They’re not zombies. They’re not consumed by hunger. They’re not feeding. They’re spreading death. They’re stealing life. These are the Anti-Living.
DCeased answers the question of who would win in a fight, if all of the DC Universe were turned into zombies. But it’s also way better than that. If you just read the title and saw the cover, with Batman’s undead face on it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was just another attempt to cash in on the always-popular and undying zombie trend. And that’s sort of the reaction it got when it was announced, but it when on to be a colossal hit and a surprise critical darling. This is all thanks to the excellent writing of Tom Taylor – in collaboration with some of the best artists in the game. Thanks to them, DCeased is an outstanding story and not just a punny title.
The Anti-Life Equation! That staple of The Fourth World is back here, causing all manner of chaos. With a little help of The Black Racer (skiing aficionado and all-powerful representation of death to users of the Speed Force) and a captured Cyborg, Darkseid unleashes the equation on the universe after suffering another defeat at the hands of the Justice League. But Lord of Apokolips mucks it up big time and destroys himself, along with the rest of his planet. The infected is sent back to Earth and all hell breaks loose. Now this is as cosmic as things get in the six-issue run, and I know people either love or hate that side of the DCU (though I consider myself a recent convert). But for the rest of the main story, things stay on Earth. Which, to be fair, is definitely the worst place to be.
The techno-virus turns people in the undead, or in DC parlance, the “Anti-Living”. All they want to do is spread more Anti-Life and they do this by violently ripping apart everything in their way. Think Crossed meets the DCU – just better than that sounds. The virus can be spread through the usual methods; bites, scratches, disembowelment, etc. But like the Anti-Life Equation spread by Darkseid during Final Crisis, it can also be spread through the internet, over mobile phones, through television screens. This might be a comment on the way we’re all glued to our screens and devices, but it’s more than that. It means that no one is immune, not even the heroes. (Except Mister Terrific and his MacGuffin mask, but we’ll ignore that). Imagine any zombie media you’ve ever seen. Now picture that scenario but with an infected Superman, or Wonder Woman, or Flash and things get very dire, very quickly.
Taylor establishes how serious the situation is straight away by doing the impossible; killing Batman. Now Batman is one of those characters who’s basically immortal. He’s been “killed” before, but whenever he’s beaten it’s a sign that we need to sit up and pay attention. Because the stakes are higher than ever. If the world’s greatest detective can be taken out, then what hope is there for the others? Sadly for Batman, he gets mobbed by his Bat-Family and is infected, managing to make one last phone call before being taken down by Alfred with a shotgun blast in a teary climax to the second issue.
At it’s core, it’s a story about family. Lois Lane narrates the whole thing, and the super sons Jon Kent and Damian Wayne play a pretty substantial part. The characters are doing all they can to save the ones they love, the ones that still remain. It’s this emotional core of the story that stops it being just another gore-fest where characters get killed in different ways (though the body count is sky-high by the final issue). There are a few surprisingly moving moments, such as when Supes finds his infected father in the barn back home in Smallville or when he has to dispatch the Flash. But that being said, Taylor and co are having lots of fun with it.
One of the story’s main appeals is seeing how these characters deal with this situation. If the Flash became infected, and was suddenly able to infect people at supersonic speed, how exactly would Superman take him out? If an infected Ray Palmer shrunk to the size of a molecule and started taking chunks out of your insides, what would happen? Or even how does the underwater world react when it’s king comes back infected and riding a giant kraken? Basically, it’s a lot of fun. It scratches the same itch as the Who Would Win subreddit, pitting our favourite heroes against each other and letting them tear each other apart.
There’s a seventh, tie-in issue titled ‘A Good Day To Die’ placed slap-bang in the middle of the six-issue run. This looks at how other heroes are dealing with the apocalypse and features some great moments for my current favourite, John Constantine, as he escapes hordes of infected Liverpudlians in his home town. But this issues suffers a little from attempting too much, and I never love it when these trade paperbacks pop a tie-in in the middle of the story. I get that they want it to be chronological, but it feels like this one doesn’t really affect the overall story besides killing off some more heroes. But the art is great and there are some really fantastic moments, it just doesn’t feel strictly necessary.
DCeased is an example of the very best kind of Elseworlds stories, one that offers a lot to long-time readers but also is accessible to newcomers. It also offers a look at a cast of characters in a totally new way, while still keeping it all tied to that larger DC lore. Most importantly, it’s not afraid to mix the excessive violence with some laugh-out-loud moments and, most importantly, plenty of heart. Not to be missed.