I was thinking recently about how maybe we here at Gabbing Geek should consider a regular recommendation to readers along the lines of similar storylines or genre or something, and the first thing I thought of was Batman.
Now, to be fair, the first thing I think of in many instances is Batman. What should I have for lunch today? Batman. Where did I leave my keys? Batman. Why is Watson such a perv? Batman.
Batman has been in many classic incarnations, and some of them have been very well known. So, which Batman storyline from the comics am I recommending? Well, I’m going with No Man’s Land.
As a character, Batman has a long and storied history, but oddly enough, the character doesn’t have many particularly memorable storylines and runs until the 1970s when writers like Denny O’Neil and artists like Neil Adams took him back to his dark roots and removed the last traces of the Adam West 60s. Many fans will rightfully point to a pair of Frank Miller arcs for quality Batman stories: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. Sometimes you may get a plug for The Long Halloween or its sequel Dark Victory. Those works by writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale are also well worth a read-through, especially if you get to them after Miller’s Year One since Loeb used them as an explanation on what happened to the mobster villains of Year One and when the freakish Batman villains everybody knows took over the crime of Gotham City.
Those are all good recommendations. Loeb would later do the Hush arc with artist Jim Lee. That one is OK, as Loeb does his best work with Sale, but Hush wouldn’t leap to mind for me as a go-to Batman story to give to new fans. Older fans might like Loeb’s signature parade of villains and guest appearances, but it could be a much better storyline, and then other writers kept bringing Hush back when Hush ideally should have been a one-off villain.
Instead of those, however, I am going to recommend the year long story called No Man’s Land. Sometimes thought of as “Batman Year Ten,” the story didn’t have a single creative team. That would have been impossible. For the entirety of 1999, all four of the Bat-books then in existence ran this story. Essentially, the reader got a new chapter every week, with special issues filling in the blanks. Other titles like Nightwing, Robin, and JLA would do crossovers of their own, but basically the story unfolded in the four core Bat-books.
The basic premise was that following a magnitude 7 earthquake (in a different storyline called Cataclysm), the United States government decided that permanently awful city Gotham was no longer fit for humans to call home and declared the place “No Man’s Land.” Arkham Asylum opened its gates and let all the inmates out, and anyone who wanted to leave and wasn’t an Arkhamite had a deadline to get out before the government shut the whole city down. People could stay if they wanted to, but the place would be without anything like basic law and order. Batman himself vanished from the city for a brief period.
Once Gotham was shut off from oh, everything, the various parts of the city were divided up and conquered by different factions, most working under some strongman. Many times the strongman was from Arkham, though not always. Poison Ivy, for example, took over the city’s park. Commissioner Gordon stayed behind with a handful of cops to carve out a safe zone, and Batman’s eventual return had the Dark Knight systematically reclaiming portions of the city under his own banner. Granted, Gordon was very mad at Bats for leaving in the first place, but thankfully the two patched things up before the city reopened to the rest of the world.
Not every issues was at the same high quality. Longtime Marvel writer Larry Hama came onboard for a few chapters. Hama had done a ton of great Wolverine and G.I. Joe stories during his time, but he was a poor fit for Batman. His Batman tended to be…talkative. Other creators worked on the books too, and individual readers may enjoy them to one degree or another, but the basic idea was that No Man’s Land wasn’t something a superhero could just swoop in and solve. Tough choices had to be made. Gordon made a secret alliance at one point with a shadowy person that he ends up regretting very quickly. Superman tried intervening early on only to see his basic modus operandi just made things worse.
The lion share of stories, indeed the best chapters, all seemed to come from writer Greg Rucka. Rucka was the one writing the Gordon deal, and did fantastic work with Batman and Gordon’s relationship, developing a complicated relationship as well with Renee Montoya and Two-Face, and even bringing in an outside character to bring stability back to Gotham while also setting up future antagonism with Batman. Rucka’s career shows he has a good handle on espionage and street-level vigilantes, and both worked well creating a more morally complex storyline than could generally be associated with superhero comics. That may be one of the big reasons for Hama’s poorly-received run: his chapters were more black-and-white in their morality, while Rucka had Two-Face putting Gordon on trial before Montoya challenged Harvey Dent to put Two-Face on the witness stand. Two-Face questioning himself into submission may be one of the story’s many highlights.
Another was longtime Huntress Helena Bertinelli. This Huntress long sought (and was denied) Batman’s approval and attempted to find it as a new Batgirl. She failed when she decided not to take on suicidal odds and went back to her old look, finding some redemption at the end of the arc.
The story was obviously thoroughly planned from start to finish, and may be one of the best multi-part crossover storylines ever done in any comics, especially since this one took a year to tell. Readers could see Batman gradually making progress, defeating successively tougher enemies until the city was more or less cleaned up, leaving the Joker and “guest villain” for last. Continuing the development of Jim Gordon under Rucka, Joker ended up (MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE ARTICLE) killing Gordon’s wife Sarah. As Batman leads him away, Joker remembers his crippling of Barbara Gordon and then suggests he’ll have to meet up with Gordon’s son at some point, prompting the Commissioner to attack a subdued Joker until Batman can pull the man off the clown.
The net result of the story included a few semi-permanent changes.
- Cassandra Caine was introduced as a new Batgirl.
- Renee Montoya became a bigger player in the DCU, leading into her eventual role as the second Question.
- Harley Quinn had her official introduction to the DCU.
- Rucka would come on to write Batman stories for a while, continuing good work with Montoya, Two-Face, and others. Rucka was angry at the editorial decision to kill off Gordon’s wife and made a point to reference her every chance he got.
- Longtime Superman foe Lex Luthor now had reason to hate Batman.
While not a perfect storyline, or even the best Batman storyline out there, No Man’s Land is a great example of how a multi-part crossover can go right. As an example in truly longform comics storytelling, the work succeeded more than it failed and makes for some of the best Batman work of the 90s.