If you read the last post, you know what’s going on. Here are some other great stories to come out of the 1999 crossover No Man’s Land:
‘Dead Man’s Land’
Besides the captivating character work, much of the appeal of Garth Ennis’ and John McCrea’s Hitman was the way that series took the piss out of the DC Universe – especially its most straight-faced side – so it’s no wonder they got a lot of mileage out of No Man’s Land. They first dived in with a two-parter where the titular contract-killer-with-a-heart-of-gold dealt with a vampire invasion in the Cauldron (one of Gotham City’s working class neighborhoods). It’s a neat little tale, full of jabs at the mechanics and loopholes of the succession of crossover events up to NML, imagining how puzzling all this would look to most people living in the DCU.
The main villain is a guy named Darius, who wants to be the new King of Vampires (the previous king was killed in Hellblazer #69). This being an Ennis comic, you know Darius has to go down, not so much because he’s a vampire, but because he’s a pompous poseur who thinks he’s above the crowd. Cue gallons of blood-soaked violence!
‘Way Dark/War Beneath the Streets!’
Another comic that often went for chuckles – albeit of a much less caustic kind – was the teen hero series Robin, about Tim Drake’s attempts to conciliate violent crimefighting with the usual dramas of adolescence, written by Chuck Dixon (and, during NML, illustrated by Staz Johnson and Gordon Purcell). The three-part arc ‘War Beneath the Streets!’ (set up by the previous issue, ‘Way Dark,’ which showed how Robin and Nightwing managed to get back to Gotham) has Tim investigate the food black market in order to cut out the profiteering middle men. This leads the Boy Wonder underground, where he has to face a bunch of B-list villains hiding in the sewers and abandoned subway lines.
These issues really go for the Mad Max beyond Thunderdome vibe, giving us scavengers dressed in sports gear, a criminal team-up between the genius Gearhead and the brutish Tommy Mangles (obviously reminiscent of Master Blaster), and a gang of feral-looking kids hiding underneath the city while waiting to one day restore civilization. The joke is that the kids haven’t really turned into savages – they’re just into role-playing games, so they’ve decided to treat the present situation as an entertaining adventure. The comic thus becomes wonderfully ambiguous: on the one hand, it pokes gentle fun at the escapist fantasies of young nerds (presumably Robin’s main target audience) and creates a sense of danger by pitting the deluded kids against homicidal maniacs like the creepy Ratcatcher; on the other hand, the story itself is a stellar example of a wish-fulfillment romp, since the villains do end up being defeated by a couple of teenagers. (In other words, don’t expect a cruel punchline like in the first Crossed mini-series – unlike Ennis, Dixon clearly has some fondness for the geekiest part of his audience.)
‘Face to Face/By Force of Arms’
Besides penning Robin, at the time Chuck Dixon provided a monthly adrenaline shot in the form of Nightwing. This was one of the coolest action series of the late ‘90s comics scene – not least because of Scott McDaniel’s wild pencils – so it’s no surprise that it contributed two exhilarating tie-ins to No Man’s Land. The first was a three-issue arc (#35-37) in which Nightwing single-handedly struggled to take control of Blackgate prison. The second one was this two-parter set immediately afterwards, with Dick Grayson still recuperating at Oracle’s headquarters, which are attacked by a splinter group from the police force (with help from the Huntress).
Apart from the breathtaking kickass action, these comics are totally worth it because of the delightful chemistry between the former lovers Dick and Barbara.
‘Captain of Industry’
(Legends of the Dark Knight #124)
Just one more Chuck Dixon gem – now with slick art by Rafael Kayanan, inked by Mark McKenna. This stand-alone issue tells the story of a dodgy entrepreneur who takes people’s money and other (now useless) valuables in exchange for a promise to get his clients out of Gotham City. We thus gain yet another look at the evolution of capitalism under No Man’s Land, beautifully highlighting the relative and contextual value of money and material goods.
(Batman #572/Detective Comics #739)
‘Jurisprudence’ is the tale where writer Greg Rucka found his bat-voice. It’s also a chance to see another supposedly civilized institution get the NML treatment, as Two-Face sets up a mock trial for Jim Gordon, charging the police commissioner with negligent homicide and dereliction of duty for his actions during No Man’s Land… including the fact that Jim struck (and then breached) an immoral deal with Two-Face himself. As if that wasn’t baffling enough, Two-Face acts as judge, jury, prosecutor, witness, and defense attorney, which means that at one point he cross-examines himself!
The whole thing is creepy and weird (Two-Face forces officer Renée Montoya to act as bailiff by kidnapping her family; also, he uses a handgun instead of a hammer to keep order in the court), successfully pulling off a goofy premise with a straight face. There have been some damn odd courtroom drama riffs in Batman comics over the years, but this is one of the best, even though Damion Scott’s exaggerated, energetic pencils are not ideally suited to Rucka’s subdued style.
(Legends of the Dark Knight #125)
Following ‘Jurispridence,’ Rucka did an even more amazing job with ‘Falling Back,’ firmly establishing himself as one of the greatest Batman writers of this era (even if he did go on to co-write one of the worst stories ever). The issue is entirely devoted to a difficult conversation between Batman and James Gordon – where they address all their trust issues since the start, especially over the Knightfall debacle – except for a couple of exchanges between Robin and Oracle, who are watching from a distance (“Feels like my parents are having a fight, you know? And we’re upstairs, waiting to find out if the divorce is final.”). Little happens in terms of external action, but Rucka manages to get so much out of these characters… It’s just one of those near-perfect comics, where every sentence and every panel seem designed for maximum effect. And, of course, what really seals the deal is the art by the team of Rick Burchett, James Hodgkins, and Klaus Janson, which feels like a masterclass of subtle acting.
That said, my favorite NML moment is actually from Robin #73, in which there is this brief homage to the awesome writer Alan Grant, who unfortunately was kicked out of the bat-books just before the crossover…