cover by Val SemeiksJLA: Incarnations

(2002 - 7 issues, published DC Comics)

Writer: John Ostrander. Pencils: Val Semeiks. Inks: Prentis Rollins (and others).
A few back up stories written by Ostrander, but by other artists.

Incarnations was part of a wave of DC Comics' mini-series that played the nostalgia card by telling retroactive stories featuring familiar heroes -- rather than current stories trying out lesser characters (which was, maybe, the more traditional point of a mini-series). And Incarnations resembles Flash & Green Lantern: The Brave & The Bold, in that instead of telling one epic story, each issue is relatively self-contained, with months, maybe years ensuing between the different stories.

Each issue is also double-sized.

It's a fun idea, though the principal hook of the series -- revisiting past incarnations of the Justice League of America -- is maybe a bit iffy. Although there's a gradual change in the membership (usually additions), the first four issues, covering the Silver Age/Bronze Age eras, basically seem like the same team. It's not until reflecting stories from the mid-1980s and onward that the League undergoes radical changes -- incarnations -- from issue to issue.

Generally, JLA: Incarnations succeeds. As a grab bag of self-contained larger-than-life adventures, it's pleasantly entertaining.

The first issue, set near the beginning of the League's founding (at least, in its post-Crisis reality), has the League tussling with their predecessors in the Justice Society of America. It's probably the weakest of the issues. The action-fighting is kind of prosaic, and there's little genuine characterization or human drama. The various heroes are being psychically manipulated by a villain into clashing with each other, and though we're supposed to believe they're acting out pre-existing, but suppressed, emotions, it doesn't really ring true, seeming more like a story where many of the characters are brainwashed and out-of-character. However, read a second time, it's more less shallow and thin, but an O.K. adventure.

Most of the issues emerge as fun romps. Although there are nice moments of introspection, for the most part, the stories are basically colourful action-adventures. Even then, the actually unfolding of the adventures is, maybe, nothing too special. Put another way, most of the issues are good...without any being great. However, there is an attempt to invest each story with some sort of deeper thread, a character arc or philosophical thread, to make for more than just a bash-the-bad-guys story. Despite working with 38 pages of story per issue, writer John Ostrander has trouble highlighting all the characters. A lot of characters just end up filling out the backgrounds. Obviously, even with the extra pages it would be difficult to give everyone meaty scenes -- but I still think Ostrander could've done better.

Because the mini-series is set in different periods of League history, the series revisits certain events, or can re-imagine stories that were negated by the Crisis on Infinite Earths. So issue #3 chronicles iconoclast Green Arrow's decision to quit the League. It's a good adventure, set against the backdrop of the League battling super-villain Kobra as he attempts to take over their headquarters. But it's not a noticeably better, or more profound, story than Gerry Conway's original take on GA's departure in Justice League of America #181 (set against the backdrop of a smaller scale story of a super-powered robber) -- a story that was only 17 pages!

In fact, Ostrander is so busy delivering big, earth-shaking adventures, it might've been nice to throw in a few smaller-scale stories for contrast.

Although the point of Incarnations -- and the fun -- is that the stories are nestled in specific eras, that can also be a little confusing at times, as occasional references are made alluding to events from the time. Issue #5 is a Crisis tie-in, for instance, with two back up stories: one also a Crisis tie-in, but the other, more confusingly, is connected to the Legends story from a couple of years later! But, in general, it's not too confusing. I wasn't that familiar with all the periods, but I got along all right. But, because nostalgia is the watchword, most issues feature familiar foes as the bad guys -- Kobra, Gorilla Grodd, etc. Which can rob the stories of some freshness. Maybe that's why the stand-out issue (at least after a first reading) was #4, which seemed to feature an original menace for the League to confront, and it provide a bit of a showcase for lesser League members like Aquaman, Zatanna, and the Elongated Man, as well as a strong emotional core.

Though given the point is too play up League history, I think Ostrander makes a mistake with villain Wotan (in #1) who we are told had been imprisoned for decades...but actually appeared in JLA: Year One.

Why John Ostrander and Val Semeiks were tagged to do this series, I don't know. I don't have anything against Ostrander and Semeiks, but I didn't think they were industry Golden Boys like, say, Mark Waid. And though Ostrander writes well enough -- and better than some other things I've read by him -- as noted, he maybe doesn't really deliver any classics. And he only sometimes tries to evoke particular eras in style, such as issue #6 which is set during a period when League stories took on a tongue-in-cheek feel, and Ostrander successfully delivers a humourous adventure focusing on Booster Gold and Blue Beetle (while backing it up with a darker, grimmer story featuring a League spin-off, Extreme Justice, presumably meant to reflect the early 1990s). Ostrander never really employs the common narrative trick of breaking the team up into smaller (or solo) groups, to battle aspects of the current menace -- a style that might've allowed more characters to shine as individuals.

Semeiks art is bright and enaging, even as it's a bit angular and cartoony. Still, he tells the stories with clarity and verve, though given to anatomical exaggerations of pronounced jaw lines and such -- when the men occasionally sport bigger breasts than the women, you know something's off. But generally, I appreciated the art. I could imagine better choices for the series -- but also a lot worse ones, too.

Ultimately, JLA: Incarnations is an enjoyable series. If you can't find the whole mini-series, you can pick up any one issue and not feel a need to get the rest. The only continuous plot thread running through all issues is one involving a reporter -- Tully Reed -- who starts out a junior journalist and super hero fan who parlays that over the years until he runs his own tabloid that focuses exclusively on super heroes, but becomes jaded as the years progress. Basically Ostrander is ripping off Phil Sheldon from Marvels, but without much effect. The denouemount doesn't really take us anywhere, and Tully, frankly, just takes away pages from the Leaguers (who, as I mentioned, are sometimes short changed). It also means that Ostrander can indulge in the technique that has become so prevalent -- and I find often annoying -- in modern comics, the Iconism, where third person characters tell us how wonderful and extraordinary the heroes are. Granted, it's a minor part of the series, and doesn't hurt it much.

Maybe no great stories in the bunch, but most are good, and some surprising (issue #5 features the Leagues' most maligned period, a line-up of second string heroes...and Ostrander succeeds in lending dignity to the characters). Mainly 38 page adventures, with a couple 20 pagers with shorter back up stories, JLA: Incarnations is worth seeking out.