More than 11 years ago, then DC Comics (now just DC) rebooted its entire publishing line and rewrote the rules of its multiverse (again) with the controversial 'New 52.'
For some iconic superheroes like Superman, it recast them from being grizzled veterans to being more youthful characters near the beginning of their careers. For others like Cyborg, it gave them a chance shine in spotlights they never had before. And it also had room for new(ish) concepts, such as Justice League Dark, Gotham Academy, and Justice League 3001.
The fan response may have been mixed, but it wasn't muddled - there were titles, concepts, and changes readers really liked, and others readers really didn't like. But now over a decade on and some gained perspective, observers can acknowledge the ways the 'New 52' revitalized DC (and the superhero comic book market), and can better pick out the gems in the 111 titles DC released as part of the 2011 to 2015 era.
With DC just starting its latest new editorial era Dawn of DC, it's time to look back at the best DC 'New 52' era comic books.
Few could have predicted DC would revamp a character as obscure as Prez as part of the publisher's DC You revamp/new title launch event during 'The New 52.'
On paper, it didn't line up with their publishing strategy: It featured a no-name character, was bereft of tangible connection to the DCU at large, and the creative team was largely unknown. But that all worked in tandem to be part of the book's charm. Writer Mark Russell put comedy at the forefront to skewer American politics.
To help underline the insanity, artist Ben Caldwell imbued the book with a Disney-like charm that helped sell the jokes and the world.
Lampooning both sides of the aisle to hilarious effect without the weight of continuity, Prez was a fun update on an old Joe Simon creation and a bright spot in DC's publishing line.
9. Animal Man
Animal Man was one of the initial launches of 'The New 52,' bringing over Vertigo's trademark supernatural elements to a more superhero mold. Buddy Baker gave readers something different in the sea of capes as one of the few leading family men of the new wave, setting it apart from the rest of the pack.
As Buddy tackled threats ranging from Hollywood burnout to the threat of the zombie-esque Rot, writer Jeff Lemire delivered a perfect blend of family drama, superhero action, and horror, with comedic elements sprinkled in for good measure, but kept everything in a well-maintained balance.
Lemire was backed by an incredible rotating art team of Travel Foreman, Steve Pugh, and John Paul Leon that gave Animal Man a new identity, but kept what made him different back in the '80s intact for a new generation to experience.
8. Action Comics
While Superman as a character took a while to find his footing once 'The New 52' began, it’s easy to point out when he began his upward trajectory: when Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder took over Action Comics.
Beginning with the 'Doomed' crossover, Superman suddenly had an insidious, impossible foe to face, as the Doomsday Virus threatened to turn the Man of Steel into humanity’s greatest threat. This extended crossover between the Superman books gave Clark Kent some much-needed spring in his step, as Pak laid down the type of characterization that proved to be a solid middle ground between the well-adjusted Midwestern farmboy of yesteryear and the more angsty Kryptonian orphan of the 'New 52.'
Kuder, meanwhile, hit his stride with Superman's adventures, with a clean yet expressive style that paid off dividends during the 'Truth' saga, which robbed Clark Kent of both his powers and his secret identity.
At its best, Action Comics wound up tapping into some potent real-world drama in the wake of violence in Ferguson, Missouri, as Clark Kent stood up as a defender of his friends and neighbors rather than the police status quo. While this de-powering has since been reversed and the 'New 52' Superman has gone by the wayside, Pak and Kuder brought an ambition to Action Comics that hadn’t been seen in quite some time.
DC's biggest strength has always been its rich multiverse, and nobody capitalizes on it like Grant Morrison.
Aided by some of the industry's most talented artists and colorists, Grant Morrison delivered an event unlike any other with Multiversity.
Presented as a connected series of one-shots each taking place on a different Earth, Morrison took us on an explosive, mind-bending walking tour of the DC Multiverse through all its myriad genres and styles. One month readers would be mixing it up with invaders from Counter-Earth with the pulp-inspired heroes of the Society of Super-Heroes and the next month they would be reveling in a grim, totalitarian landscape with the Charlton heroes that inspired the seminal Watchmen.
Though Multiversity sometimes frustrated readers as a monthly work, there is no denying its scope, rich assortment of characters, and its place among the best of 'The New 52' era - and on to be one of the main building blocks of the current DC Omniverse and the 'Infinite Frontier' era.
Dick Grayson has a messy history with alter egos. Outside of 'The New 52,' he grew out of Robin and couldn't cast off Bruce's shadow as Batman.
