Have they ever done a What-If/ Imaginary/ Elseworlds issue where for some reason all the super-heros vanish from the Earth, leaving only achknowledged super-villains behind? (I forgo the question of classifying anti-heros, criminals with a heart of gold, etc.) At first it’s a villain free-for-all with the villains carving out fiefdoms, eliminating rivals and recruiting weaker but useful villains as vassals. But then eventually they realize that with the heros gone it’s up to them to protect Earth, or their piece of Earth, from aliens, demons, monsters, etc. and they end up wishing the heros were back.
Not in comics that I’m aware of. But there is a roleplaying game called “Necessary Evil” in which all the heroes are wiped out in the first wave of an alien attack, and its up to the villains to save the Earth.
Come to think of it, your situation isn’t totally unlike Marvel’s Thunderbolts: When the Avengers go missing, a new team appears. They’re secretly villains in disguise, but eventually some of them decide that they’d rather be on the side of the angels.
Or the storyline of Wanted, which deals with this sort of thing. Except without the whole redemption thing.
Basically, all the supervillains teamed up and killed off all the superheroes, which were supposed to be Supes and Bats and such. Then they ran things from the background.
Well, in Alan Moore’s Twilight of the Superheroes proposal (since described by some as being like “Kingdom Come on Crack”), in an apocalyptic world dominated by great competing “houses” of superheroes, one of the Houses based in and around Nevada is, in fact, ruled and protected by a cadre of the few surviving supervillains, where it “is just as well-looked-after as the places controlled by the heroes.”
(Although, according to the summary page, some of the rulers of said house were Luthor, the Joker, and Gorilla Grodd. Kinda like saying “we’ve wiped out the Axis powers, except for Tojo, Hitler, and Mussolini, who’ve taken over Corsica. But we might as well just leave them alone…I’m sure they’ll never be a threat to the world or anyone’s power again.”)
This is the premise that pretty much launched the Thunderbolts title, as Menocchio pointed out. Most of the regular heroes (plus Doctor Doom) appeared to die in battle with Onslaught, although in reality they were just shunted off to another planet for awhile. In the ensuing power vacuum, a new team of heroes emerged to fight the good fight. Citizen V! Atlas! Meteorite! Songbird! MACH-I! Techno! They became overnight sensations and media darlings.
Of course, the twist is that the Thunderbolts are really the Masters of Evil putting on an elaborate charade. The twist upon the twist is that they discover that pretending to be a superhero is uncomfortably like actually being a superhero. Thunderbolts is an excellent title well worth checking out, and the first TPB, Justice Like Lightning, deals with precisely the OP’s question.
Regarding the Thunderbolts, what was their original motivation for becoming heroes, and did it stick? I fondly remember the Masters of Evil storyline from Roger Stern’s mid-'80s Avengers run (in the Under Siege TPB), and while most of them seemed like “jobbers” who could easily be reinvented as heroes with a new sense of purpose, I can’t see Baron Zemo reforming in the long-term.
Quick!!! Very quick.