Batman: No Man’s Land, Vol. 1 review

Batman No Mans Land

There’s no going back. Knightfall changed things. Forever. After that saga’s success, the massive cross-over event became a predictable part of the yearly comics cycle. After the Batman was broken, Gotham was consumed with plague, consumed with plague again, and then it was hit by a massive earthquake/tsunami combo. This last disaster led to a very interesting concept: what if Gotham City was cut off from the world and its stranded inhabitants–including Batman’s rogues gallery– formed gangs and fought for territory in order to survive? Pretty awesome sounding, right? It’s a concept that’s only grown more popular with time and all the more relevant after the release of Batman: Arkham City and The Dark Knight Rises, both of which drew from this work heavily. No Man’s Land isn’t your usual story of classic super heroics, it’s a tale of survival and because of that it’s one of the most harrowing and memorable events in the character’s history.

WarInTheStreets

Presentation

The cover doesn’t do this book justice. The striped barricade border is a nice touch but the real imagery does a poor job of expressing what the book is all about. Hell has come to Gotham yet this cover by Jim Lee makes it look like Batman was invited to a night out with the ladies.

The TPB utilizes glossy paper—a bit thin though– that looks and feels great. Even the binding never seemed too tight so I could see everything that was happening on each page except one page in particular, but it’s an important page. The initial map illustrating all the gang territories features a legend that’s cut off at the edge so it’s difficult to make out who owns what. It doesn’t look or feel like 500 pages, either. Just look at this comparison to Knightfall vol. 2 which used more of a newsprint kind of paper and was only 112 pages longer.

The Knightfall books are so thick that you have to read at the table, but the No Man’s Land volumes can be held in your hands and read anywhere.

Of all the stories collected here look fine except for Azrael’s issues which were poorly reproduced and appear to have merely been scans, there’s an ugly photo-copy quality to them.

And lastly, Road to No Man’s Land  should have been included as it would’ve helped new readers understand what exactly was going on in this book rather than forcing them to rely on reading the back cover’s short recap or resorting to the Wikipedia article–which isn’t a knock against Wikipedia, I’m just saying that the story being included here would’ve added more value and convenience to your purchase.

I also found it kind of funny that there is a table of contents stretching across three pages…yet there are no page numbers throughout the book thus making a numbered table of contents totally useless.

The Dark Knight Rises Comparisons

Hey you. Yeah you, the person who doesn’t read comics but was curious about The Dark Knight Rises/No Man’s Land connection. You who clicked on this and scrolled down the page lazily skimming through my words hoping I would just focus on the Nolan/comics parallels. Welcome! I wrote these bullets for you. Here are a few similarities between the two works as well as some unique differences and a few things that I thought one did better than the other. And yes, there are some spoilers here so if you didn’t see the movie, don’t read these bullets.

