The New Superhero Playbook

A look at the greatest gift of DCeased, and how the team behind it turned a familiar idea into a potential future for superhero comics.

Since the title was first announced, I had a very specific nickname for Tom Taylor, Trevor Hairsine, Stefano Gaudiano, Rain Beredo, and Ken Lopez’s DCeased, and one that wasn’t all that creative or kind if I’m being honest. I dubbed it “DC’s Marvel Zombies,” a sobriquet that made me laugh at the time 1 even if there was never a doubt I’d buy its first issue, if only because of my faith in Taylor as an idea man.

Greg Capullo’s cover to DCeased #1

Now, on the surface, DC’s Marvel Zombies is a moniker that fits DCeased. It tells a story of a DC universe of unknown number being infected by the Anti-Life Equation, as Darkseid successfully deploys it through people’s devices thanks to the compelled aid of Cyborg, transforming the bulk of the world into bloodthirsty (sort of) zombies because it turns out we really like our devices. 2 Cue a whole lot of death and destruction, as DC’s heroes endeavor to save the day, save the world, and save the ones they love over the first six-issue mini-series.

As amusing as Marvel Zombies may have been and as apt as my pet name is on a very surface level, DCeased is a completely different animal in actual execution. It’s also something that has proven to be much more than I expected, just like the Anti-Life Equation was a heck of a lot more than Darkseid was predicting. 3 What began as an idea we had seen elsewhere before – at least in theory – has turned into something completely different over an array of mini-series, one-shots, and digital first titles.

While it very easily could have just been a variation on an existing formula, an entertaining interlude from a talented creative team, it – either accidentally or intentionally – may have revealed a way forward for superhero comics. A version of superhero comics that isn’t just endless tangles of personal histories, but high drama executed in an approachable way. By simultaneously embracing and denying continuity and through its reliance on atypical and typically frowned upon formats, Tom Taylor, Trevor Hairsine and the team supporting it at DC might be onto something special here, if only comics can recognize why DCeased has been the smash it is.

But just in case they can’t, let’s take a look at the elements that make this – dare I say it – franchise not just a great comic, but the playbook to a more accessible future for superhero comics.

Before we get into the deep nerd part of this piece, we’re going to start with the sizzle, not the steak, and by that I mean the comic itself. And it all begins with one of the most polarizing words in superhero comics: continuity. Depending on who you’re talking to, continuity is likely either a four-letter word or everything that makes these stories special. The spectrum between “lifeblood” and “anchor” is a broad one, and it’s something that many writers and editors struggle to balance, with its usage often ranging from laissez-faire handwaving to sacrosanct obsession.

From DCeased #2, art by Trevor Hairsine, Stefano Gaudiano and Rain Beredo

This is not a problem for DCeased. That’s by design, as this story was always destined to be its own thing. After all, it’s a comic that so far has largely been about the death of the Earth because of the Anti-Life Equation. The sequel mini-series to the first volume is literally called “Dead Planet.” This is not your standard Earth One or New Earth or “whatever Earth DC is currently on” type tale; this is an Elseworlds-like story. DCeased operates within its own continuity altogether.

And yet, it doesn’t at the very same time.

Now, I readily admit that the previous sentence is a silly, contradictory thing to say. But that’s a line Taylor is uniquely skilled at walking. His stories either are 4 or feel 5 completely exempt from continuity while also being built off established ideas of the well-known characters he works with. What Taylor does is very similar to what the best superhero movies do, in the sense that they aren’t adapting specific stories starring these characters as much as they are working off accepted parameters of what makes these characters lasting and undeniable pop culture icons.

And the way Taylor does this is, instead of referencing specific beats or shared history involving DC’s heroes and villains, he boils each character down to their most essential ideas. Superman cares for everyone. Alfred is always there for those he serves. John Constantine is the anarchist who can’t help but do what’s right (eventually). The Creeper is weird. Solomon Grundy was born on a Monday. Each character has shorthand that allows writers to make them feel real and correct without needing to bury readers in decades of story. Few use that shorthand better than Taylor.

Bizarrely, this makes it incredibly easy for DCeased to feel both timeless and like logical continuations of previous stories. Case in point: DCeased: Hope at World’s End #3, a comic about Wally West and other speedsters doing everything they can to save Keystone City from disaster. Within the 13 screens of that story, Taylor manages to tell a simple, effective story about fast people struggling to keep up with the rate of spread of this plague, while also – and I am not overstating this in the slightest – feeling like the natural continuation of everything writer Mark Waid did with Wally West, Bart Allen, Max Mercury and Jesse Quick in the 1990s. You don’t need to know the latter aspects to enjoy the story, but when you read it and know, you can’t help but be impressed by how deftly Taylor and artist Carmine Di Giandomenico work Bart and Max’s relationship, the Speed Force, Wally and Max’s relationship with it, and other ideas into this short, impactful story. 6

This is an incredibly difficult concept to balance. Lean too far towards what preceded you and reading the comic feels like trying to pass a test you don’t have the answers to; go in the opposite direction and it can feel as if you’re being spoonfed. And yet, it’s something Taylor seemingly does with ease. 7 It’s even more impressive when you consider how he does all of this while systematically taking DC’s Trinity off the board, as *spoilers for DCeased!* Batman is killed relatively early on in the series, Superman is infected and turned into an unstoppable monster, and Wonder Woman becomes the story’s most visible villain.

