OK, so No Man’s Land is really long. I started reading it right when it was uploaded to the app, and I only just got done. Now, I’d like to talk about it! If people find this interesting, I may write up more reviews like this in the future.
For such an absurdly huge story arc (every issue of Detective Comics, Batman, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Batman: Shadow of the Bat, and Azrael: Agent of the Bat for a year, about half a year each worth of Nightwing, Robin, and Catwoman, two issues of JLA, and a few one-shots filled in around all of that), the basics of the story are pretty simple. I assume a lot of you have read it, but I’ll just drop a quick explanation for reference and for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t (presented somewhat snarkily because that’s just my sense of humor – I actually like this story, but the scale and number of different writers create a lot of plot holes).
The year (in real time and in the story) is 1999. Gotham City has been torn apart by an earthquake. It’s not anywhere near a fault line, but shush. Gotham is known as a general hellhole due to all the psychotic supervillains and such. So, Congress makes the (constitutionally questionable) decision to remove Gotham from the country and quarantine it rather than fixing the damage. As a law student, I actually can’t immediately think of a reason Congress couldn’t do that. There’s a pretty strong chance the courts would invent such a reason (probably under the Fourth or Fifth Amendment), but as far as I’m aware there isn’t one yet because this isn’t something Congress has actually tried.
Anyway, that’s beside the point. The set-up for this partially involves the machinations of a guy called Nick Scratch (“Old Nick” and “Old Scratch” both being nicknames for the Devil and Scratch’s goons all being genetically modified to have red skin and horns and being named after demons – very subtle). Scratch gets anticlimactically shut down halfway through the event in an issue of Azrael and we never find out what his long-term game plan was. I’m guessing he was supposed to be the ultimate villain until they decided to tie it into a Superman story that was going to pick up in 2000.
Anyway, a bunch of people died in the quake and the rest are given three days to skip town before all the bridges and tunnels into Gotham get dynamited. With all the damage, reduced population, and lack of contact with everywhere else, we’re essentially left with a miniature apocalypse. What’s left of Gotham gets taken over by a patchwork of different gangs. Important players include what’s left of the police, Two-Face, and the Penguin. A few other villains are important for some of the smaller story arcs within NML, but those are the only ones present from the start who remain relevant through most of the story.
Here’s a rapid-fire rundown of the major plot points (skipping a few of the more standalone-ish plots) : Batman made most of his allies leave but then disappeared himself. Commissioner Gordon is annoyed that Bats hasn’t shown up, and sad that he couldn’t get a job anywhere else because everyone thinks he sucks because he lets a vigilante do his job for him. His wife, Sarah Essen, is trying to get him to stop moping. There’s a new Batgirl running around. Gordon decides to “protect” Barbara (who is somehow simultaneously in a completely un-quake-damaged Gotham having unrelated adventures with Black Canary – See: Birds of Prey #1-17) by starting a gang war outside her apartment. The police have a mysterious ally who kills a bunch of rival gangsters for them. Batman shows back up. Batman sets a bunch of unreasonably high expectations for new Batgirl and gets mad at her when she doesn’t meet them. The Huntress is hanging out at a church. Barbara is really upset about the new Batgirl. The cops’ ally is Two-Face, who sets up a plan where they manipulate the Penguin and end up with the cops taking a bunch of Cobblepot’s turf while Two-Face raids the area under Batman’s protection. The new Batgirl is Huntress, who Batman fires for no clear reason. Oh, also there’s this mute martial artist girl with a tryhardy name and lots of mad skillz from her terrible assassin dad who somehow ended up working for Oracle. Guess who becomes the new new Batgirl? The only surprise here is that Cass actually ends up being a cool character, but she definitely doesn’t have a graceful introduction. Oh yeah, and Azrael dealt with that Scratch guy somewhere during all this but no one noticed because nobody cares about Azrael. (Well, I like him, but I’m about the only one.)
