To say comics writer Tini Howard (Rick and Morty, Hack/Slash) is obsessed with death is putting it mildly. Euthanauts, her new creator-owned book through IDW’s Black Crown label, is an odyssey through a world in which some people are privy to knowledge of the afterlife and are able to prepare for it, a process that includes tethering their souls to another living being. The comic's name is largely an allusion to euthanasia, but the book itself is laced with fantasy, horror, existentialism, and a little bit of science. Co-created with artist Nick Robles, Euthanauts makes the idea of the afterlife a little less scary.
The protagonist is Thalia Rosewood, a funeral home receptionist who is knocked out by Dr. Mercy Wolfe, a dying scientist, who then tethers her soul to Thalia before entering the next phase in life. Thalia didn’t ask for this, but in trying to understand it, she discovers the people that Dr. Wolfe left behind are just as eccentric and far out as the idea of welcoming death.
Euthanauts is Howard’s third creator-owned series and the follow-up to the wildly funny Assassinistas. She spoke with SYFY WIRE to talk all about death and Euthanauts, which debuts its second issue today.
Euthanauts involves a very elaborate system to prepare for the afterlife, including some major long-term planning, right?
Yeah! And we'll go more into the selection process as the book unravels. That's one of Thalia's big mysteries – why me? But one of the core ideas of dying as a Euthanaut is the idea of self-deliverance. That dying on your own terms (and I'd like to be clear that this refers to euthanasia and not mental-health-based suicide), one of the bravest, scariest things anyone can do, could be rewarded with a sort of... level up. It's a sort of love letter to all of the people brave enough to say, "I'd like to exit graciously, please," and who have done that.
What made Thalia the right person to be Dr. Mercy Wolfe’s tether?
You'll see. [Smiling] It's a mystery for her, too. There's something very present right now about characters with a desire for meaning. Thalia's an elder millennial, like myself; she's full of ennui.
In addition to the dazzling visuals, what did Nick bring to the table that surprised even you?
So much! Nick named the Euthanaut forms, he's rearranged pages to make an issue read better, and even helped me solidify the series' end. This book is Nick's as much as it is mine, through and through. Nick jumped right into this world and plugged in his own loves, fears, and desires, and I'm so grateful. He's a genius.
Who are the key characters introduced in the second issue?
Indigo: He’s one of our main characters and an important foil to Thalia. She’s someone who surrounds herself in death but accepts none of it, Indi is the opposite. He accepts death, and so spends his time living well.
Karen: When it comes to death and dying, family is an unavoidable part of that. Karen is Mercy's daughter, but she wasn't really part of her death. She was just the executor of the etiquette surrounding it... that hurts her, as it should. It wouldn't be a book about life-after-death if people couldn't do strange and terrible things with the way people feel about you after you die, I'll just say that.
Dr. Wolfe’s lab rats, Circe and Guillaume: What's a good spooky character without a pair of goons? But Circe and Guillaume aren't goons at all, they're intelligent, warm, and brilliant. I admit to doing that on purpose. I wanted to introduce them as a pair of goons but give them a larger, richer life. And now I love them, for better or for worse.
What beliefs of the afterlife or purgatory states did you explore for Euthanauts?
One of the most fascinating things about death is that we often use religion to process it – but it isn't inherently religious, we just naturally build rituals around universal things. Even if you don't have a religion at all, you still die. There is no escaping it. It's the only universal human experience. So even if your rituals are based in other things, funerary ideas of "etiquette" and "dignity," or scientific "just let me decay and return my atoms to the earth" – both of those show intent and ritual.
So to answer the question – a lot! I read dozens of books, everything from Caitlin Doughty to Jessica Mitford to books like Derek Humphry's Final Exit, books about taking control of our own bodies when we die and after we're dead.
Did any of that reading help take away the fear of death for you?
There was a time when I managed my fear by avoidance, but you know what they say – absence makes the heart grow fonder. I realize I love death, I have to, it's what driving my every move! Wanting to tell stories, have the best experiences, feel everything I can feel, make life better for others – none of these things matter, without death. So in a way, yeah.
Accepting that I wasn't gonna get turned into a vampire like I wanted and that I am gonna die someday, control was a big part of that. I want my loved ones to be there, I want to commend my body into their hands for washing and loving and goodbyes. It really soothes me, to think about being cared for like that after I'm gone. It's why that's the very first scene of Euthanauts. Nick and I are saying, look, this dead body, it will be you someday, too. But look at how beloved it is.
I wasn't trying to break anyone's minds open with regard to death, truly. What I was more trying to do was find the universality in the beliefs I did discover. And one of my favorite things I uncovered (and Caitlin Doughty, again, gets MASSIVE credit for bringing this idea back into the forefront for my generation) but the idea that there's something inherently toxic in the idea that we avoid death, that we die in hospitals or in rooms where we're bagged up by the coroner and taken away. I'm made nervous by death and dead things. I'm not like Thalia, who got a job at a funeral home. I was like everyone else - avoiding death and feeling nervous even at super sterile, standard funerals.
So the question that Euthanauts posits is - does a familiarity and acceptance of death open up new possibilities for us, as people who die?
Was there something beautiful you discovered or did you find it more terrifying the deeper down the rabbit hole you went?
Sometimes I think the scariest thing about all this would be not dying. You know? How isolating would that be, to be the only one who didn't get to experience it?
How long have you been fascinated with death?
I've wanted to write something that dealt with my feelings about death for a very long time, and kept putting it off, like I needed to be older before I could understand. And then (David) Bowie died, just days after releasing Blackstar, and it contextualized the whole album. It was art as a meditation on death, while facing death. That was what I wanted to do, but with someone younger, someone like me who isn't facing it as imminently. But as they say, we could all die tomorrow. Or even today.
Euthanauts touches on the connection you’ve made between death and outer space, could you explain that?
I wish I could remember when that clicked for me, but space scares the hell out of me. So there's this idea that death is just a cold black nothing. My thought was, "Okay, so what if you wake up in the nothing?" Add that to my Blackstar spinning and I think I thought of a death-version of Major Tom. Someone who goes out too far. That always haunted me.
What inspired your back cover columns at the end of each issue?
I went to a local museum exhibit recently about death and dying, and a lot of the information there was encouraging people to consider these things - wills, trusts, hospice, and what they want done with their remains. I said to myself, 'I should do something like that in the back - teach people how to get a will, and stuff!' But then I realized I had no idea how to do that myself, so I said, 'well. Let's let the pros do it,' and the rest was history. I have to thank books like Sex Criminals and Bitch Planet for their forward-thinking, excellent back-matter for inspiring me that people would enjoy something like this, and it's gone over GREAT. People love our Death Sentences!
Is there a hidden message or theme in Euthanauts about living, through the exploration of the dying?
When you write most comics, you're writing about an experience that most people will never have. Being a superhero, fighting a zombie, whatever. But me, I'm writing about dying. And we all die. So that's neat.
Euthanauts #2 is written by Tini Howard, drawn by Nick Robles, colored by Eva De La Cruz, and lettered by Aditya Bidikar. It is published by IDW’s Black Crown label and is out today in print and digital.