Josh Howard Talks Dead@17 @Image

Nara Kilday died at 17. Then she was brought back to life, subsequently killed again, and finally resurrected -- again. It seems only fitting then that her comic book series "Dead@17" has followed a similar path by leaving one publisher behind for a brand new image.

Josh Howard, the writer-artist that created "Dead@17," has published the series with Viper Comics for the better part of the last decade. While the book has received critical acclaim and has maintained a loyal fan base, there was a sense that the concept was a big fish in a small pond; that the series could be something greater. Now, Howard is putting that notion to the test by bringing "Dead@17" away from Viper to its new home at Image Comics.

"It just felt like the right time," Howard told CBR News about the change in publishers. "I had contractually fulfilled my obligations to Viper and wanted to see if I could take it to the next level and broaden the book's exposure. Plus, it just benefited me emotionally and creatively to have a sort of fresh start after having worked on the book pretty regularly for about five years. I'll miss the camaraderie [of working at Viper]. Living in the same area, I got to know those guys pretty well and we had a great relationship. It was just a unique situation that I don't think will ever be replicated."

Given that camaraderie, Howard's break from Viper was clearly a difficult choice - but the "Dead@17" creator can already identify some of the advantages of working for a bigger brand name. "For starters, there's the huge ads in 'Previews' at the front of the book," said Howard, referring to Diamond Comic Distributors' product catalogue for retailers. "Not only was Viper a smaller publisher relegated to the back half of the book, but they were all the way back in the V's. I don't feel like a dirty little secret anymore. The trades will [also] be full size now. I was really into the smaller size for a while; not only was it a great cost cutting measure, but I liked the portability of it. But on the other hand, having it finally at full size makes it feel more legit somehow."

Readers will see the change from the book's original smaller page dimensions to a full size comic with the "Dead@17: Ultimate Edition" trade paperback, which hits stores on May 13. "It's the only version to have all four previous series in one volume. For the fans that already have everything, there are a couple of reworked sequences with new artwork," explained Howard. "I just got an early copy of the Ultimate Edition and the thing feels like a brick. You could kill a man with it!"

It's strangely appropriate that the massive "Dead@17" collection could be utilized as a weapon, given the deadly ingenuity exhibited by series leads Nara Kilday and Hazy Foss in their many death-defying scenarios. But practical use against demon invasions aside, the oversized book serves another purpose - catching the reader up. "Dead@17: Afterbirth," Howard's first original "Dead@17" miniseries with Image Comics, premieres in June, and fans looking to get up to speed with current events can look no further than the new collection. The new series follows Nara and Hazy as they continue to battle the Hellish demons that have plagued them throughout the franchise.

"'Afterbirth' largely deals with the fallout from 'The 13th Brother,'" Howard said of the plot. "Nara is back but she's human again and she doesn't have any special abilities. Earth has been cut off from Heaven so she's not getting any help that way either. She's on her own now, having to deal with and figure problems out on her own. She ends up taking some pretty drastic measures to combat the enemy that those around her don't necessarily agree with. Things spiral out of control pretty quickly."

"Afterbirth," which will be released as a monthly four-issue series, got its wince-worthy title from an unlikely source - Howard's wife. "I had spent about two weeks trying to nail a title down," recalled the writer-artist. "Most of the ones I thought of had already been taken, and nothing else was really capturing what I wanted to say. My wife jokingly suggested 'Afterbirth' and I was pretty appalled at first, but then realized the implications and how perfect it was. My wife pleaded for me not to use it, she just thought it was too disgusting!"

Despite an undeniably grizzly name, "Afterbirth" truly does have enormous thematic potential given the current standing of "Dead@17." In the last series, "The 13th Brother," Nara was reborn once more after dying in "Revolution." While she's back from the dead (again), her new life will not be a particularly easy one.

"Nara is human again," explained Howard. "There's nothing really extraordinary about her anymore, besides the fact that she now knows she's Gemini of the Zodiac, [a black-ops squadron from Heaven]. But without powers and guidance, that knowledge doesn't really do her much good. The huge dilemma she's facing this time are the ordinary people showing up with the demonic sigils on their foreheads. She's seen those symbols before, she knows what they mean, but no one else really does. The public is trying to explain it away as a virus or something. She basically takes matters into her own hands - with devastating results."