Anyway, Batman calls all his allies back in. They go around running some errands for him, and he apparently has this big important plan to deal with the real evil mastermind behind all of this, who has apparently hired Bane to do some vague things in the city or something. The Joker’s running around during all of this, apparently trying to get Batman’s attention, but not really doing much of consequence other than introducing Harley Quinn to the comics. Somewhere in all of this, there’s one of Gordon’s cop lackeys, Bill Pettit, who goes rogue because he wants to… I don’t know, shoot more people or something. He’s supposed to be a student of military history, but seems to take after all of history’s most incompetent military leaders. He runs around making a nuisance of himself and Huntress theoretically teams up with him but mostly just sits around in his general vicinity trying to play voice of reason. Then he gets killed by the Joker. Oh, and also, somewhere around here, Robin starts being in two places at once, leaving Gotham in a high-profile incident in his own book while hanging around for months afterwards everywhere else. I’m beginning to think that Chuck Dixon just didn’t care about this story, considering he was also responsible for Birds of Prey ignoring it entirely.
Meanwhile, Two-Face kidnaps Renee Montoya for a while for some reason. He then also kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and tries to put him on trial (You should know that it doesn’t make sense for the prosecutor and the judge to be the same person, Harvey). Gordon then asks for Harvey Dent to be his defense, so you’ve got Two-Face conducting both a direct and cross examination of himself on the witness stand in front of a judge, who is also him. If Renee weren’t there, he’d probably try to be the bailiff, too. It’s a cool moment, but really doesn’t make a great deal of sense.
Right, where were we? Oh, yeah, the mysterious player Batman was plotting against. Turns out that’s Lex Luthor. He rolls in with a bunch of construction equipment and stuff to rebuild Gotham and apply PR pressure to shut down the No Man’s Land. Turns out he’s going to sneakily forge ownership of a ton of property in Gotham owned by people who are mostly either too dead or too poor to fight it in court. Never mind the fact that exactly this sort of chicanery is why class action suits exist and there’s about a billion lawyers who would be chomping at the bit to litigate the crap out of the whole thing.
Anyway, the Joker tries to blow up some babies or something and kills Sarah Essen. It’s sad. Batman’s big plan against Luthor turns out to be… nothing? He kinda has some evidence against Luthor at the end, but it doesn’t do anything, because Luthor goes and runs for president on the PR from rebuilding Gotham, rendering the whole sequence one giant set-up for a mediocre Superman story arc.
tl;dr Greg Rucka doesn’t understand how law stuff works.
OK, so I’ve spent this entire post so far mercilessly mocking the plot. I actually like it for the most part. See, this was one of a couple story arcs that cropped up in the ‘90s that would be huge, multi-book, months-long events with lots of smaller story arcs built into a broader general framework. Another great example is Knightfall, especially the early part where Bane’s released all of the Arkham inmates. Each issue, Batman confronted a different villain in a somewhat self-contained story, but it’s all part of this hectic sequence of events leading up to the fight with Bane. Here, we have different heroes and villains, some big names, some small, struggling to survive in No Man’s Land. Some (like the stories written by Larry Hama – those things are trippy) are bad, some are good, but it’s just a bunch of writers playing around with a cool concept. They’re even nice enough to pretty much put everything back where it was at the end, just with a few leftover characters and plot threads to play with afterwards.
This story is just so mind-bogglingly huge that it would’ve been impossible to keep it totally coherent, especially since there are some blatantly obvious mid-story editorial decisions that forced them to shift directions. Like, we don’t know this, but it’s pretty clear that they had to switch the main villain from Nick Scratch to Lex Luthor. Cassandra Cain’s introduction is also so hilariously abrupt that it’s clear editorial wanted a permanent new Batgirl to wear the costume, so they had to shuffle Huntress out ASAP.
The only issue is the ending. That’s big enough that I’m giving that its own big section further down.
Particularly odd point about this: the theme is actually pretty consistent and well delivered. Basically, I’d phrase it thus: “The world can be cruel and unforgiving, but people will band together and pull through.”
For all the miscommunications and plot holes, that message is present with remarkable consistency through the story. So… props there.
