No Man’s Land was an ambitious crossover that ran through the various Batman-related comic series throughout 1999. It took place after an earthquake had destroyed much of Gotham City, in Cataclysm, leading up to a strand of tasteless disaster-related stories (including a bunch of cannibalism tales). By January ‘99, the US government basically gave up on the place – instead of funding Gotham’s reconstruction, the federal authorities declared the city a ‘no man’s land’ and set up a military blockade isolating it from the rest of the country.
This was a somewhat contrived premise – surely the JLA could’ve rebuilt the city in no time! – but it did serve as a springboard for fascinating comics, as the ensuing chaotic Gotham City turned into a massive anthropological experiment that allowed creators to explore their views on social order (often by combining elements from Lord of the Flies and Mad Max). There was an inescapable allegorical dimension built into NML, which is no doubt why Christopher Nolan decided to use this crossover as such a major source of inspiration for The Dark Knight Rises.
No Man’s Land also served as the culmination of the work Doug Moench, Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon, and Denny O’Neil had done throughout the nineties. For years, these writers had copiously developed Batman’s supporting cast of sidekicks, villains, and all sorts of civilians, which allowed NML to feature the whole city as protagonist, from regular police officers to previously established business owners. (Sadly, of the four writers, only Dixon and O’Neil were involved in the actual crossover.)
The result was impressive, especially from an editorial point of view. Guided by group editor Denny O’Neil, for one year (close to one hundred issues) stories flowed from one series to the next, written and drawn by multiple creators. Sure, there were some inconsistencies – particularly in the art – but it was nevertheless amazing to see so many disparate series, spin-offs, and tie-ins gradually build a large narrative that involved dozens and dozens of different recognizable characters.
It’s still a lot to read, though. So for those who don’t feel like going through the whole saga, today Gotham Calling tells you which stories are definitely worth your time:
‘No Law and a New Order’
(No Man’s Land #1, Shadow of the Bat #83, Batman #563, Detective Comics #730)
‘No Law and a New Order’ is the story that kicked things off. It does a superb job of establishing the new status quo: starting out with a series of brief vignettes, we learn that there is no structured law enforcement in Gotham anymore (although some cops are still around, having claimed the Tricorner area, where they try to preserve a minimum of safety and justice), that the city is divided into sectors controlled by different gangs (we even get a map!), and that the economy has evolved into a barter system in which the Penguin occupies a privileged position (because he has a pipeline to the outside). The story shows us the initial positions of familiar characters – like Oracle, Scarface, and Jim Gordon – and it introduces a mysterious new Batgirl (whose identity was only revealed months later, in Legends of the Dark Knight #120).
Alex Maleev’s photorealistic art – enhanced by Wayne Faucher’s inks as well as by the coloring of Lovern Kindzierski, Matt Hollingsworth, and David Stewart – serves as a deadpan background for the quirky details that make up this new world. Bob Gale (who had previously written the fun Back to the Future film trilogy and would go on to write a terrible Daredevil run) is in great form as well, crafting a tasty slice of speculative fiction, as we see Gotham’s citizens organizing society according to new rules and the police force partly devolving into just another criminal gang. (Also, Gale can’t resist including an obvious callback to the cult gang movie The Warriors.)
‘Fear of Faith’
(Legends of the Dark Knight #116, Shadow of the Bat #84, Batman #564, Detective Comics #731)
The second arc of No Man’s Land was almost as strong as the first one, uncovering new corners of this quasi-apocalyptic setting. ‘Fear of Faith’ picks up some of the loose threads of ‘No Law and a New Order’ while focusing mostly on a refugee center run by a well-meaning priest stuck between various warring factions.
That said, writer Devin K. Grayson delivers more of a psychological horror story. We see the Scarecrow manipulate the different players, taking society’s collapse as a chance to study human behavior on a large scale. There are plenty of wonderfully macabre details, like when a splinter group from the former Black Mask gang breaks into a morgue and digs through the corpses in search of bullets… In fact, Devin Grayson probably did some of her best work throughout this crossover (including the really good ‘Stormy Weather,’ which is a sequel of sorts to JLA #32).
Although the art is not as solid as in the previous arc, it’s not without some fine moments.
‘Bread and Circuses’
(Legends of the Dark Knight #117, Shadow of the Bat #85)
In ‘Bread and Circuses,’ by Ian Edginton and D’Israeli (the team behind such cool comics as Stickleback, Scarlet Traces, and Leviathan), we get a closer look at the Penguin’s Casablanca-style black market den, at Commissioner Gordon’s increasing moral compromises in the cops’ turf war against the other gangs, and at Batman’s attempts to reassert himself as a feared crimefighter in such a lawless Gotham City. And not just a closer look: D’Israeli’s rubbery art and colors further the move away from Maleev’s realism, with everyone in Gotham progressively losing their humanity and physically becoming something else (as a thin Harvey Bullock puts it after almost getting shot: “Guess I’m half the man they thought I was.”).
Like most NML story-arcs, the whole thing revolves around what makes people accept order or not… If Bob Gale claimed some people just need to have any kind of authority – no matter how exploitative – take care of them and Devin Grayson stressed the role of fear and faith, Ian Edginton now seems to be arguing that mass entertainment can be a vehicle both for alienation and for conveying to the public who is really in charge.
‘Home Sweet Home’
(Shadow of the Bat #86)
Like I said in the introduction, one of the neatest aspects of No Man’s Land was how Gotham City itself became a character. We actually had entire issues without the Dark Knight, set on the peripheries of the adventures of the costumed heroes and villains. For instance, ‘Home Sweet Home’ is just a nice character study about an old man who decides to stay in his house and resist the various gangs fighting in his neighborhood.
Lisa Klink’s script strikes the right tone: her protagonist is not super-tough or anything, just a determined and resourceful old man from the Greatest Generation. But it’s Guy Davis who ultimately sells the story, as he is the perfect artist for when you want a melancholic, nostalgia-tinged tale like this.
‘Shades of Grey’
(Detective Comics #733)
Bob Gale returned for this one issue about Gotham as an upside-down city in which the criminals want to go to prison and the police no longer welcomes Batman’s help. The issue is not just about Gotham, though – as the title suggests, ‘Shades of Grey’ is a comic about moral ambiguity in general, with each scene showing people engaging with dilemmas and paradoxes that fall within the grey area between black and white morals. Once again, NML tackles the kind of large questions – such as the nature of power or the role of barter, competition, and debt in a predatory economy – that continue to fuel ongoing academic discussion.
The result is amusing, provocative, and built on top of solid characterization. The luscious art is by Phil Winslade and Sal Buscema, with colors by Pamela Rambo.
‘Step Into the Light/Misery Dance’
(Azrael: Agent of the Bat #54-55)
It’s not often I recommend Azrael comics in this blog, but this two-parter is worth the exception. While roaming around Gotham City looking for the Joker, the cannibal Calibax, and the supernaturally charismatic Nicholas Scratch (leftovers from failed missions in the previous issues), Azrael has a couple of ‘Shades of Grey’ encounters of his own, furthering this hero’s usual state of confusion. We also get a few nifty character moments as he visits Oracle’s headquarters and Dr. Leslie Thompkins’ free clinic (including a subtle callback to Leslie’s first story, way back in Detective Comics #457, also written by Dennis O’Neil).
The high point, of course, is the fact that Azrael faces a lunatic called Death Dancer, who goes around enforcing euthanasia through tapdancing! (Just in case you thought all these comics took themselves too seriously…)