The "Justice League of America", DC's premier superhero team has gone through several incarnations in the past 38 years. Few other comic book series can claim to be as uneven, as varied, as unpredictable. Even Marvel's nearly as long running "Avengers" (begun in 1963) takes a back seat to the "JLA" in these regards.
The first series, which began in 1960, started off as the Silver Age cornerstone of the DC universe. I mean, it included all the big guns: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Martian Manhunter, Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman! No other comic book could compare to this.
However, as time went on, new creative teams and new corporate strategies caused change. Some members left, new ones joined, and by the late 1970's the book was going down hill. In an attempt to strengthen the book, many of DC's newer heroes, such as Firestorm and Zatanna joined the JLA or made guest appearances. But the book was still failing.
Then came the DC milestone "Crisis". Things went from bad to worse. The new continuity and editorial concerns dictated that few of the big guns were available for use in the post-"Crisis" JLA. So, for a year and a half Earth's mightiest team was now composed of: Vibe, Gypsy, Steel, Vixen, the Martian Manhunter, and team leader Aquaman. Excuse me? These second stringers couldn't hope to be the JLA of old, and so, after 27 years (1960-87), the first series came to an inglorious end.
The second series began only a month after the first folded, and was a relaunch of sorts. This was a more diverse group whose core members included: Batman, the Martian Manhunter, Black Canary, Mr. Miracle, Green Lantern (the butt-headed Guy Gardner, not the steadfast Hal Jordan), Captain Marvel, Dr. Fate, and Blue Beetle. This series pulled out all the stops, declared nothing sacred, and made fun of conventional comic book characterization. It was brought to us principally by Keith Giffen and founding artist Kevin Maguire. You either loved it, or you had something stuck up your ass.
But like all good things, the Giffen era ended. The second series continued on. It was revamped. No more Batman, but Superman was now available as a member. (Historian's note, Superman was 'killed off' in his own book only 8 months later. Good timing there DC). The "new" team was supposed to be a return to the glory days of old. It didn't. Again, too many second stringers and also-rans (Nuklon, Obsidian, Black Condor, and Ice Maiden to name merely a few), and drubbed down humour slowly choked the life out of this comic. The first sister book, the never better than average "Justice League Europe" was cancelled. Two new books were launched, but neither the surreal training squad mentality of "Justice League Task Force" nor the kick ass and take names approach of "Extreme Justice" did much for the franchise. The second "JLA" series and its companions also came to an painful end, this time lasting only 9 years (1987-96).
The third series was launched shortly after the death of the second (1996). (Gotta admire the way DC does that, out with the old, no breather, forget about the old, and in with the new.) The latest series has gone back to its roots and only premier heroes need apply. Thus all the big guns are back. The stories have managed to blend the best of the first and second series: cosmic stories, great characterization, and just the right amount of humour. Of course current writer Grant Morrison made his mark over at "Animal Man" and various Vertigo titles. So don't be surprised if for no reason at all the JLA is attacked by the kitchen sink. By the by, the current "JLA - Year One" is retrofitting the first days of the "JLA" into DC continuity (Thank you Crisis). This excellent series only aids in demonstrating the glory, and deserved first rank status, of a well written "JLA".
And the future? Well, the first two series each began great and inexolerably ended badly. Unfortunately, we may have seen the first sign that the third series is following suit. The latest issues have the JLA recruiting some new/spare members. Amongst those chosen was the Huntress, a second rate Batman with a crossbow. Wow, can you sense the grandeur?