Let’s do a quick list of some of the major players:
Batman- His initial absence doesn’t receive a lot of explanation, and he makes some weird decisions, but it’s basically just Batman doing his usual Batman thing, but in the mini-apocalypse. Not to be confused with the mini-Apokolips, which would be adorable in an evil sort of way.
Alfred- Alfred’s just there, doing his Alfred thing like the cool dude he is.
Nightwing- His tie-ins are fun and wrap up/introduce some plot threads, but he’s not all that important here.
Oracle- Around a lot, and serves as the main narrator, but doesn’t really do all that much. Things just kind of happen around her. She mostly just does her usual mission-control information-gatherer thing.
Leslie Thompkins- Hangs around telling Batman and Azrael “Violence is bad, yo.” Batman doesn’t listen, Azrael does but then goes out and punches things anyway. Usually in situations where he had no other option. Then Thompkins lectures him anyway. Am I the only one who finds her incredibly annoying?
Robin- Doesn’t do much, and most of it’s just in his own tie-ins like Nightwing.
Huntress- Actually one of the main characters. Gets some really cool development, but is also treated like dirt for no reason by Batman when she’s going out of her way to play things his way. Seriously, what is your issue, Bruce? Between this and randomly trying to kill Prometheus and getting fired in Morrison’s JLA, I’m beginning to think there was some kind of editorial mandate that Huntress get shafted everywhere she showed up.
Azrael- Cool dude who everyone ignores. Has some adventures with the new Batgirl and beats up Nick Scratch. Largely confined to his own (oddly mediocre, given that it’s written by Denny O’Neil) book, which is weird because the writer was also the lead editor on the Bat-Books more generally.
Batgirl (Cassandra Cain)- Doesn’t do much. Would get some better development in her own series immediately following this.
Superman- Makes two brief appearances. Shows up, does things, and Batman’s all “No, you don’t get it, you can’t help here” even though he totally can and then he leaves. Both times.
Jim Gordon- Spends most of the story with his head lodged so far up his own rear that he has to hold his mouth open to see anything. Don’t ask me how that works; it’s like some kind of physically improbable reverse ouroboros. Basically, he’ll start gang wars and team up with Two-Face to get the city under control, but working with Batman? That’s just too much to ask.
Sarah Essen- Has like three scenes with Jim and then gets killed. Sad stuff? It stinks of trying to dump the rest of the excess baggage from Frank Miller’s edgy reworking of Batman and Gordon’s origins in Batman: Year One. But, like, in the most pointless and mean-spirited way possible. I’ll return to this point in my discussion of the end.
Bill Pettit- Think of your stereotypical trigger-happy gun nut. Then make him about ten times dumber and more annoying. Now that you’re thinking of the Punisher, imagine if he were a cop.
Renee Montoya- Another character who’s certainly on-panel a lot, but doesn’t do much. She acts as a go-between for Gordon or Two-Face, then gets kidnapped, and then is pretty much out of the plot.
Bullock, Bock, and Foley- The GCPD’s resident extras. Bullock gets a couple funny moments, Bock gets one cool issue, and Foley is initially written as Pettit’s equally-toxic opposite number advocating going full turtle instead of guns-blazing, but somehow ends up joining Pettit’s team and getting killed.
Lex Luthor- I’ll give the guy one thing: He’s on the top of his game here. He plays everybody else like a fiddle and comes away the only real winner. If you approach this whole thing as a Lex Luthor story, it’s actually probably more satisfying.
The Joker- While it’s a plot point that he’s oddly inactive, it’s still odd how inactive he is. He has a couple schemes, but everything’s set up to look like he’s trying to figure out a big climactic scheme he can pull. He ends up settling on “kidnap some babies, shoot the first person who comes to look for them.” That’s literally it. Genius, Mr. J.
The Penguin- Another major player here. He ends up thriving in the No Man’s Land setting, trading supplies for valuables in anticipation of the area getting opened up again. Tends to be sort of a middleman in a lot of plots.
Catwoman- Kinda does her own thing. Runs some errands for Batman and embarrasses Luthor and Cobblepot, but not much else.