Inside 'The New 52,' he was unmasked as Nightwing and then cast alter-egos off altogether thanks to Tom King and Tim Seeley with Grayson. Their elegant reinvention of Dick as a Bond-esque super-spy played to all of Dick Grayson's strengths while cutting the Bat Family's sometimes constricting cord. As Grayson, everyone's favorite acrobat infiltrated the obviously evil SPYRAL organization as a double agent in a high-octane thriller of espionage and intrigue.
It's incredibly rare for a long-running character to get a truly successful refresh, but Grayson manages to distill Dick's trademark confidence and gymnastics into a role that feels, for the very first time, uniquely Dick Grayson.
5. Justice League
As the flagship of 'The New 52,' Geoff Johns' Justice League was admittedly shaky at the outset, but over the past year has solidified into one of the most epic reads in the DCU.
Johns has a unique understanding of what makes these characters tick, not just as a team but as individuals as well. Its twists and turns made unlikely heroes and surprising enemies, and Lex Luthor as a Leaguer throughout 'The Amazo Virus' is both inspired and terrifyingly good, showing the fine line that separates him from the rest of the League. It could only be topped by the death of Darkseid, with the 'Darkseid War' diving deep into the Multiverse and flipping Johns’ own script by corrupting heroes into enigmatic villains.
Coupled with top-tier art from Jim Lee, Ivan Reis and Joe Prado, and Jason Fabok, Justice League was never anything less than widescreen in its ambitions, with epic art that matched the scope of the stories.
4. Swamp Thing
From the very start of 'The New 52,' Swamp Thing never once took the easy road.
Poised as horrifying counter-programming to the superheroics of the rest of the line, Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette’s reboot never made any qualms about what it was and what it did well. While Snyder made his home in Gotham writing Batman, the bayou was where he did his darkest, and most engaging work, balancing tight characterizations with truly scary stories with ambitious scopes.
Even after Snyder made his exit, Swamp Thing continued under the deft hand of Charles Soule who ended the series as it began; a tough, yet consistently great horror title that put its lead through the wringer on more than one occasion. While the 'New 52' may stand as a testament to superhero stories and worlds, Swamp Thing made the most of its time beside the capes and did so in bloody style.
Launched during the 'DC You' initiative, Midnighter quickly became one of the most interesting and ambitious books of the entire era.
Writer Steve Orlando’s unfiltered characterization and bold storytelling set this book apart from the rest of the DC lineup. In a universe of legacy characters and layers of continuity, Midnighter is fresh and fun to read.
The character presents a sort of 'pure' vigilantism that demands respect, yet his methods are unpredictably extreme and laced with well-timed one-liners and social commentary. The icing on this invigorating cake is the daring and dynamic art.
Both Aco and Stephen Mooney created notably visceral and engaging pages, but it is Aco's fiercely detailed lines and precise panel layout that have defined Midnighter.
'The New 52''s Batgirl may have started under the auspices of Gail Simone's superb run, but with the creative team of writers Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and artist Babs Tarr, it became a legitimate phenomenon.
Batgirl abruptly changed its tone under the DC You banner, with the new creators introducing a redesigned, social media-conscious lead. This radically re-imagined Batgirl worked its charms on an entrenched fanbase, finding strength in its inability to sit still for a moment.
The book also possessed a delightful willingness to make fun of itself as well, and the seriousness of Bat-books in general, as a hyper cartoon with a warm-hearted and genuine character at its center, reflected in every inch of Tarr's kinetic art. Batgirl ultimately appealed to a younger audience without condescending, and like Prez, even parodies those that enjoy it the most.
It's perhaps fitting that the 'New 52' ended once Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo departed Batman, a book that set the standard for DC’s post-relaunch era.
Immediately dominating the scene with Greg Capullo's dark, bone-crushing artwork, Batman brought intelligence as well as action to the DCU, as Scott Snyder's first arc introduced the brutal secret society known as the Court of Owls to Gotham City.
From that first arc on, Snyder and Capullo have reexamined and reinvented key aspects of the Dark Knight as a concept, such as his relationship with his sidekicks and his worst nemesis in 'Death of the Family,' Bruce Wayne's rise to superhero status in 'Zero Year,' his seeming "death" in 'Endgame,' and his eventual resurrection in 'Superheavy.'
Batman made no bones about taking risks, including the sheer destructive force of the Court of Owls, the introduction of new sidekicks such as Harper Row and Duke Thomas, and Bruce's controversial replacement — Jim Gordon, wearing a G.C.P.D.-sponsored robo-bat-suit. Their Batman run stood nearly 50 issues as a symbol of all that DC could accomplish.