  • In both stories, Batman has been away for a very long time and when he makes his return, he does it at a very familiar bridge
  • No one can go in or out of Gotham and the military is ordered to shoot anyone trying to escape, however in NML the rivers have been filled with mines as well to prevent anyone from escaping
  • The reason for Gotham being cut-off makes far more sense in TDKR. Here, congress decided to remove Gotham from the US after it had suffered so much calamity. Of course they were convinced to do this by an Aladdin Sane looking villain with alien powers of super-persuasion, but that only makes the concept sound even sillier
  • Both stories take place in the winter with snow covering the ground
  • Gordon is leading a gang of cops, but here he actually has the support of his wife. When you think about it, things really suck for Gordon in TDKR
  • Each work features a cop named Foley who is at odds with Jim Gordon. Nolan, however, used a different first name for the character just to confound and aggravate us comic book fans. Much like how he named Selina’s gal pal “Jen”
  • This Gotham actually has people in it. Normal people I mean. Nolan’s Gotham felt very, very empty and every Gotham citizen was inside the city when the bridges blew so it should’ve been highly populated. In NML the people had a few days to evacuate and move someplace else in the US before Gotham was forsaken and you still see more of a presence of average folk in this tale
  • When the time came for Batman to rally the city to fight for its freedom in TDKR the army he led was made of cops and cops only. Gotham’s not really a city worth saving if its average citizens jump at the chance to attack and steal from the wealthy–as we actually did see in the movie–but then they all stay at home for the fight to take back the city. It has to be clear that Bane is a guy with a nuke who just cut-off all their contact to the outside world, freed criminals, hanged people from a bridge, and drowned dissenters in the river. For Christ’s sake, Gothamites, the guy’s name is Bane– look in a dictionary. He’s a bad guy. In NML you actually see average people doing what they can to survive and doing good as well as evil. In TDK we saw the citizens of Gotham prove in the Joker’s ferry plot that they were ready to believe in good, but I guess they all moved away after that fiasco and only the jerks are left 8 years later. After all, Lucius Fox said he wouldn’t spy on 30 million people but in TDKR I remember some character saying the population was like 11 million or something. I’m sure someone in the comments section can back that up or prove me wrong though so be sure to scroll to the end before you take those numbers as fact
  • Scarecrow has a bigger role in this and he actually wears his mask, however he never gains any power. Even though Crane’s appearance in TDKR was used more as an amusing cameo, I prefer the idea of Crane coming to a greater position in such a situation as this. In TDKR he was made the judge of Bane’s court (which is very cool and I was very happy with it but I wonder what it would’ve looked like if he put his mask on whenever he sentenced someone. I dunno. That’s a comic fan’s nitpick). In the end I’d say that even without his incessant fear talk, TDKR Scarecrow > NML Scarecrow
  • You get to see Alfred surviving in a broken Gotham here and you didn’t in TDKR. Seriously, what was Alfred up to during those six months?
  • And I know it’s not TDKR but Arkham City did a far better job of using Zsasz, Mad Hatter, and Mr. Freeze than NML did. These guys would not gain followers. Zsasz wouldn’t be interested in leading a gang, he would simply spend his time carving people up. And even though this is the “I want the world to suffer because I suffer” Mr. Freeze, I can’t see him starting a gang either. As for Mad Hatter, without his mind-control technology this guy can’t even find someone to talk to nevertheless anyone to follow him in a gang
  • I’ll make more comparisons when I do reviews for future volumes. Note for Bane fans: he doesn’t show up in volume #1

Content

Wow. I spent so much time on that TDKR comparison section that nobody will want to read this article because it stretches too long. *sigh* I’ll try and keep this short…

If you haven’t read the prelude, Cataclysm or Aftershock then reading the back cover is an absolute must. Everything from the first tremor to Bruce’s pleas to an uncaring congress (swayed by a charismatic alien-charged David Bowie figure…on second thought just ignore that aspect) are collected elsewhere. This book contains Batman No Man’s Land #1, Batman: Shadow of the Bat #83-86, Batman #563-566, Detective Comics #730-33, Azrael Agent of the Bat #51-55, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #116-118, and The Batman Chronicles #16. So 22 issues altogether.

And since these 22 issues come from a variety of sources it means that this volume lacks a consistent vision. There were only 2-3 writers and 2-3 artists working on the two Knightfall issues I’ve reviewed so far but in just this one volume of No Man’s Land there are 8 writers and 11 artists! That’s not going to be a problem for folks picking up this book because they thought the previous printing lacked all the extra stuff that happened outside of Batman and Detective Comics and they like to be as complete as possible in their TPB collection. But anyone reading this for the first time or folks like me who just want to sit down and enjoy a good story will see this conglomeration of creatives as having too many cooks in the kitchen. Each writer approaches the concept differently. The dystopian Gotham never feels the same from one creative team to the next. The best work comes from Back to the Future (Yes, THAT Back to the Future) scribe Bob Gale (who writes the most compelling stories here of all), Devin Grayson (who focuses on the Scarecrow as a Lucifer-esque character whispering in the ear of different gang leaders), and Greg Rucka (whose name is synonymous with No Man’s Land). One chapter will have incredible intensity and you’ll feel like these poor people could die at any moment and then another writer’s chapter makes the situation feel far less severe. It’s this way throughout all the first three volumes of No Man’s Land. It’s hard to take the story seriously when the gravity of the situation and the urgency of every act is constantly fluctuating. Often times it feels like nobody is focusing on the bigger picture. All of this extra material robs the story of its impact, it doesn’t enhance it.