So instead of relying on DC’s most famous heroes, many of the emotional through lines come from legacy characters like Jonathan Kent and Damian Wayne as well as secondary players like Jason Todd and Cheetah. That could – and arguably should! – add to the degree of difficulty of this whole exercise, but Taylor and collaborators like Hairsine, Karl Mostert and Laura Braga successfully build drama naturally from character and story rather than what you’d find on DC’s Wikipedia page. It’s a hell of a thing.

You might be wondering why all of this is special or important. The answer to that is crucial to the power of DCeased: it is truly accessible to readers of all varieties.

Don’t know who any of these characters are? You get everything you need from the text itself. Know a lot about all of them? Your read will be enriched by that knowledge, yet never reliant on it. It maximizes the impact of every character who appears, whether you’re talking A-listers like Superman and Lois Lane or D-listers like Solomon Grundy and The Creeper, whose partnership will forever make you feel emotions when the phrase “Tree Lobster” is uttered within your presence.

The continuity-free yet continuity-full approach to DCeased offers the best of both worlds, giving us the ability to not just see DC’s icons thrive but what the DC universe would look like if legacy characters and those on the periphery ran the show. And it never misses a beat, despite that being far outside the norm for superhero comics.

In short, it shows us what every superhero comic should feel like, and yet so few rarely do.

Now, the steak. While the creative approach to DCeased has set it apart in a very real way, it’s also arguably more difficult to recreate, as not every writer is as adept as Tom Taylor at approaching superhero storytelling in such a way. 8 But what might be an easier to recreate – and even more essential – part of what makes the DCeased playbook so important to the future of superhero comics is its unconventional publishing approach, and how impactful finding the right solutions for the right projects can be.

Howard Porter’s cover to DCeased: Unkillables #3

Let’s talk about that approach. So far, DCeased has been a six-issue mini-series (the initial DCeased series), a one-shot exploring other, arguably B-list 9 heroes attempting to save the day (DCeased: A Good Day to Die), a three-issue mini-series telling the same story from the perspective of villains, anti-heroes, and James Gordon (DCeased: Unkillables), a 14-chapter digital first mini-series that jumps from perspective to perspective in each entry (DCeased: Hope at World’s End), and a six-issue mini-series continuing the core story (DCeased: Dead Planet).

The broader DCeased franchise is effectively comprised of formats that retailers have long said do not work, 10 and, because of that, ones publishers rarely focus on. Minis and one-shots in particular have long been believed to be comic graveyards, places where stories go to be forgotten or, even more tragically, never discovered, unless they happen to be an event comic. Even worse, each of these stories were out of continuity, another supposed kiss of death, as it’s easy to label these kinds of comics as “not mattering” in the eyes of your average comic fan.

And yet, not only were all of these comics good, but near as we can tell, each comic has been a hot item in shops. In fact, the issue from the broader DCeased-verse 11 with the lowest orders to-date has been DCeased: Unkillables #2, a comic about Lady Shiva and Deadshot – amongst others – hanging out in an orphanage teaching kids hand-to-hand combat, and even it sold a comparable amount to the much hyped debut of Tom King, Mitch Gerads and Evan “Doc” Shaner’s Strange Adventures. These comics have moved units for DC and generated consistent hype and interest amongst readers, despite all of the red flags believed to exist within its very foundation.

There are many legitimate hypotheses you could have about why this has happened. Maybe it’s Tom Taylor, as he’s one of the hottest writers in comics! Maybe it’s the easy sell of DC’s Marvel Zombies as an idea, which really is a good elevator pitch! Maybe it’s because this is an event comic without event comic branding, as that’s always attractive! These are all worthwhile ideas, but I have a different one, and it’s underlining the key theme of this article: it’s extremely accessible.

Ryan Sook’s cover to DCeased: A Good Day to Die

DCeased is a broader comics franchise that speaks to readers on multiple levels and platforms, allowing you to enjoy the story to whatever depth you’d like without forcing anything. Want to sample the series to get a feel for its vibe without rolling deep on it? Try A Good Day to Die for a one-shot look at what it’s all about. Want to see a larger story from many different angles? Buy everything. Want only the core thread? Just read DCeased and its sequel Dead Planet and you’ll be fine. More of a digital reader rather than print? Hope at World’s End is digital first and a perfect, low-cost gateway to this world.