It's true that Nara is powerless going into "Afterbirth," but to say that she's no longer extraordinary isn't accounting for the other personality currently inhabiting her body. In "The 13th Brother," a new character named Asia Black was set up as the protagonist, but ended up dying halfway through the series to allow for Nara's resurrection on Earth. Just as fans had recovered from the bait-and-switch, Asia was revealed to be alive in spirit form, cohabiting Nara's body and being unleashed as the time called for it. Together, Nara and Asia are two sides of the same coin - dubbed the Gemini - and will continue to have an important role to share. Howard himself admitted that Asia will feature prominently in "Afterbirth," but couldn't reveal anymore than that without spoiling the series.

But even with Asia's arrival into the "Dead@17" mythos, she'll play second fiddle to the series' other lead, Hazy Foss. At the end of "The 13th Brother," Hazy became the living embodiment of the Key to the Abyss - a mythical artifact that could potentially wreak untold havoc upon the universe. "Hazy merging with the Key will definitely present some complications for her, in more ways than one," said Howard. "Hazy's probably gone through more difficulties and hardships than anyone in the series, and this is kind of the culmination of all that. For one, she doesn't feel entirely safe or protected since Nara no longer has her supernatural abilities. That's one of the driving points of the series - so the less said, the better."

Continuing the theme of what "Afterbirth" could stand for is Hazy's new status as a mother. As revealed in "The 13th Brother," Hazy had a child with longtime boyfriend and series favorite Elijah - but shortly after giving birth, Elijah was killed overseas in war and Hazy had to give her daughter up for adoption. It was later revealed that Hazy's baby was adopted by a pair of demons who will kill the child if Hazy doesn't comply with their wishes. By the time "Afterbirth" begins, Hazy has nearly lost all hope of ever finding her daughter, as Howard explained: "It's been three years since the last series, so I wanted there to be the understanding that they have already spent a lot of time looking for her daughter but as of yet having gotten nowhere. Hazy has almost reached the point of acceptance that she will never see her daughter again."

But one thing Hazy was given hope for in the previous series was a resurrection for Elijah. While captive by the demon Belphegor, Hazy was informed that opening the mysterious Abyss could lead to the revival of several people from Hazy's past - her parents, her brother and even Elijah. Howard said that the odds of Belphegor's words being true are slim to none. "He was willing to say almost anything to get Hazy to help him, so I would take that information with a grain of salt," admitted Howard. "What's really in the Abyss? We'll find out. But I will say for certain that Elijah is not coming back. He's dead dead."

One character that's not double-dead is Abraham Pitch, one of the series' long running villains and, previously, a disembodied head. Now, just as Nara and Asia cohabit the same body, the Pitch patriarch has used his son Zach as a similar vessel. "I think it's a cool juxtaposition - the hero and the villain both having these dual identities," said Howard. "Of course, the difference is that Nara is still in control of her body, but Papa Pitch is the one in control of his son's. And there's another aspect that's going to come into play that will really bring into focus the whole point of the Pitch father-son thing. Unfortunately, you won't really see much of Pitch in issue #1, but you'll get a hint at what he's been up to. Issue #2 really lays it out."

While there are guaranteed to be twists and turns along the way for "Afterbirth" - "expect a big, game-changing ending," Howard teased - one thing is certain: Nara is going to need help in order to stop Pitch and the demonic hordes that have waged war on Earth. The heroine will spend much of "Afterbirth" trying to recruit the aid of the Zodiac - a group of warriors described as "Heaven's black-ops squad," of which Nara herself was unwittingly a member as the dual-personality Gemini. Now, with the knowledge of the Zodiac and of her and Asia's shared role as Gemini, Nara hopes to find the heavenly soldiers - but even in that avenue, hope is a fleeting feeling.

"One of the things that Nara is holding out hope for is that the Zodiac will step in and give her a hand," Howard described. "The one problem is that she doesn't know who or where they are. Are they on Earth? And if not, can they get through now that Earth is cut off from Heaven? There's actually a very, very big reveal in regards to the Zodiac on the first two pages of issue #1. It may be one of the biggest revelations in the history of the series."

With the move to Image Comics, a massive collection of the previous adventures and a brand new jam-packed miniseries on the horizon, there's no question that now is the time to be riding the "Dead@17" wave. But even Howard had to admit that despite the book's success, there's only so far you can stretch a story out before it breaks.

"Things are building and you can only postpone the inevitable for so long before you're treading water or having to reboot the original concept," Howard conceded. "I do have an ending in mind, and as of now I have two more series to go before I get there. It could change, but I have a fairly good road map laid out of what's going to happen next and where it's all going. In fact, all the seeds for the grand finale are being planted in 'Afterbirth.' It's all setting the stage."

"Dead@17: Ultimate Edition" will hit shelves on May 13 from Image Comics, followed by the arrival of "Dead@17: Afterbirth" #1 on June 17.

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