Not long after I got back into comics around the fall of 2000, the parents of the girl I was dating at the time got me a gift certificate to New England Comics for some occasion or another (Christmas? I dunno, they were Jewish...). Without much thought, I marched down to the store and grabbed the biggest, most intimidating-looking trade paperback I could find, which was Crisis On Infinite Earths.
To this day, the original Crisis remains one of my favorite stories of all-time, not just because I think it's particularly well-written and well-drawn, but also because for a guy like me just starting to explore the world of comics again it was like pouring a cup of pure sugar down the throat of a seven-year old, as suddenly I was exposed to literally hundreds of cool characters and stories begging me to learn more about them.
Of course it was also more than a bit overwhelming--especially so once I began reading ongoing DC books and not understanding how one continuity fit with another, why Superman hadn't been a founding member of the JLA, etc. etc.
Fortunately for me, later that year DC put out an excellent little mini-series called JLA: Incarnations that helped me out quite a bit and which I'm going to talk a little about...right now.
In 1998, Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn and Barry Kitson collaborated on JLA: Year One, a 12-issue mini re-telling the (duh) first year of the Justice League as it would have occured post-Crisis with Black Canary as a founding member and Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman all absent; I picked that series up in trade and it remains one of my all-time favorites. JLA: Incarnations picked up where Year One left off, jumping to seven key points over the course of League history and re-telling or creating stories so as to explain how they went down under the changed continuity of Crisis.
John Ostrander was on writing duties for Incarnations and it was my first exposure to his work, long before I read Suicide Squad or anything else he had done. It's a body of work even in seven short issues that really demonstrates in my mind why Ostrander is such a strong writer. In the first place, playing continuity cop isn't necessarily the most enjoyable role, partcularly when you're doing it not to set up new stories you'll be working on (like how, say, Geoff Johns often does) but just to do universe-wide housekeeping; however, Ostrander turns out enthusiastic, enjoyable stuff in Incarnations with impressive character arcs and a great feel of suspense given that we pretty much knew going in almost exactly how each story ends.
Besides that, the framework of Incarnatons requires Ostrander not only to jump among diverse Justice League teams from the "Satellite roster" to the JLI and genuinely capture the feel of each era, it also needs him to get you invested in these characters over the course of only 22 pages or less, as he has a new slate to deal with the next month. Ostrander performs admirably under these constraints, arguably even turning them to his advantage as he employs callbacks to prior issues as a means of creating a larger epic out of what could have been throwaway busy work--the man is a pro.
On art for Incarnations is Val Semeiks, who must similarly go chameleon, changing his style subtly enough that you feel a shift between Aquaman's story and Blue Beetles, but not to such an extreme where it doesn't all feel like this takes place on one world. Semeiks has a classic approach to super hero action that hearkens back to early Justice League artists like Mike Sekowsky and even George Perez, so his exuberant, heroic figures give the stories a timeless feel that ties them together nicely.
Breaking it down, each issue is a more-or-less standalone story in which one League member serves as the focal point for a story that alters the status quo and ushers in a new era for the team. Issue #1 has Black Canary struggling to escape her mother's shadow as we get to see how the first JLA/JSA team-up went down without an Earth-2. Issue #2 brings Batman onto the team in order at Superman's behest as we see how the World's Finest were involved in the League in a more clandestine fashion post-Crisis. Issue #3 expands and re-shapes the story of Green Arrow leaving the team (which I talked about recently) as well as the League's move to their satellite HQ. Issue #4 has Aquaman questioning his need for the League and also expands the post-Crisis role of the Martian Manhunter, as in this new continuity he never left the group to go back to Mars. Issue #5 is a Crisis crossover 15 years later starring the Detroit League as they try to fill some big shoes with back-up stories on the ultimate fate of Barry Allen and the deaths of Vibe and Steel during Legends. Issue #6 is a fun little yarn about Blue Beetle and Booster Gold getting the JLI in trouble plus a back-up on the disbanding of Extreme Justice. Issue #7 wraps things up with a story of the then-current Big Seven (plus Plastic Man line-up against the first ever JLA foes, the Appelaxians.
There really are no weak issues in the bunch, and Ostrander does a nice job not giving you the same thing twice as far as feel or genre. In addition to just about everybody to ever serve on the League save for a few rosters he doesn't quite get to, Ostrander also covers a great mix of both classic and obscure villains including Wotan, Gorilla Grodd, Kobra, the Extremists and more. It really is a smorgasboard of everything you love about the League, making the series much more than just a primer for post-Crisis latecomers or a specialty project needed to fill a gap.
Aside from the aforementioned Green Arrow story, I also particularly enjoyed seeing the new JLA/JSA dynamic in issue #1 where the former was both a bit awed and somewat resentful of their predecessors in contrast to just finding another Earth where some older dudes had their names and powers. Issue #4 also has some of the more badass Martian Manhunter stuff you'll see, as he has to single-handedly hold off an alien invasion until Aquaman can rally the troops; Ostrander also nicely accentuates the positive qualities of the much-maligned Detroit League, captures a bit of that Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMatties comedic magic for his JLI story, and manages to craft a relevant Extreme Justice back-up to boot.
Unfortunately, I doubt we'll see JLA: Incarnations collected any time soon if ever, simple because the subsequent events of Infinite Crisis, 52 and Final Crisis have made its continuity fixes obsolete already, but as I said earlier, it's certainly a series that accomplishes far more than housekeeping, and if you can find any or all of the single issues on the cheap, I recommend them.