The artwork goes from dark and gritty to colorful and cartoony far too often. D’Israeli’s art, while still good, doesn’t fit the material at all. His art looks more like Adventure Time than The Walking Dead meets Batman. The worst example of conflicting visions for the event is the way Joker was handled. Bob Gale did a great job of showing us a Joker who had something big planned. Joker’s portrayal was subtle, mysterious, and scary. But in the Azrael issues written by Denny O’Neil, The Joker shows up alone, bored, and with hair like Eraserhead. It turns out the Joker hasn’t been plotting, he’s made a giant death trap and he’s been waiting and waiting for months for Batman to show! Bored, Joker finally decides to pick up some orphans and see if putting them in danger will attract Batman. To do this he goes into a makeshift orphanage where stranded children are being cared for and the caretaker looks at him suspiciously and says, and I kid you not, “Y-you’re that criminal…that killer…” to which Joker basically says “Nope, I brought candy and stuff, see? Now where are the kiddies?” and SHE TAKES HIM TO THEM. She looked at him, suspected he was the most heinous killer in the world and then less than a minute later agreed to take him to where all the children are. All the tension built up around the Joker is gone after the Azrael stories are told.

Don’t get me wrong, No Man’s Land is very much a must-read for any Batman fan but my God does this thing need to be edited down (much like this review which is going to be over 2,000 words. Easily). I never had the chance to read this series when it was originally published. Instead, I read the novelization by Greg Rucka and although its been years since I flipped through that thing I remember it being a far better and far more focused story. The comics waste too much time trying to please everyone and connect the event to the rest of the DC universe. Acknowledging that there’s an extended DC universe really takes the wind out of the story’s sails. If Superman tries and fails to save Gotham, it’s not a testament to how screwed Gotham is, it just proves that someone isn’t very good at writing Superman. And even if Superman failed there’s an entire Justice League out there that could step in and easily clean up everything wrong with Gotham. The writers of NML try to play the “This is my city. All you other superheroes stay out.” card but I think that if the entire city was starving to death and murdering each other under tons and tons of rubble the Justice League would tell Batman to go f*@% himself. Just ignore the fact that the rest of the DC universe exists and you’ll get a more compelling story. TDKR would’ve sucked if Flash existed and could’ve ran in and checked everyone’s pocket for a detonator. But by occasionally showing Superman come in and screw up here in NML it keeps the Batman fans happy who love to see him outdo the super-folk. The other two kinds of Batman fans are appeased as well throughout the NML run. Volume 1, this book right here, makes the “I’m better than super-powered heroes” Batman fan and the solo-operator Batman crowd very happy, but the fans of a Batman who depends on his extended Bat-family pulling together will have to wait for Robin and Nightwing to show up in volumes 2 and 3. See, in order to get all those other side-kicks out of the way, Batman had to turn into Jerk-Batman and tell everyone to leave. Why? So that eventually he can say “I was wrong and you’re all important to the comic books.” in volume #2, thus making Batman&Friends fans happy. Of course, the solo-fans still have to put up with Azrael in this volume.

