This was always going to happen, let’s admit that right now. The New 52 was always going to happen. For the past 60 years, since the creation of the second Flash, DC Comics has relied on the universal reboot as a means of staying fresh and keeping their fictional superhero universe up to date. Every reboot begins a new era with its own unique identity and areas emphasized in storytelling. Every 20 years or so, it happens, and by the time Crisis on Infinite Earths was over 25 years old, 2011's New 52 was an inevitability.

Rebirth was always going to happen, too. 1994 brought us the non-reboot, continuity revising event comic Zero Hour, and used it as an opportunity to fix some of the perceived problems with the Post-Crisis DC Universe. As the storytelling in the DC Universes has become more heavily connected and organized, the need for periodic updates has become more accepted as necessary, or at the very least helpful in maintaining the Universe. 5 years after the New 52 began, it’s time for some edits once again.

Now, every rebooted DC Universe has had its own unique flavor, and the New 52 is no different. Relatively speaking, we’re still in the early days of this era, but we’re far enough in that we’re starting to see what that flavor generally is, and how we’ll remember this era when we look back on it during DC Universe 5.0. The thing, though, is that the New 52 is in a funny place right now, with two approaches to this universe vying for supremacy, and a third coming soon. So let me take a moment to define the different, current approaches, and then we can see which comics are doing the best job defining this era.

The Editorially Mandated Approach: This is the approach DC was predominantly pushing during the initial wave of New 52 titles. It appeared to be primarily informed by the atmosphere present in the latter years of the Post-Crisis DC Universe, and was frequently defined by an air of seriousness, and a tone of realism. People died, tragic pasts were prominent, costumes were heavily armored and textured to emulate the movie costumes. The idea was constantly conveyed that being a superhero in this universe was a sacrifice; heroes did their duty at great cost to themselves and their personal lives and happiness, all because not doing their duty would be worse for everyone. Artwork across the books was heavily influenced by a house style, with little deviation from it. There were a few standout titles that broke somewhat away from the mold of standardized superhero storytelling, though they primarily delved into the horror genre.

This approach was met with... mixed reactions from fans. The early books did come across as a bit uneven, and this may have been due to disagreements behind the scenes. Reportedly, Geoff Johns leaned towards a more nostalgic approach, while Dan Didio preferred shocking and sensationalist, and compromises had to be made between the two styles that resulted in a wave of books that, to put it nicely, struggled to find their feet. As time went on and audience reactions were gauged, it became clear that a more varied approach would be necessary. Enter the DC You.

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The All New All Different Approach: The DC You was a new wave of titles launched in the hopes of capitalizing on the successes of Mark Doyle’s Batman family of books, particularly Batgirl with her recent redesign. Much greater variety was allowed for individual titles, with the tone and even genre of the books being radically different from each other, and bizarre new status quos abounding. The artwork became far more individualistic, and many costumes were redesigned in more personal and unique ways for the characters.

And lastly, The Rebirth Approach: This has led us to where we are now, with the impending DC Universe Rebirth and what it means for the tone of this DC Universe. While the comics of this Rebirth wave are still a few months away, the announced premises for the titles, the characters chosen to headline titles, and even the creative teams tapped for these titles all tell us a little bit of information about the upcoming new tone. The comics in general appear to be playing it a bit safe, at least for now. All things considered, with the first wave of New 52 titles plateauing in sales quicker than expected, and the DC You wave of titles not quite finding the ground it needed to flourish (despite some of the titles being among the best of DC’s output in recent years), this new wave feels like it’s meant to regain the confidence some readers lost in DC in reaction to the initial New 52. DC has not abandoned the current timeline, though some pivotal alterations and fixes appear to be happening, and new iterations of familiar characters are sticking around, though some are returning to more familiar codenames and costumes. This feels like an attempt to blend the individuality of the DC You wave with some of the spirit and familiarity of the Pre-New 52 DC Universe, something some readers have felt has been sadly lacking since the beginning of this reboot.

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So as we await the new wave of DC Comics, let’s look back on the stories that best introduced us to this brave new world.

