DCeased: The Secret Origin of DC’s Zombie Horror
The smash success of DCeased, the DC zombies comic is all in its emotional power.
This article contains major spoilers for DCeased.
When DCeased was announced, it’s safe to assume it was met with more than a few eye rolls. Did the world really need a DC zombies book as the rest of pop culture seems to be putting a lid on the zombie phenomenon for another few years? “I’m not a zombie fan either, or a horror fan, like at all,” says Tom Taylor, writer of DCeased, in a chat ahead of the release of the sold-out hardcover collection of what ended up being a critical darling and a runaway train on comic shop shelves. “What I am is a DC fan, and I enjoy a challenge. So for me, it was actually something I hemmed and hawed about when [DCeased editor] Ben Abernathy contacted me about it. And then suddenly, I just had all these ideas running through my head. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, and then this could happen, and this could happen. And then we could torture this beloved hero in this terrific way.’”
And torture he did: the body count in DCeased was impressive, both in quantity and quality. Almost no one was safe, but it was the way that the deaths were used to tell the story that made it really shine. “I think I sold a lot of people on ‘Darkseid Was,’” Taylor says. The death of the dark opposition to the New Gods took a moment from beloved prestige series Mister Miracle and repurposed it as a grindhouse inciting event for the zombie plague in DCeased. It was the first of many perfect moments in the series and in fine keeping with much of zombie media culture: irreverent and over the top with more than a hint of satire. “As soon as I said, ‘Look, we’re killing God in the opening pages,’” Taylor tells us, “that was enough to go, ‘Oh, okay, so this is happening.’”
From there, though, it was deep character work all the way. This isn’t to say there wasn’t gore or shocking deaths: by the end of the series, the entire Justice League has been remade. But the deaths so typical of zombie fare were used to give incredibly compact, efficient, moving character moments to both the dying and the survivors. By the end of the first issue, Batman is dead, his zombie put down by a shotgun wielding Alfred. Shortly after this horrific incident, the mantle of the Bat is passed to Damian, who had to listen to his father’s death on the phone. “No one ever gets to kill Batman,” Taylor says. “But that’s the moment when anyone reading this going, ‘Oh, the gloves are off.’ Don’t expect anything. Yes, Batman’s going to die. And then Alfred’s going to shoot him in the head with Damian on the other line. That was truly awful, I’m sorry.”
As anyone who has read Taylor’s work on Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man knows, it’s extremely likely that he will make the reader cry at some point in his run. DCeased was no different, but it was the book’s status as a semi-Super Sons book that jerked the most tears from readers: first, with Damian reacting to Bruce’s death, and later with Superman getting infected saving the survivors from a zombie Flash, saying goodbye to Jon before the infection took hold, and finally with Jon fighting his zombie father to buy the survivors more time to flee. “I know my editor cried, he cried handing it to the letterer. Every time we read it, we all misted up a little, which is great that it was that effective,” Taylor says.
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There were limits. “I couldn’t kill the Super Sons. That just could not happen because my son was the one who asked me to include them. So I couldn’t do that to him,” he says. “And he cried when he read the Batman fate. He’s like, he wanted me to kill Batman, but he didn’t want Damian to hear it. So he was very annoyed at me for that one.” Killing Damian or Jon would have robbed the story of most of its emotional center, as well.
Ultimately, the series landed as well as it did because the whole team – Taylor, artists Trevor Hairsine, James Harren, Stefano Gaudiano, and color artist Rain Beredo – were working at the top of their game. “There’s this thing [Trevor Hairsine] did where Superman is trying to smile to reassure his son at the exact same second he’s saying goodbye, and telling a little joke in the middle of that. And that’s incredibly difficult, that sort of nuance for an artist,” Taylor tells us.. “You’re not supposed to be able to show three things at once…But Trev can.”
In part because it was a smashing success, Taylor gets to come back to it. A sequel, DCeased: Unkillables starts in February, and takes a look at the villains and antiheroes left behind during and after the heroes’ retreat from Earth. It has Red Hood and Deathstroke leading a team to protect an orphanage full of kids, if that’s any kind of hint at the tone (spoilers: somehow more over the top). And on top of the typical characters one would include in a team led by Red Hood and Deathstroke (Vandal Savage, Cheetah, Lady Shiva, Ravager), there’s also one big surprise that should prove very popular: Cassandra Cain’s Batgirl. “Kelley Puckett/Damion Scott ‘Silent Running,’ [the first arc of their 2000s Batgirl run]…it was so good. It was just perfect comics in every way,” Taylor tells us. “In [Unkillables]you’ve got Deathstroke and Rose and Lady Shiva and Cass, there’s lots of family ties happening across the whole book…[and] they end up in an orphanage man, you know, in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Perfect.”
DCeased: Unkillables starts during the events of the first series and run a bit past the end of the book, and Taylor gets to play around in the DCU proper soon. Murdering a planet full of heroes is perhaps the best preparation possible to take the reins on Suicide Squad, coming in December. “I’m renowned for killing characters in ways that actually mean something, or actually hurt the reader. And you know, I do enjoy doing that,” Taylor says of the new book. “Suicide Squad‘s got a lot of ridiculous in it and a lot of humor.”
As for returning to the DCeased universe after Unkillables ends, there’s nothing to report yet. “I would love to write in this universe more,” Taylor tells us. “ I think there’s something really intriguing with this, and certainly where we find our characters at the end of the DCeased, and at the end of DCeased: Unkillables there’s certainly potential for more.” One can certainly hope.
The hardcover collection of DCeased, including Taylor’s original pitch and all the variant covers to the books, including the classic horror homage covers, is in stores on November 26th. Suicide Squad #1, with art from Bruno Redondo, is out in December. Unkillables launches in February. Den of Geek’s best comics of 2019 will be out in December! No relation!