Each of these minis and one-shots have had little release overlap, meaning you’re largely just buying one comic a month, save for Hope at World’s End currently being published in parallel to Dead Planet. 12 DCeased was, in its own way, the accidental originator 13 of House of X and Power of X’s quiet superpower: the comic that represented a broader universe without ever asking you to buy more than one comic a week.

Because of all that, this franchise is incredibly easy to get into from a structural standpoint, with very little barrier to entry and few questions about where to start. 14 Just start with the first trade or issue and go from there. Even better, because – as I shared earlier – the whole story is largely continuity free, everything is a jumping on point, making any #1 within the broader series a gateway to the others, even across platforms like digital or print.

That’s one of the other fascinating aspects: it’s the first superhero comic I can recall that deliberately went digital first for part of its story. I could be wrong about that, but by doing so, they’ve made DCeased a rare hybrid in comics. A multi-platform franchise that leverages both low-cost digital options for side-stories but also premium print releases. That makes it a new breed altogether, and something far more interesting than another “what if something really bad happened to a superhero universe we love!” story.

That formula is one we’ve seen many times before. Marvel Zombies, Future Imperfect, Age of Apocalypse, and many others I’m likely forgetting explored alternate versions of existing universes, showing us what could have happened if things had just played out a little differently. Like those stories, DCeased depicts what would happen in these dark, dire circumstances. However, unlike many of the others in that vein, this broader story never loses sight of what it’s really about: hope, or more dramatically, maintaining light in the face of the dark. It might be a story about endings, but in reality, it’s every bit as much about beginnings.

Maybe that’s what DCeased could be for the broader world of superhero comics as well.

David Finch’s cover to DCeased: Dead Planet #1

While it’s not as simple as just recreating its formula and watching magic happen, what Tom Taylor, Trevor Hairsine and a bevy of other creators have done in DCeased has made a compelling case against over-reliance on continuity, the usage of the illusion of change, the neutering of legacy characters, secondary characters as inessential personnel, and minis, one-shots and digital first releases being ghettos for titles publishers lack faith in. That’s a whole lot of power in one franchise. But it’s all true.

Interestingly, the way that DCeased has been told hasn’t been a single-threaded success for DC either; I’d argue this style is leading the publisher’s line right now, with Black Label operating under similar parameters. Beyond DC, the aforementioned House of X and Powers of X showcased comparable strengths, even if those were ultimately left behind for the textbook move of pouring on the volume when something works.

And the reason these titles work all gets back to that single word: accessibility. By making both its stories and its structure incredibly easy to figure out and jump into, the DCeased team has managed to turn something that easily could have been derivative and silly – a living manifestation of my nickname for it, if you will – into a paragon of accessibility. Everything you need to know is there; you just start with whichever #1 you want and go from there. And isn’t that something the medium needs more of? Shouldn’t making comics more appealing to both existing and potential readers be at the heart of what superhero comics do?

In that way, DCeased might be more than just an entertaining comic that comes and goes like so many of its peers, instead acting as a way forward, if the powers that be let it. By doing things their own way, the team behind this book may have unintentionally blazed a new trail, destroyed long-held beliefs about how comics should be deployed, and uncovered the perfect way to tell superhero stories in the post-pandemic era. That’s not bad for DC’s Marvel Zombies, even if it long ago surpassed that nickname for me.

  1. And still does, simply for its absurdity.

  2. The Anti-Life Equation can also be transferred from person-to-person through traditional zombie means like scratches and blood in this case, which is a problem when combined with billions instantly getting it, including superhumans.

  3. Shouts to my guy Darkseid who *spoilers* finally releases the Anti-Life Equation and then kills his own planet and self in the process! That might be considered victory for him, though, so…maybe it’s congrats?

  4. In the case of this or Injustice.

  5. All-New Wolverine and Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.

  6. As I said in Comics Disassembled last week, I choose to believe this – from a continuity standpoint – is what happened after Waid and Ramos left Impulse.

  7. Please tell me if it’s not actually that easy, Tom! Also, come on Off Panel and talk to me about how easy it is or isn’t!

  8. Al Ewing and Jonathan Hickman are also very good at this, and I’d argue that those three are probably the most well-liked superhero comic writers right now. Could be related!

  9. Maybe even C-list!

  10. At least they used to!

  11. I’m still working on a name!

  12. And even then, it’s just 99 additional cents per chapter.

  13. Or at least co-originator.

  14. One thing I wished they did, though: give each of the collections the same branding, with DCeased being DCeased Book One, DCeased: A Good Day to Die, Unkillables and Hope at World’s End being collected as Book Two, and Dead Planet being Book Three. So much easier for readers to understand!