Ask Chris #275: Good Reasons To Venture Into ‘No Man’s Land’
A: When you consider how complicated it was to put together, how long it dominated an entire corner of DC's line, and how just plain weird it was right from the very premise, it's kind of amazing that No Man's Land works at all, let alone that it works well. You're right, though --- of all the Batman crossovers that the '90s brought to us, the one that closed out the decade by leveling Gotham City and building stories around Batman spraypainting a gang tag on ruined buildings to mark his territory is easily the best.
But as for why it works, well, there's one reason that's actually pretty simple. It is, for all intents and purposes, post-apocalyptic Batman.
To really get why No Man's Land worked, though, you have to think about when it was published. Apocalyptic fear had been pretty hard-wired into pop culture ever since we found out that we had, as a species, developed the ability to blow ourselves into extinction, but by 1999, it had reached a full-on fever pitch. If you weren't around back then --- and nothing has ever made me feel older than typing that out --- then I can assure you that whatever fear of nuclear apocalypse we'd gotten over when he Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War came to an end had been replaced by plenty of new concerns.
There was the usual big-round-number fear of the End Times arriving promptly on January 1, 2000 --- this was the era when the Left Behind novels started climbing up the best-seller charts --- but even if you weren't particularly religious, there was also the Y2K bug to worry about. In retrospect, the whole thing seems ridiculous, but there were news stories --- news stories! --- that were assuring us that if something wasn't done, computers would flip out at the stroke of midnight because they were going to think they had traveled back in time.
I know only slightly more about computers now than I did then, but I have never really understood why an airplane would quit flying if it suddenly thought it was back in cowboy times, because I'm not sure that airplanes are capable of even understanding concepts like cowboys, times, or that they even have the self-awareness that would be required for realizing that one was itself an airplane, but that was something that was presented as an actual possibility. Planes falling out of the sky, phones refusing to connect calls because they hadn't been invented yet, the Internet failing and possibly blowing up every computer that was connected to it --- and on top of that, Satan was probably going to rise up out of the boiling seas and usher in a seven-year Tribulation that would herald Armageddon.
1999 was a very stressful year.
That was the kind of zeitgeist that No Man's Land was published in, and in my case, at least, it was extremely effective. In one of the single dumbest comics-related things I have done in my life, and there have been many, I remember reading the paperback collection of the first arc, "No Law and a New Order" over and over again during Christmas break, trying to pick up tips on how to survive the potential apocalypse.
Fortunately for everyone --- especially those of us whose primary survival skills involve knowing a lot about '90s Batman comics --- that wasn't really a concern. But it did make for some compelling reading.
But even apart from that, "Post-Apocalyptic Batman" is as big a no-brainer of a premise as you're likely to find, and not just because of the obvious fun of mashing him up with Mad Max and seeing what happens.
Part of it is that it was the kind of big shakeup that allowed for new creators to take the stage, giving a hard break from the rosters that had defined the previous decade. This is where Greg Rucka, Devin Grayson and Larry Hama all came in, the writers who would be on the three core Batman titles once NML ended, to varying degrees of success, and it's where Kelley Puckett and Damion Scott started working on the character who would become Batgirl. But the other part is that it's an idea that works with what's already there.
Batman might work outside the system, but there's always a system there to work outside of. What happens when that's gone? What happens when Batman can't take the crooks that he's fighting back to Arkham, or to prison? How do all the villains function when basic resources get scarce, or when there's nothing stopping them from just doing whatever they want to do? And what does Commissioner Gordon do when he's not just not on the police force, but when there's not even a police force to be a part of? Those are solid questions to start building a story around.
And one of the reasons that you know they're solid questions is that No Man's Land keeps coming back, in one form or another. Arkham City lifts from it pretty heavily, although it's probably more accurate to say that both of those projects are lifting from Escape From New York and that the comics just got there first to make the blueprint. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Zero Year did a little bit to mix No Man's Land with Year One and a pinch of Golden Age comics and come out on the other side with a story where Batman rides a steam-powered dirtbike through apocalyptic Gotham and wrestles lions. As you might imagine, I'm a fan, but I don't think either of those would've happened without NML.