Multiversity by Grant Morrison and various artists: We might need to start macro and zoom in from there. DC doesn’t really just have a universe, it has a multiverse. Or sometimes it does at least, and right now is one of those times. Between individual issues delivering stories set in different universes, to the Map of the Multiverse that gave a brief synopsis and art design of most (though not all) of the 52 Universes, this comic gave us a broader idea of what all is contained in this DC Multiverse. More than that, however, the triumphant return of one of DC’s more fantastical elements, an element deemed too complicated for audiences and shed during much of the Post-Crisis period, demonstrates a devotion on DC’s part to a more bizarre and phenomenal world.

Batgirl by Brendan Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr: There’s a lot to like about Batgirl. First, I’d like to get out of the way the unavoidable complaint: I believe Barbara Gordon’s days as Batgirl really should be over. DC’s decision to return Barbara to the role of Batgirl after 22 years worth of character development as Oracle felt like a downgrade more than anything. The single biggest flaw of the current Batgirl run is that the cute, fun adventures of Batgirl in Burnside feel somewhat inconsequential in comparison to what she was doing just a few years ago as Oracle, and the inescapable comparisons between Barbara as Oracle and Barbara as Batgirl only leave this run feeling weaker. I firmly believe that keeping Barbara’s history intact and the other Batgirls involved would have not only worked out perfectly fine, but that Stephanie Brown as Batgirl would actually have been a much better lead character in this run.

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All that said, the biggest strength that this comic brings to the New 52 is its fashion and sense of youth. Comic book costumes can be tricky to update. Change an old classic too much and you lose big chunks of what makes it work; never change a costume and you end up with an outdated design that looks out of touch. Batgirl’s costume redesign touches on a number of elements that actively improve an already fantastic and memorable costume and redefine them for a modern time period, in particular the fact that it blurs the line between costume and clothes. This is an aesthetic that is beginning to define our current era in terms of superhero costumes, from Spider-Gwen’s hoodie and yoga pants-inspired outfit, to Superman’s multiple attempts at blue jeans and a t-shirt (with varying effectiveness, depending on artist), and even to Batman’s Zero Year ensemble consisting of a short sleeve shirt with no cape and motorcycle gloves. Batgirl is a perfect representation of this aesthetic, and is one of DC’s best redesigns in years. Beyond mere design, however, the setting and artwork of this title felt the most like it successfully tapped into the present. The random people in the background shots offered a greater variety in how people look today than most of DC’s other comics combined, and that movement forward in terms of human visuals would go a long way if applied more frequently to lead characters themselves.

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Black Canary by Brendan Fletcher and Annie Wu: Likely as a response to her popularity in the pre-New 52's Birds of Prey, DC has spent a lot of time since the reboot positioning Black Canary as a top tier character. She led two ensemble books (Birds of Prey and Team Seven) before finally headlining her own solo title, and even now will be a lead in the upcoming Batgirl and the Birds of Prey and appears to feature prominantly in the new Green Arrow. But it’s her solo title where she really shines, and where she’s done the most to help establish the atmosphere of this universe. The book starts innocently enough, with Black Canary signed for a single, wild tour with a rock band to earn money to rebuild her dojo. But the book has quickly seen the story spiral into a web of alien sound beings, ninja death cults, and ancient incubi; this is one of the comics that has strengthened the horror influence prevalent in this current DC Universe. And this is before the comic starts delving more directly into her past, helping to re-establish pieces of her identity which other reboot comics have failed to bring up. Black Canary is one of DC’s oldest characters in general, and after Wonder Woman, she really should be DC’s top female superhero. Much of the New 52 has tried to update Black Canary, but lost a lot of what made her stand out; this comic is re-introducing us to a modernized version of a very familiar character, finally succeeding in what DC has spent the last 5 years trying to do.