Two-Face- Gets taken off the board long before the ending, but is the main mover-and-shaker tiding us over between the Nick Scratch bits in the first third and the Lex Luthor bits in the final third. He gets some really cool moments, including one of the better spins on the “Two-Face puts XYZ character on ‘trial’” gimmick that I’ve seen.
Harley Quinn- It’s an odd time to port her in from Batman: The Animated Series, and she mostly does her lovestruck henchgirl shtick. She gives the Joker somebody to play off of in scenes where he’d otherwise be alone and there’s a pretty good story where she tries to win his affections by playing hard-to-get and everything blows up in both of their faces.
So, what I mean by this is the dialogue and narration. And it’s… surprisingly consistently good. The only real lapse in quality or obvious difference in writing style is the aforementioned trippy Larry Hama issues, where the characters are constantly belting out paragraphs’ worth of hammy exposition and lame one-liners. Including Batman. Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #121 in particular is so bad, it’s good. It’s got enough terrible ice puns to make Joel Schumacher proud. Fortunately, he only wrote four issues of an 88-issue story arc, so you’re otherwise on safe ground with actually-competent writers like Greg Rucka, Chuck Dixon, and Devin Grayson.
The tone is a spot where this story really shines. It’s basically post-apocalyptic Batman, and it’s really cool. The writers all do a good job of driving home just how desperate the situation is in Gotham. In some ways, Batman is just doing what he’s always done, but in other ways, you really feel that post-quake Gotham is a completely different world from the setting you’re familiar with.
As for how it’s all presented for us visually? Meh, no complaints, no particular highlights. The only thing is that Batman’s costume is drawn really inconsistently. Sometimes it’s almost Adam West levels of bright blue and grey, and sometimes it’s Michael Keaton levels of pure black. Like, I actually think just taking the classic color scheme and toning it way down would look better (and actually be more practical – blue blends into an urban environment, black creates a silhouette) than the modern black-and-grey look, but please just pick one. That’s a nitpick, though.
Alright, let’s break down the real spot where this comic falls apart. First, I’ll talk about the Joker half of the finale, and then address the Luthor half.
(||/)Sarah Essen’s Death(||/)
I’m going to be blunt: This shouldn’t have happened. Sarah Essen was barely in most of this story, and then they just kill her off for some cheap stakes in an anticlimactic scheme by the Joker. What does this accomplish, narratively speaking? It’s not like anybody is really even motivated to do anything by her death, and it doesn’t have anything to do with anything Sarah herself was doing before she died. It’s just a standard-issue shock death. The only thing that can really explain it is that the writers realized that despite the scale of the story, nobody that wasn’t original to No Man’s Land had actually died, and they wanted to make the story feel more impactful. This is one of the more senseless fridgings I’ve seen. I mean, I’m not even sure it’s a stuffed-into-the-fridge moment in the usual sense. Generally the term refers to when a character (usually female) is killed or hurt to provide angst and development for a different (usually male) character. Except, Sarah doesn’t even do that. She gets some perfunctory mourning and then is largely forgotten. It’s just a random, senseless, pointless bit of violence. It actually kind of undercuts the message of the rest of the story, since instead of “The world can be cruel and unforgiving, but people will band together and pull through,” it’s “The world is cruel and unforgiving, and there’s nothing you can do about it because it’s so miserable even the Joker can’t find anything to laugh about.”
(||/)The Bad Guy Wins?(||/)
Now, let’s deal with Luthor. OK, so he’s brought in as the big genius mastermind behind everything that’s going on. All the pain, drama, and conflict the characters went through in an entire year’s worth of stories all boils down to Luthor. And what happens to Luthor as a result?
He gets away with it.
Seriously? Yeah, this was supposed to tie into his running for president in 2000. But that means that this big, sweeping, year-long, eighty-eight-issue Batman epic… is just inconclusive set-up for a Superman story. Essentially, the plot is deprived of a climax (unless you count Sarah Essen dying for no reason as a climax – I don’t).
Anyway, nothing actually comes of Batman’s big plan and he just vaguely has some evidence of Luthor’s scheme that doesn’t actually help anything.
tl;dr Cool story, weird plot holes, bad ending, #votelex2020