Friday, November 5, 1999

Batman: No Man's Land: A Look Back And Forward

With art by Kevin A. Voith, Bowser and Christian Moore

"Fanzing Signal" by Christian Moore

"I expected it to end with Cataclysm"

Didn't we all? Didn't we all think, upon hearing the news of the big Earthquake that destroyed Gotham City, that within three months we'd be back to the more prosaic tales of the Mad Hatter trying to steal a really expensive hat? As unrealistic as it was we figured that soon enough the gothic towers of Gotham would be raised once more. Maybe the JLA would rebuild it. Maybe Bruce Wayne would use his fortune. But somehow, the city would be saved. We all figured wrong.

Denny O'Neil, who made the quoted statement above, threw the entire comics world for a loop when he announced the idea (of Jordan B. Gorfinkel) for turning Gotham into a warzone ruled by the madmen of Gotham, the gangs and the precious few good guys who stayed behind: an idea called No Man's Land.

There was no justification for the idea, save that "there are some challenges one does not refuse, lest they spend the rest of their life wondering, Could it have possibly been pulled off". That and the promise of some tales that would be interesting, either in how amazing or horrible they were. Which, all in all is a fair way to reflect upon No Man's Land (hereafter NML).

NML has been a literal roller-coaster ride of a story. Parts of it made me feel sick. Parts of it made me audibly gasp in shock. But however bumpy the ride was, it was never dull with even the slow issues kept me in suspesnse. With that in mind, here is a brief review of the history of No Man's Land, the issues they tie to, and my personal opinions of the series.

"Batman" by Bowser

Part One: The First 100 Days

Batman: No Man's Land: Ground Zero: Four (out of five) Stars

This issue mostly focuses upon Huntress and how she gradually changes her image (and eventually, her methods) when she is left alone as the one masked vigilante in Gotham to resemble and act like Batman. Meanwhile, a depressed Bruce Wayne tries to drown his sorrows globetrotting. He returns to Gotham after having some sense beaten into him (quite literally) by Talia. He returns to Gotham and watches the new "Batgirl" to make sure she is honoring his name.

Comments: Too bad we didn't get this issue sooner, like right after the secret of Huntress being the first new Batgirl was revealed. It's a good read, and Rucka is one of the few writers who can do Huntress right. My one complaint is I just can't see Bruce giving up for a week and seriously pondering living his "fake life" but for a good Talia scene, I'm willing to forgive it.

No Law and a New Order: Four Stars

(Batman: No Man's Land #1, Shadow of the Bat #83, Batman #563, Detective Comics #730)

Part One begins with Oracle breaking down the tale of how three months have gone by with no sign of the Batman. We see how things have changed, how the cops are trying to restore order, one block at a time. Part Two has Oracle hearing rumors of Batman-symbol paintings and even the Batman himself being sighted. We get our first sighting of the new Batgirl and learn of Jim Gordon's plan to take over an area by causing two of the nearby gangs to fight each other and then swooping in and taking their land once their numbers are exhausted. Part Three has Oracle describing the battle between the gangs and how Jim Gordon's plan worked. She also (finally) gets contacted by Batman, who then tells her he knows nothing about the bat-symbol paintings. Part Three ends with Batman approving of the new Batgirl, for now. Part Four details Batman's first battle in this new world. He goes up against Scarface and begins to learn of the changes his city, it's criminals, and its people have gone through.

Comments: A good read and a good introduction to this story. I've always liked Bob Gale's movie scripts, and it'll be a shame not to see him on a regular Batbook after this.

Fear of Faith: Five Stars

(Legends of the Dark Knight 116, SOTB 84, Bat 564, 'Tec 731)

A Four-Issue Arc covering Scarecrow's efforts to inspire a riot in a church shelter and prove that fear is more powerful a force than faith and the efforts of Huntress and Batman to stop him. Jim Gordon also finds himself being made an offer of help by a mysterious person.

Comments: I'm keeping the synopsis on this short, because there is no way to describe all the good intricate details of the plot of this arc. Maybe it's because Scarecrow is my favorite Bat-Baddie, but I love this story too much to spoil it, save that Professor Crane proves that he is just as much of a threat without his fear gases, if not more.

Bread and Circuses: Three Stars

(LODK 117, SOTB 85)

We get an in-depth look at Penguin's trading operations and the gladiator combats he now oversees. Batman, after a battle in the arena, convinces Penguin to give him information in exchange for Batman leaving his business alone. We also see the first fruits of Jim Gordon's mysterious "helper".

Comments: This arc was okay. Despite the importance of Batman and Penguin's pact, this issue just didn't catch my interest.

Mosaic: One Star

(Bat 565, 'Tec 732)

Batman and Batgirl fight the new Black Mask gang. We find out that Lock-Up is now running Black Gate prison for Batman.