Grayson by Tom King, Tim Seeley, and Mikel Janin: And speaking of Spyrals and webs, we’ve got the fish out of water storyline of former Robin and Nightwing, Dick Grayson, playing spy and introducing us to the seedy underbelly of intelligence agencies in a world of superheroes. This comic is a serious genre bender, transplanting a character who quite literally grew up a superhero into the decidedly different world of super spies and espionage. The reaction of the noble, heroic, and chatty superhero Dick Grayson to the deception, duplicity, and constant betrayals of the spy community has been an amazing show to watch, but the comic has also taken on the task of beefing up the Batman timeline of this universe. DC has attempted to enforce a 5 year timeline of superheroes in this world, but it really falls apart with the Batman family and the four generations of Robin introduced in the Silver Age and Post-Crisis Universes. Grayson’s answer has been to simply dance playfully on the fault line between two continuities, emphasizing the family aspect of the “Batman family”, and reminding us of all the great times we’ve had with these characters and how, really, that trumps the logic behind any timeline.

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But there’s another area where Grayson has excelled, and that’s in introducing us to the new Helena Bertinelli, and DC’s most successful racebent character of this reboot. There are some differences that become immediately apparent when introduced to this version of Helena Bertinelli, the most obvious being her new status as a mixed race character, but when the comic takes its time to really break down her personality and what makes her tick (“The white cross on the black field”), it reminds us that even with a new look and history, the spirit of the character remains the same.

Harley Quinn by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti: This is a title that doesn’t actually have that far reaching of an effect in terms of continuity, but it’s notable for one particular reason: we now live in a world where Harley Quinn is one of DC Comics’ top selling characters. Like, we’re talking consistently within the top 3 or 4 mainline DC books. She’s frequently outselling Superman and sometimes the Justice League depending on the month. All things considered, that is just weird. You know what else is weird? This book. Harley Quinn is on a roller derby team, and lives with a taxidermied beaver and Egg-Fu. This book has taken a character who originated as a minion of the Joker with her own tragic backstory and has turned her into a screwball comedy anti-hero. She’s teamed up with Power Girl. She’s started her own gang of Harleys. She’s broken up with the Joker for good (well, as much as anything in comics can be “for good”), and has become her own unique character, farther out from Joker or Batman’s shadow than she’s ever been. It was clear from the beginning of the New 52 that DC was attempting to position her in a more centralized role, but where volume one of the New 52 Suicide Squad was mostly just gross, her solo title is what’s really cemented her as a tentpole character of this version of the DC Universe.

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Gotham Academy by Becky Cloonan, Brendan Fletcher, and Karl Kerschl: One of the comics most removed from the main stories being told is also one of DC’s best and most compelling in years. This is a comic that feels like it adds so much to the world it lives in while directly interacting with it so little. We are looking into the lives of the children of Gotham, and we see how living in a world of superheroes and supervillains and crocodile men in the sewers and zombie assassins buried in the garden can affect people in these formative years. The school faculty is made up almost exclusively of easter egg appearances by old characters that would be too cartoonish or goofy for most modern use, and as a result they just fit into the background of this world. And perhaps more than anything, this comic is something that the big two comics companies desperately need more of: a comic that children can read. We put superhero cartoons on TV, we put superheroes on kids clothes and in their toy aisles, we put them in kid friendly cell phone video games, but what we don’t frequently do is make comics that kids can read, thus introducing a new generation of readers to the joys of following a monthly comic. Even as Gotham Academy helps rectify that problem, its rating sheds light on the issue: Gotham Academy, despite starring a bunch of school children, is rated Teen. This is the same rating as Batman Incorporated which involved action sequences in blood filled cattle slaughter houses, an image of a decapitated head with one of its eyes gauged out, and a shot of dark, future Barbara Gordon holding a baby with a snapped neck. Teen is the automatic rating of all mainline DC comics, to the point where when DC actually comes out with an actively kid friendly book, they don’t even bother to rate it otherwise. This is how much DC is overlooking a huge market, and Gotham Academy is helping to fix that, little by little.

