Comics have been gaining respect in recent years thanks in large part to the movies. What was once niche has become mainstream. Increased demand has led to comic book companies like #DC and Marvel to promote content that features their beloved characters. Not surprisingly, this has led to a production of essential reading lists. I liken these collected and recommended titles to the Greatest Hits album in an artist's catalog.
Although an essential reading list is a great resource to get casual fans to start reading and immerse themselves into the content, I also think it is important to showcase some of the lesser-known storylines. Batman: No Man's Land is one of those stories that is an indispensable read for new fans looking for something with grit and weight.
No Man's Land is a crossover story arc that was originally published in 1999. It ran for the whole year and it focused on how Gotham dealt with the aftermath of a severe earthquake. The earthquake itself was showcased in the run Cataclysm, which ran from March through May of 1998. This run is not for lightweights. As of 2017, there are two sets of trade paperbacks. The original, out-of-print run was collected in five thick volumes that contained the key story. There was a reprint in 2011 that gave the run the Omnibus treatment and is collected in four very large trades.
If you are in the mood for an epic Batman tale that includes all the well-known characters, you should give this series a chance. Do you want to know more about the extended members of the Bat family and see how they work together to bring order back to Gotham? This is a great story to pick up. It is a great way to see the big-name players at their best and baddest. If a series such as the Walking Dead can turn television viewers into ardent readers, then you should check out this run if you dare call yourself a #Batman fan. Great writing combined with brilliant artwork proved that the medium could appeal to mature and younger audiences through the careful application of suspense, action and psychological thrill.
Writers And Their Impact
As I mentioned in my first article, comics are a beloved media for passionate readers because they can follow the characters long after a story has ended. A writer with vision can take a character and reinvent them in a compelling way. What separates the comic book nerds from the more casual fan is that we follow the creators. We want to know what plans they have for the characters. Sometimes they even become synonymous with their creations or a character due to their strong writing and compelling vision.
Good examples of this are Paul Dini and Harley Quinn. Another example is Geoff Johns and his work on the Green Lantern. Their storytelling abilities are one reason why comics gain such a following and why a single floppy is not enough for some readers. One such person who demonstrated this was Devin K. Grayson in the Fear of Faith story arc. She is part of a pantheon of writers who had a unique vision for the Batman mythology and gained a following as a result.
1. Scarecrow Tales
Grayson's story focuses on a mission run by a young clergyman named Father Christian who is doing what he can to help the poor and desolate after the disaster. In this piece, the Scarecrow, Jonathan Crane, and Helena Bertinelli, the Huntress, are featured.
OK so we have religion, Jonathan Crane and Huntress. A good writer's talent shines when they know how to craft a story using two established characters and make it relevant in the real world. Grayson draws upon the Scarecrow's background as a psychologist to portray him as a master manipulator. His understanding of human nature during times of crisis, coupled with his manipulation of Father Christian and a reformed gang banger from Black Mask's crew really showcase Crane as a brilliant psychopath. He is like a wolf among sheep, and no matter how hard Huntress tries to warn Father Christian of Crane's history, he gently tells her that no one is in place to judge. There is a rather creepy part where he is exploiting the fears of the pious. In his own way, he is mocking religion.
Artist Dale Eaglesham's tight pencils and rich detail added to the emotional depth. The way he illustrated Crane was very reminiscent of the serpent from the Book of Genesis. I thought this story line, which combined the clinical aspects of science as well as the spiritual elements of religion made it one of the more memorable arcs in No Man's Land.
2. Emperor Penguin
You cannot have a crisis without a short supply of resources. You also cannot have this without some vultures taking advantage of the slim pickings. Ian Edington takes over writing in this arc, and his storyline focuses on the Oswald Cobblepot a.k.a. The Penguin, who is an entrepreneurial overlord.
The GCPD are scant in number, and the inhabitants of Gotham have either left or stayed behind. Although Batman and his associates are slowly but surely taking back the city, his enemies have had plenty of time to establish themselves and divide Gotham into gang-run districts. The Penguin is featured predominantly throughout the series, but Bread and Circuses in particular is one arc that shows what a cunning bastard he can be.
For those who are not historically inclined, the title Bread and Circuses comes from the term Panem et circenses, which comes from Juvenal's writings, Satire X. It refers to the state of the public when it no longer cares about civic duty and would rather be entertained, having their base desires satiated. This was demonstrated in ancient Rome by the prevalence of gladiator style games.
Bread and Circuses portrays Penguin as a club owner slash war profiteer who has Gotham eating out of his hand. This just works because Oswald is the only Batman villain who is a businessman. The fact that he has never been declared insane and sent to Arkham gives him a sort of credibility that the other rogues do not have. In exchange for weapons and shelter, the Penguin turns his club, the Iceberg Lounge, into a sort of gladiatorial style arena. The Iceberg Lounge has become Gotham's hot spot.
Batman's discovery of this enclave is one of the most dramatic scenes in the arc. Not only does this officially establish Batman's return to Gotham City, but the reader is also treated to a scene of Batman acting as a sort of leather-bound Maximus. Edington's writing perfectly captures a city reduced to its baser instincts, with Batman making observations such as:
Gotham has become an anthropologist's dream....a living breathing test bed of Darwinian theory.
Gotham has become feudal, tribal. A wasteland of petty baronies and fiefdoms.
3. Pam As Earth And Surrogate Mother
Resources and food are always a concern for those displaced. Greg Rucka writes about this in the arc titled Fruit of the Earth. As the title implies, Poison Ivy is the story's focus. Rucka is no stranger to writing compelling female characters, having penned two stints with Wonder Woman and the original Batwoman run. He even produced the novelization of Batman: No Man's Land.