On top of that, it was kind of inevitable. Since the '70s, Gotham City had been becoming more and more of a nightmarish urban hellhole, moving from a pretty basic stand-in for New York to Denny O'Neil's "Manhattan at 11 minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November" to a sprawl of abandoned warehouses and gargoyles where the major exports were fear gas and clown murder. By the '90s, the stories had been built around raising the stakes for Gotham City again and again, with massive, deadly crime sprees and at least two Biblical plagues.
Eventually, it gets to the point where it's so big that you almost have to just throw everything away and start over again, and No Man's Land --- or at least Cataclysm, the prelude that could be described as "Batman unsuccessfully attempts to punch an earthquake" --- is that idea taken to a literal extreme. Gotham was more or less destroyed, and while it would eventually be rebuilt and spend a few years playing host to smaller, more self-contained stories than the crossovers that had defined the '90s, they might as well spend a year having some fun with it.
One thing that I actually really enjoy about the story is how much it tackles the mechanics of how post-quake Gotham works. The idea of using Eliot R. Brown's map of Gotham City and having Oracle color it in to mark the city off into gang territories, for instance, was a really effective one, especially since it was used multiple times over the course of the year to chart how the different factions were consolidating, being split apart, or being taken out of the game entirely.
But that also comes into play with how the villains react to their new situation. The Joker, of course, is obvious --- he shows up and takes over as much territory as he can and tries to kill everyone at the end, punctuating the story in a way that's both thrilling and inevitable --- but then you get to the others, and there's a lot of interesting ideas that come into play.
Poison Ivy doesn't really want to rule over Gotham City, she just ends up taking over Robinson Park for herself and agrees to supply food to a city where the supply of canned goods is dwindling, working with Batman in exchange for being left alone until a year after the crossover ends and she finally gets dealt with in the pages of Detective Comics. Two-Face uses the lack of a societal structure to put Commissioner Gordon and Renee Montoya on trial in a court where he controls everything.
And while seeds were there before, this is really where the Penguin evolves from the years of umbrella-based bird crimes into the conniving black market businessman that's been his direction ever since:
Also, in one of NML's best touches, the Penguin's headquarters was a high-rise department store that had just straight up tipped over and landed on its side, completely intact. It's completely rididculous, but it's also just weird enough to be compelling. Which, now that I think of it, makes it the entirety of No Man's Land in a nutshell.
And that's the best thing about the story: That they actually did it. As much as "Post-Apocalyptic Batman" seems like it could be knocked out in an Elseworlds miniseries, No Man's Land is full-on DC Universe Continuity. It sets up things that would be dealt with for years to come, and not only that, but it meant that it had to be dealt with in the larger context of a superhero universe.
I mean really, as unbelievable as No Man's Land might be on its own, it gets even moreso when you realize that it's taking place in a world that has Superman and the Justice League in it, characters that could probably rebuild a city over the course of a long weekend if they really put their minds to it. But there actually are stories that deal with that, and while they don't quite succeed to the point of fixing up all the holes in the premise, they're good enough to be there, providing that explanation in a way that's actually pretty entertaining.
I have to imagine that the added complexity of pulling it off like that, not to mention doing it as what was essentially a year-long weekly series that also had books from other lines tying in and adding to a larger plot, was a complete nightmare from a logistical standpoint. Denny O'Neil, who was editing the Batman books at the time, talks about it in The DC Comics Guide To Writing as a "Megaseries" --- his term for a series of interlinked story arcs from different creative teams that are all contributing to a single massive story --- and he stresses that complexity.
So like I said, that it holds together at all is an accomplishment, and that it's full of interesting bits and pieces, genuinely good character work and the introduction of new characters that would be pretty successful over the next decade, like Cassandra Cain, are a pretty strong recommendation for just how good it is.
Also, remember how this is the story where Harley Quinn showed up in the DC Universe for the first time?
Anyway because of that, the one thing that it really lacks is consistency from one story to the next, which might be why I actually prefer Greg Rucka's novelization of No Man's Land to re-reading the whole thing in comics form. It's surprisingly comprehensive --- it does not shy away from talking about the events of Knightfall, for example --- but it does a really good job getting to the high points of the story and dealing with the idea of characters spending an entire year dealing with this situation, an apocalypse in miniature.
But really, I just like the idea of people in Gotham City sitting around going, "Hey, remember when it was just full-on Mad Max times around here a few years back? What was that about?"