can expect from the future of "Dead@17," which only has two more miniseries left before completion.
"The main goal [of 'Afterbirth'] was to pay off all of the things I set up in the last arc, 'The 13th Brother,' specifically Pitch's plan and Nara's role as Gemini, both of which culminated in the death of Hazy and the opening of the Abyss," Howard told CBR about his goals and intentions in the story-arc. "I think this is the most open-ended arc I've ever done. Things are much worse off, which is the perfect set up for the home stretch of the series. In that sense, I think it was a success."
But that's not to say that Howard doesn't have some minor regrets. "I do wish 'Afterbirth' could have been a bit more friendly to new readers," he conceded. "It basically hits the ground running and expects you to keep up. I felt that the release of [the 'Dead@17: Ultimate Edition' collection] the month before ['Afterbirth' #1] freed me up to continue telling the story the way I wanted. If someone wanted to catch up, it was all there in one package. I've always tried to look at the story from the perspective of a finished product. When it's all done and you're reading it all the way through, it would be awkward to have all these recaps of who everyone is and what they've been doing in every chapter. It probably hurts the series in the short term, but in the long term I think it's the best way to go."
If you're expecting Hazy's death to be one of Howard's regrets, guess again. According to the writer-artist, Nara's best friend is truly gone forever. "She's dead," he insisted. "You may see her again through flashback or some other method, but the intention is that her role in the story is over."
At the end of the fourth issue of "Afterbirth," a suffering Hazy pleads with Nara to kill her, and while the protagonist is clearly resistant to the idea, she ultimately obliges Hazy's wishes for the greater good. Despite how difficult killing Hazy was for Nara, Howard said that writing and illustrating the scene wasn't quite as painful for him. "I had known it in my head for so long that neither writing nor drawing it had much of an emotional impact on me," he said. "In fact, part of me was excited to finally be telling this crucial part of the story. To have Nara be the one that does it was just so perfect because it's so tragic. It wasn't until it was finished and I read it all the way through that the emotional weight of what I had done hit me. I had lived with this character for 10 years and put her through so much hell. It was hard to let go, but I think she's earned her rest, which is why I felt it was important to show her reunited with her daughter at the end."
Nara, on the other hand, is about as far away from peace as it gets. Shortly after killing Hazy, Nara finds herself sucked into the now open Abyss, ultimately arriving in Purgatory as a result. "When we next see Nara, she's going to be in a completely different mental state," said Howard. "Killing Hazy takes a huge toll on her, and she basically feels that she deserves her banishment. Her time in Purgatory will be like a walk down memory lane. There will be lots of ghosts from her past she will have to confront, both figuratively and literally. She will have to face the question: 'What has she been fighting for, and is it worth going on?'"
With Hazy gone and Nara in Purgatory, the only person left on Earth to defend humanity against the evil Abraham Pitch is Bree, one of Nara's newest allies. "The biggest surprise for me [in 'Afterbirth'] was Bree," said Howard. "Despite what had happened to her and her father in the last arc, she didn't turn into some angst ridden character at odds with Nara. I think there had been enough of that. I thought it was cool that she would actually be inspired by Nara and become the sidekick that Hazy never was or could be. There's a lot more in store for Bree."
If Bree was a happy surprise for Howard, then Abraham Pitch's role in the mini-series was more disappointing. Pitch, whose soul currently inhabits his son's body, was the major villain of "Afterbirth," though Howard felt that the character still didn't get enough face time. "If one character got the short end of the stick, it was Pitch," he said. "There are still a lot of layers there that I haven't gotten to peel back yet. I worry about him appearing two dimensional, because he's not. He's just someone who crossed one line, and then another and another, until he found himself so far gone that redemption not only seemed impossible to him, but repulsive. One of my favorite book series of all time is 'Zorachus' and 'The Nightmare of God' by Mark Rogers. It's basically about a heroic wizard who goes undercover in a corrupt society and ends up becoming the enemy he hates. In fact, he becomes worse than them because at the back of his head, he knows that there is redemption for sins, but he feels the things he has done are so terrible that he shouldn't be forgiven, so he just spirals further and further into darkness. So that's the kind of thing I see at work in Pitch, which I hope to explore further in the future. At the end of 'Afterbirth,' although he seemed to achieve his goal, I think he ended up getting more than he bargained for."
Another character that wound up on the sidelines in "Afterbith" was Asia Black, whose soul cohabitates Nara Kilday's body to form the Gemini. "Originally, Asia [was going to play] a much bigger role in 'Afterbirth,'" said Howard. "In fact, one of the first ideas I had for this arc involved Asia basically taking over Nara's consciousness, and she was the one driving Nara to take all these extreme measures. But it just didn't feel right. It let Nara off the hook and introduced an unnecessary conflict between the two characters. Other characters have often driven Nara's fate, and I just felt it was important that she finally be in the driver's seat. So as the story developed, figuring out Asia's role became a little more difficult. But when I decided to sort of bookend the story with the Zodiac, I just had this image of her stumbling into the room, or wherever they happened to be, all beaten up and basically saying, 'We need your help!' It ended up being a smaller part for her, but I think it was the right one. Of course, the mystery now is what's happens to her now that Nara's been thrown into Purgatory, so there's still lots more to come from Asia."
With "Afterbirth" completed, Howard is setting his sights on the next arc, "The Witch Queen," which takes place entirely in Purgatory. "'The Witch Queen' marks a huge departure from everything that's come before," said Howard. "Think swords and sorcery as opposed to supernatural horror. Purgatory is essentially the universe's dumping ground, where things not welcome in Heaven or Hell end up. If you've read 'The Lost Books of Eve,' this will serve as the unofficial sequel to that in a lot of ways. But amidst all the craziness, Nara will be doing a lot of soul searching and might even find true love for the first time."
Howard's "The Witch Queen" debuts in March, and the writer-artist has plans to familiarize new readers with the saga ahead of time. In addition to the previously released "Dead@17: Ultimate Edition" trade paperback - which collects the first four volumes of the series - and this week's release of the "Afterbirth" trade paperback, Howard plans to unleash the "Dead@17: Sourcebook" in January, a collection that contains biographies and profiles on the book's main characters and the many mythological milestones of the "Dead@17" universe.
Readers both new and old will certainly want to brush up on their "Dead@17" know-how before "The Witch Queen" begins, as that miniseries marks the penultimate chapter of the franchise. "We're definitely nearing the end - there are only two arcs left, 'The Witch Queen' and then the grand finale," he said. "It will be hard to let it go, but I'm really looking forward to having the whole story finally told."
As for what happens once "The Witch Queen" ends and "Dead@17" enters its final chapter? According to Howard, the saga will return to Earth for the grand finale - and when that happens, it won't be pretty.
"It will be a very dark place," he warned.
The "Dead@17: Afterbirth" trade paperback hits comic book stores this week, with the "Dead@17: Sourcebook" shipping in January. The sixth miniseries, "Dead@17: The Witch Queen," begins next March.