Batman and Robin team up to find out after Oracle a.k.a. Barbara Gordon a.k.a. the first Batgirl tips them off that children were found in the vicinity. The dynamic duo discover that children are indeed living in the park. They are orphans who are taken in by Ivy who let them stay so long as they pledge to respect nature. Compounding the story is the fact that Clayface is actually the main villain here. He binds Ivy using his clay, forcing the Dark Knight and one of his greatest enemies to become temporary allies.
A good writer balances Ivy as a misanthrope who is also capable of having conflicting views on humanity. This arc is another example of Poison Ivy being written as a complex, cooperative antihero as opposed to a full-on villain. The fact that she allows the children to remain with her shows that she can tolerate people so long as they are not corrupted.
One could also make the argument that Ivy only let the children stay because they are still young enough to be molded. The fact that one cannot tell Ivy's true feelings; whether she is being genuine or if she is doing this as part of a much larger plan shows that she is one of the more fascinating characters in Batman's rogues gallery. This could work as a mini, but it works beautifully as part of a very rich tapestry.
Dan Jurgens's artwork passes the respectable test for me. Illustrating nudity or a female character with tight clothes is a tightrope walk, especially if a male artist is at the helm. Jurgens's artwork is careful to portray a female character who is both vulnerable and driven.
4. Joker's Greatest Hit
A Batman tale that includes all of his enemies is not complete without The Joker.
The creative team of of No Man's Land was careful in making Joker's return have an impact, and one of the ways they did this was to have Joker come out last. He was used very sparingly throughout the run, which allowed for others such as Scarecrow, Penguin and Poison Ivy to have the spotlight. It also helped to build anticipation for his return. Aside from a very small and light storyline that involved Joker, Azrael and some jellybeans, he was seen and heard throughout the series. His appearances were teased and hinted at, which made him look like an apex predator waiting to strike.
Joker is one of those characters that everyone wants to write about. Depending on the execution, this can turn into a memorable story or a forgettable cameo. By doing this, the writers were able to make his appearance count and have meaning. This is an example of less is more, and when he finally did make his big return, it was like a sighting of a celebrity — or a very dangerous animal. Take your pick.
On the subject of writing and characterization, my rule of thumb is if I can hear Mark Hamill's voice as I read the dialog, then you have done good. In this run, Joker has some great zingers. Writers such as Chuck Dixon and Greg Rucka give Joker dialog that show what a charming and sadistic bastard he is.
For those of you with Joker fatigue, I can understand your cynicism. He is overexposed and needs a break. While I can understand this disenchantment, that is also missing the point of the character. Many writers have written Joker as an psychopathic clown who does things because they do not make sense. He is a professional troll with rhyme and reason to his schemes, doing things simply to get a reaction. While this is a fair assessment of his character, other creators have written Joker as being very fully in control. Writers such as Alan Moore, Chuck Dixon, Paul Dini, and Greg Rucka have written him as someone who can be very conniving and calculating. A dangerous animal that does things because it is in its nature is scary. A dangerous animal that knows exactly what it is doing is terrifying.
Without giving away too much, No Man's Land provides readers with more reasons why Joker is one of the most iconic fictional characters in the pop culture landscape. Just as Madonna is iconic because she has a catalog and history that far exceeds her most well-known tunes, Joker has his moments where he shows that he is more than just a garden-variety criminal. He has his moments where he shows us why he is the apex predator in Batman's rogues gallery, and No Man's Land has this in spades. He reminds Batman and the readers why he is his most formidable foe. His moment will make readers gasp, yell and use foul language. This moment also contributed to an ongoing dialog that comic book followers constantly ask.
Why doesn't Batman just kill The Joker?
Comics And Meta
The mainstream public knows that Joker is Batman's greatest enemy, but can anyone explain why? Can anyone give very specific examples that show how Joker is the top dog in Batman's Rogues Gallery? The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight provided some examples but those are just two out of many.
The purpose of this piece was not to rub it in the face of new readers who are not up on their lore — everyone was a newbie at some point. I wanted to provide an example of how more well-versed readers can connect with DCEU fans who want to know more about the mythology. This is why No Man's Land is an essential read.
It showcases the Batman characters at their best. We see teamwork between the inner and extended members of the Bat family. We see Batman and Jim Gordon have a heart to heart conversation after so many months of no communication. We are treated to some suggestive moments between Two Face and Officer Renee Montoya, which have ramifications that are later explored in Gotham Central, a series that focuses on the Gotham City Police Department. That is what makes comic book reading very fulfilling — the characters don't really ever leave us.
No Man's Land is an epic tale that is not too far removed from reality. Given its dystopian setting and aesthetics, it is an essential piece not only because it holds a mirror to our contemporary world, but because it offers something that you do not see in the mainstream media where snark and smug hash tags dominate social discourse: It offers the possibility of hope even in the aftermath of tragedy. It provides examples of the meaning of community and family, however one defines it. One of the reasons why The Lego Batman movie was so popular was because it explored a facet that is rarely touched upon in the mainstream comics. It showed the antisocial Batman the importance of family. No Man's Land is an integral story that explores this concept.
I will never forget the anticipation I got every time I visited my local comic shop and bought the next volume. I know you will feel the same way I did. I could tell you what happens but that would be spoiling.
Now get to work and start reading!
What was your favorite arc of Batman: No Man's Land?