I find that I like the titles that rest on the company’s laurels while also breaking new ground.
Sandman (the Neil Gaiman run and version of the character), like, all of it. Mythology and horror and fantasy and urban fantasy and family squabbles bump elbows where the guy who makes dreams work gets in over his head. And sometimes there might be a cameo from other DC heroes, but they’re probably pretty obscure.
Gaiman also took a tour of the mystic side of the DC universe with Books of Magic. It covers the big bang to the heat death of the universe, and wizards and sorcerers and folks with a knack for weird stuff, from Zatanna to Annataz. The putative pubescent protagonist is a Harry Potter rip-off, but don’t hold that against him; this came out before the Harry Potter books.
Starman (the James Robinson run and version of the character) took longer to grow on me. His jaded hipster hero (back when hipster meant a guy that spent a lot of time in vintage stores) learning about the two-fisted exploits of his dad, an earlier version of Starman, meant that as he warmed up to his old man, he also warmed up to the idea and presence of other Golden Age heroes. That affection rubbed off on me, too. I don’t know if I’d have a good time picking through stilted stories about corny heroes. Imagine a guy that took a pill and had powers for an hour (Hourman!) or another guy who was just good at everything, and his costume, instead of a big S or a bat icon, had the words “Fair Play”. For the record, his super hero name wasn’t Fair Play Man. But in Starman, all those old fogies seem pretty charming. And Starman eventually goes on some pretty incredible voyages through the cosmos on his own, too.
What Robinson did for the Golden Age, Darwyn Cooke did for the dawn of the Silver Age with his The New Frontier. Amazing jet-age heroes (and a few I’d never heard of) step into a postwar world where maybe they have to clobber a giant starfish.
Darwyn Cooke also started a run on Catwoman that was eventually taken over by Ed Brubaker. Catwoman takes over a patch of Gotham City and tries to make things better, much in the way that a hero would. Except she’s got a noir streak in her and nothing ends well in noir. (A highlight character is another DC relic of the '40s named Slam Bradley, a cross between Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past and some dumb palooka.) I stopped reading that series when Brubaker left and everything got a little too wrapped up in sprawling crossovers.
That crossover event, War Games, had a reach that exceeded its grasp, but I admired what it was reaching for. The gist is that Gotham City crossed itself with City Of God. For some reason, all the organized crime and talented amateur crime in Gotham starts angrily shooting each other. Batman, for all his grim poses, tries bossing the GCPD around like a general to stop the violence. But a guy that doesn’t carry a gun, doesn’t work in a hierarchy, and swore to never kill doesn’t make a terrific general. Everyone who’s anyone in Gotham City (that is, is a hero in their own comic book), pitches in to help. And the inciting event for this city-wide slaughter is especially delicious, but I don’t know if I can do a Spoiler warning on mobile. A heroine named Spoiler (warning! Ha!), an on-again, off-again protege of The Bat, is briefly a Robin before flunking out. To get in her ex-boss’ good graces, she decides to End All Crime in the city. Batman, the guy who has contingency plans for everything, planned such an event but never pulled the trigger. Spoiler secretly finds it and decides to try it. She sets all the pieces in place except for some minor gangster, some guy named Matches Malone. She didn’t know one of Batman’s alter egoes was Matches! Therefore everything gets awful, and it’s dramatically ironic and tragic. The art varies in quality between issues and titles, and it’s hard to pull off such an extended narrative without some spots feeling flaccid. It was a pretty cool idea though.
Brubaker and others (especially Azzarello) also worked on one of my favorite series, the very gritty Gotham Central, which started in the fallout of these War Games. Hard-working but all-too-human cops go up against supervillains and a city drowning in corruption. Imagine NYPD Blue but the arsonist and child-killer also got his kicks dressing up in a costume, and he would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for the cops and detectives working in the Major Crimes Unit.
Superman: Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow is a good wrap-up of the character before, I guess, they killed him off and no one heard of Superman again.
But All-Star Superman and A Superman For All Seasons are also terrific. And I liked Joe Straczynski’s “Superman: Earth One” comics, which started Superman starting out closer to now than in the '30s.
Wonder Woman: I liked the first few Sensational Comics anthologies. They’re quick stories that don’t care about continuity, just Wonder Woman being wonderful.
Of these, the ones I liked the best were Sandman and Gotham Central. There’s libraries full of comics I haven’t read yet, so this is a great thread.