Azrael…where do I begin? When the common people have devolved into warring tribes in a crumbling city, seeing a colorful hero jumping off rooftops to beat-up thieves looks very silly. And look at this from my perspective, I just read volumes 1 and 2 of Knightfall in the past month for you guys so psycho Jean-Paul Valley is still fresh in my mind (as was Arnold Wesker being, well, dead!). At this point in DC history they tried to save the character and reinvent him. Author Denny O’Neil is trying way too hard to give Jean Paul a nice balance of light and dark but we already have a guy like that named Dick Grayson. Azrael describes himself as “nerdy”, makes wisecracks, wears a brightly colored suit that exposes his Fabio-like hair (the way the cowl opens looks a lot like the upcoming hero, Talon), and he even drives a Volkswagen beetle (not joking). Batman doesn’t need this many side-kicks and allies in Gotham. It’s lame. Sure, the last Azrael story in the book is entertaining because it has heart but it also has a terrible villain (Lord of the Dance, kills people with knives on his dancing shoes) that makes for a rather unsatisfying end.

As I said before, the Grayson, Gale, and Rucka stuff is the best and that basically makes up the first half of the book. Oddly enough, NML drops in quality in almost the same way Knightfall Vol. 1 did! As soon as there’s a chapter that goes back in time to show us something pre-event involving Two-Face it’s all downhill from there. The first half of the book is a great read. All of the stuff about Gordon struggling to survive and lead his gang is really fascinating. Seeing average citizens turn on each other or lift one another up to survive is a refreshing break from the norm as well and guess what, some of the people are black! Hard to believe, right? Not enough artists portray people of color in Gotham. It’s something that always bugs me. Gotham should be a more diverse town but it’s all too often shown to be nothing but white folks. Blacks, Asians (not portrayed as ninjas), and Latinos are all a part of this Gotham City and it makes it all feel a lot more real. As for Batman, seeing him handle things on his own (with a little help from Oracle and a new, mysterious Batgirl) is gripping, especially since he can’t rely as heavily on technology in NML. This raises an interesting question: how much advanced tech can Batman use before he stops being Batman? The more tech he has, the less detective work he does and the more super-human he becomes as well. Just look at Snyder’s recent Batman run and the implementation of computerized contact lenses that read out data to Bruce as he sees the world! What about Batman Beyond? How much is too much when it comes to technology and Batman? While you’re thinking about that, let me just say that I think less is usually more when it comes to the Caped Crusader. The more he gets by on his own know-how and hard work, the more interesting he is as a character. And that is what is at the heart of Batman in this volume of NML, he’s a Batman who has to go back to basics. THAT is what makes it a good read. Yes, the last half of the book meanders and the story loses any drive or sense of purpose so that it can be dragged out as an extra big money-making crossover, but the first half of this book shows a Batman who has to resort to his old detective skills and his urban legend and that’s fantastic. Here is a Batman who has to remind a city why they should be afraid of him. Watching him rebuild his myth is something you won’t soon forget.

–And don’t worry, the reviews for Volume 2 and 3 will be a lot shorter.

Supplemental Material

The original covers for all of these issues are collected in the back of the book but in my opinion they would’ve been better used as chapter breaks. Other than the covers, which should be included anyway, there isn’t any bonus material.

Value

$29.99 for 22 books? You’re no chump, try $17.48 over at Amazon. It would cost you over sixty bucks to buy twenty monthly issues! Crazy, right? That’s why the TPB crowd are the smarter shoppers. Anyway, it’s a pretty amazing price but I don’t think that the material here is as re-readable as I had hoped. I’ll not be reading those Azrael stories again.

Overall

No Man’s Land is a bold and exciting premise but it’s not that well executed. This is a great book for anyone who hasn’t read the story before or those who loved the original run of EVERYTHING No Man’s Land related and were disappointed when it was left out of the previous printing. For me, the majority of these tales that took place outside of Detective Comics and Batman were often distracting and made for a bloated story. But in those moments when we’re just seeing Gordon reclaim the city or Batman rebuild his legend and re-establish fear, the book is truly compelling.

SCORE: 7.5/10

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