JLA Incarnations 5: The Bad-Ass League… and after


The Fifth Incarnation of the Justice League will always be automatically associated with Grant Morrison, and rightly so, but it was actually created by Mark Waid, in a mini-series, Justice League: A Midsummer Nightmare, with art from Fabian Nicsieza.
In truth, it wasn’t a very impressive story, being dependant upon the logic defying concept that the villain is able to brainwash the hero into not only forgetting that he or she is a superhero, but even that said superhero does not even exist. It’s difficult enough to pull off with one character, but with seven simultaneously credulity is strained unmercifully.
Nevertheless, seven heroes – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, The Martian Manhunter and Aquaman – had collectively forgotten who and what they were, but eventually remembered and set everything right again, after which they decided to reform the Justice League.
It’s terribly weak for a writer like Waid, and it was impliedly airbrushed from continuity in the JLA Incarnations mini-series, but it did what was required: it restored the Justice League, and it reset it with the ‘Big Seven’ that Helfer and Giffen had been unable to utilise a decade earlier. Their adventures would be published under the stream-lined title of JLA.
It wasn’t quite the original Big Seven of Brave & Bold 28. There was no Barry Allen nor Hal Jordan, and their places were taken by their heirs, Wally West and Kyle Rayner. And the Big Three had all been revamped, post-Crisis. And the Martian Manhunter’s history had been substantially tinkered with. And Aquaman had lost a hand and replaced it with a pike.
But this is comics, and we should know by now that it is the mask, the symbol, that is the core of being. The Justice League was back, with a vengeance.
And vengeance it was. This was the Big Seven, the legends, the mightiest of the mighty, and Morrison’s intention was to demonstrate that at every turned. The League met in the Watchtower, on the Moon, issuing forth to guard the planet against the worst that could be thrown at it. Conspicuous power demanded conspicuous menace. To confront it, Morrison plunged headlong into fast-paced, balls-out action, with rapid-fire dialogue. If these were the Over-men, then they wuld be the Over-men to the hilt.
Yet the underlying theme was not the fascistic impulse from which superheroes spring. Instead, Morrison hinted at a paganistic Pantheon; heroes as Gods – not in the religious sense of a being to worship, but rather the Aspects that overcame ordinary human strengths.
The continuity problems that had dogged the League since the late stages of its first Incarnation were dealt with largely by ignoring them. The JLA existed above and outside the DC Universe, increasing the pantheistic element. Or rather it was that the League’s battles rarely spilled over into the wider Universe.
Though the writers and their writing styles were poles apart, Morrison’s JLA was the closest DC had come to the glorious years of Gardner Fox and Julius Schwarz. Superheroes were big, they were fun, they were exciting. Though one wrote from innocence and the other out of a sly knowingness, Fox and Morrison made the League feel important, feel like the pinnacle.
Morrison even managed to fit in a Justice League/Justice Society cross-over, even though the Justice Society didn’t actually exist that year!
It was fun, it was ballistic, but it wasn’t to be forever. Including a couple of fill-ins, Morrison and his artist Howard Porter produced 41 issues before handing the reins over to Mark Waid, a superb choice. Waid had shone himself with the brilliant 12-issue series, JLA:Year One, creating a new post-Crisis, post-Zero Hour foundational myth for the original League. But after Waid finished his run, the inevitable set in.
Unlike past Incarnations, there’s no way to separate the Morrison/Waid JLA from the rest of the run. This title was the League’s third series, and despite changes of direction or form, the League it depicted was one thing, whole and entire. So all the other stories in the 125 issue run belong in this Incarnation.
It was the same old story: a running out of steam, an unwillingness or inability to create the excitement and thrust of the Morrison template, a changing litany of writers, a chaning of moods. There was the same old dilution of the brand, with spin-off titles and themes. At first this had been benign: JLA:Classified, begun by Morrison himself, a non-continuity series telling stories that might belong to any part of the League’s mythos, bound by nothing in the main title. But then there was the 12 issue parallel Justice League Elite, featuring a ‘black ops’ team that took a proactive as opposed to reactive stance to villains, and aimed to kill rather than imprison them.
The momentum drained away. A fresh start was needed, which meant killing the series and killing the JLA. By now, widespread editorial control, expressed in company-focussed stories was beginning to reassert itself. Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis had opened a can of worms with its revelation of mind-wiping  and memory-tinkering by the original League, included the robbing of ten minutes of Batman’s life (warning: never do this to a high-functioning sociopathic paranoid!)
Batman’s response to the rediscovery of his memories was one of several strands woven together to set-up Infinite Crisis, an 20 year sequel to the original. Things fell apart, the centre could not hold and, despite Green Arrow’s attempts to keep it going, the League fell apart under the weight of its own contradictions.
It would be back. It would aways, never fear, be back.