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Action Comics by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales: If we were just listing the best runs of the New 52, Morrison’s Action Comics would easily be within the top three. But more than just being a good comic, this run had the unenviable task of defining Superman for a new universe with a new timeline. And it did that by going full Grant Morrison weird and doubling down on Silver Age goodness. In comparison, John Byrne’s Man of Steel in 1986 took the subdued approach to Superman, lowering his powers from their insane Silver Age levels, and reinterpreting his enemies as more grounded versions of themselves (mad scientist and super criminal Lex Luthor became corrupt businessman Lex Luthor, an honestly brilliant move). Morrison’s Action Comics opens with Brainiac shrinking Metropolis and works its way to Mr. Mxyzptlk and the royal courts of the 5th Dimension. The Legion of Superheroes once more travelled through time to hang out with young Clark Kent. Superman still has a Superdog that wears a little doggy cape. Superman deals with psychic children, big game hunters from the future, and a supervillain that Comics Alliance described as, “a mummy that is also a ghost that is also a mad scientist that is also an evil space alien”. And bottom line, this really works for Superman. Superman is defined pretty much by being the most powerful, most invulnerable, most incorruptible guy in the room, and that makes raising the stakes for him somewhat difficult without just trying to reduce his powers with a plot contrivance. One solution to making Superman stories that are not boring is to go balls to the wall crazy and embrace weirdness as the status quo of this guy’s life. This weirdness has been key to Superman’s solo stories since the New 52 began, and it has resulted in some excellent comics about Superman.

But really though, they do need to change that outfit.

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Batman: Zero Year by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo: Snyder and Capullo’s run has been long and consistently amazing, and a lot of pieces of it could be pointed to as huge defining stories of the New 52's world, like the Court of Owls that fleshes out the evil that has lurked in Gotham for centuries, to the Superheavy storyline where Jim Gordon takes a tour of duty as Batman. But Zero Year is really the storyline that defines this DC Universe best, in part because (much like Morrison’s Action Comics, and its biggest influence, Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One) it tells the story of Batman first big adventures as Batman. And once more, where the Post-Crisis world went much lower key and limited its scope to Batman fighting the totally normal crime lords and corrupt cops of Gotham for a full year, Zero Year went big. Zero Year went with bone monsters and neighborhood sized death traps and post apocalypse jungle Gotham and a new origin story for the Giant Penny. Batman: Year One promised an era of grounded, gritty, realistic Batman fighting street criminals and gangs and mafia, and that era was great and gave us some wonderful Batman stories. Zero Year promises an era of Batman wrestling lions and matching wits with the Riddler; we’ve already had several wonderful stories come out of it, and I cannot wait for more.

Honorable Mentions

Team Seven by Justin Jordan and Jesus Merino: I say honorable mention because, in all honesty, this comic is not very good. Plots begin and end abruptly and confusingly, and 80% of the dialogue consists of canned action movie quips. But it tried really, really hard to introduce us to the early DC Universe of this continuity, and despite its flaws, it delivered on that concept fairly well. In the early days of superheroes and super threats, the U.S. government formed an elite team to deal with these kinds of problems when Superman wasn’t around (or if Superman himself became the problem). That this government has an organized response to threats of this level in even the early days speaks to both the ideas that this is a world coming to terms with itself, and that these comic book stories are becoming commonplace quickly enough that even the government has a quick and organized reaction.

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Starfire by Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti, and Emmanuela Lupacchino: Another comic that doesn’t have widespread effect throughout the DC Universe, this comic turned out to be more of a slice of life look at superheroes trying to hang out and blend in, even when they’re bright orange aliens with a propensity towards minimal clothing. Once more, the element of commonplace fantasy is strongly in play, and helps define the world these characters live in. Also in play is an obvious influence from the Teen Titans animated series. Starfire’s DC You redesign, as well as Beast Boy’s and, to a lesser extent, Cyborg’s, bears a heavy resemblance to the design of the show, and her speech patterns are identical to the cartoon and cartoon original character Silky has even been brought into this comic. This is a reminder that the audience who watched that show over 10 years ago are now greatly influencing the comics of today, both as creators and as the audience. And again, this should be a reminder that comics should actively be seeking out the next generation of readers.

Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang: Azzarello’s Wonder Woman is a near perfect example of the tone DC’s current universe has been going for since the beginning; new, weird, and with a distinct twist of modern, Vertigo inspired horror. Cliff Chiang’s artwork was distinct and beautiful, a trait shared by many of the DC You books, though this book managed it at the beginning of the reboot. However, this run was extremely flawed. It was a perfectly great comic... if it wasn’t supposed to be Wonder Woman. As a new direction for Diana, it sadly lacked many of the traits inherent to the character and her mythology. Particularly flawed was the sailor-raping barbarian society of the Amazons, which is completely at odds with Wonder Woman’s intended theme of approaching crime fighting in a peaceful manner. The changes made to her mythology felt like they undermined more often than they added anything to a character of this importance. However, DC has managed to give us not one, but two excellent Wonder Woman reinterpretations in recent years, and they’d do well to look at what makes them great while trying to move forward with Diana in the upcoming Rebirth.

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Legend of Wonder Woman by Renae de Liz/Wonder Woman: Earth One by Grant Morrison and Yannick Paquette: I mention both because there are huge positives and a couple complaints in each, and if you could get the best traits of both projects, you’d have a perfect modern Wonder Woman. Legend of Wonder Woman is an excellent new direction for the character with a nearly perfect, from-scratch reinvention of the Amazons. It makes great use of Wonder Woman’s history of supporting cast and enemies, and maintains her themes of kindness and goodness without downplaying her ability to be a force to be reckoned with.

Then there’s Morrison’s Earth One, a colorful, lush, opulant book that is a solid romp through Wonder Woman’s Golden Age trappings retold through a more modern lens. In particular, one of the very best elements of this book is the hyper advanced Amazon technology that really emphasizes the utopian nature of Themyscira, and better reminds us that the Amazons have been separated from the rest of the world for thousands of years, during which time they have developed at an unprecedented level. The advancements help cement the ‘alternate history’ nature of DC’s Amazons, separating them from the Amazons we recognize from real life Greek mythology and allowing them to follow a very different narrative, something that’s very necessary (and frequently overlooked) for Wonder Woman as a character. Morrison’s book also contains more direct reference to lesbian and bisexual characters (including Diana herself), something DC really should embrace with the character in our modern age, and has a stronger emphasis on Aphrodite’s influence on the Amazons, the lack of which is my only real complaint with Legend. Both comics keep the gods and goddesses at arm’s length from the core narrative, allowing Wonder Woman and the Amazons to be the focus of the comic, as they should be. Both comics also have the Amazons riding kangaroos, which is a plus. This current DC Universe is very much pushing the fantastical and weirder natures featured in both these books, and now would actually be the best time to see the technologically advanced Amazons of Marston and Morrison married to the themes, narrative, and mythology of De Liz.

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In Conclusion

Looking at the best comics of the last 5 years, one can see recurring themes and tones emerging that shed light on the DC Universe we now find ourselves in. Rather than the grounded feel of the Post Crisis DC Universe, Post Flashpoint DC has been frequently fantastical and larger than life, exploring a world where superheroics are part of the fabric of everyday living. Unlike the perpetually bright and PG Silver Age, modern DC has the ability to delve into darker territory, particularly horror, which when handled wisely (and not all of it has) can result in some wonderful comics. This new era has been highlighted by a more diverse, modern cast of characters and school of character design, and has experimented with new styles of costume design that blur the line between street clothes and uniform (though which characters use this style, and which adhere to more classic looks could still use some work). They’re finally producing at least a few comics appropriate and appealing to younger audiences, something they really should do more of. One of the biggest problems of this current era is when it homogenizes too much, in character, in tone, and in art; and when it enforces a tone of grim darkness, particularly in characters this tone does not fit. There’s been some rocky handling of the ship, but if DC can recognize and embrace the strongest elements in play since the reboot and steer clear of the pitfalls, this can be a smooth sailing adventure into uncharted waters.