Comments: Aside from the cool idea of Lock-Up running a prison, this series was a total mess. The artwork was muddy and disgusting, with Jim Gordon looking like an emaciated Ethiopian child and most of the characters looking like they have fangs in close-ups where they have their mouths open. And I just couldn't get excited, although that may be more to do with my general apathy towards Black Mask.

Four Single Stories --

Balance (LOTDK 118): Four Stars
Home Sweet Home (SOTB 86): Four and 1/2 Stars
The Visitor (Bat 566): Three Stars
Crisis of Faith ('Tec 733): Five Stars

Balance tells the tale of what Alfred did to help out in NML while Batman was away.

Home Sweet Home is the story of one man, an old soldier, and what he does to protect his home and his block in his new war. The Visitor tells of Superman's attempts to try to fix things in Gotham and his discovering the same thing Batman has: the old rules no longer apply. Crisis of Faith has Batman beginning to lose his hope and regaining it after Alfred tells him a story about his father.

Comments: With the exception of "The Visitor", these are among the best NML stories so far. Balance is entertaining and inspiring all at once. Home Sweet Home gives us a focus on one ordinary man and how he's found a new way to prove his a heroism he thought lost. The Visitor shows Superman discovering that some things cannot get a quick fix solution and that even he can't help people who won't help themselves. Crisis of Faith, more than any of these stories, emphasizes a theme they all share: the good that a single man may do by himself. My only complaint with the visitor is that Superman's overconfidence in his ability to fix things seems a bit forced and out of character.

Claim Jumping: Four Stars

(LOTDK 119, SOTB 87)

We find out that Gordon's mysterious benefactor is Two Face, who also starts a gang war with Penguin's assistance. The end result is the firing of the New Batgirl, the halving of Penguin's territory (which gets captured by the cops) and all of Batman's territory being taken by Two Face. Batman's secrets are also learned by a Russian telepath called Echo, who keeps him occupied while Two Face takes the land.

Comments: A good read, with my one complaint being that I had no idea if I was supposed to know who Echo was or not. She seemed like a new character, but there wasn't as much background given as we usually get with a new character to the Batbooks.

Mark of Cain: One Star

(Bat 567, 'Tec 734)

An assassin known as Cain shows up in Gotham. Cain's daughter stops an assassination attempt on Jim Gordon and then goes on to run around the city helping people, mostly by kicking butt. Oh, and she steals Two Face's silver dollar.

Comments: Not much to comment on. As a rough estimate, I would say that half of this storyline consisted of textless pages. Nothing but art. And while the art is clear enough to support this, it just seems a little too "quiet", even when you consider that the main focus is a girl who doesn't know how to speak. Also, am I the only one who thinks that Cain's daughter becoming accepted so quickly by Oracle and Batman is REALLY forced?

Part Two: A New Batgirl

Assembly: Two Stars

(LOTDK 120)

Huntress is revealed as the new Batgirl and Batman summons together all his old partners back to Gotham, realizing that he can't fix Gotham on his own. Cain's daughter also becomes the new Batgirl.

Comments: Nothing much here except the typical "I bow to no one" Huntress rant and the typical "My way or the Highway" Batman speech. And not two issues after being introduced, Cain's daughter is now a part of the Bat family. And I STILL think she is being shoved down our collective throats. I'd give the whole thing one star, but I'm giving it a bonus star because I really liked seeing Jim Gordon punch Batman, just because of the image.

Fruit of the Earth: One Star

(SOTB 88, Bat 568, 'Tec 735)

Sharpshooter Bill Pettit leads a splinter group of cops away from the GCPD lands, gets a stockpile of weapons and ammo he had been saving before the quake and joins with Huntress to take back the streets with a harsher justice than that practiced by Gordon and Batman. Aside from that, we get a typical dull Batman vs. Clayface fight as Batman tries to save Poison Ivy and all the children she's taken under her protection. In the end, Ivy and Batman reach a truce. He'll leave her alone, if she'll use her powers and knowledge to grow fruit for free to feed the starving, scurvy-ridden population of Gotham.

Comments: If it weren't for the Pettit/Huntress this series would have been unreadable and even then, one has to wonder about Pettit JUST HAPPENING to have a hidden ammo store that has A) not been discovered or B) Not been used by now. I mean, I know that Pettit has been portrayed as a bit of a paranoid gun nut… but I don't think even Charlton Heston keeps enough equipment to outfit a small army in his basement. It seems like a two issue story that was stretched out to three.

Power Play: No Stars

(LOTDK 121)

Your typical Mr. Freeze/Batman Fight issue.

Comments: See Above. That pretty much describes the whole thing. Oh, and since when has Mr. Freeze used his ice gun to skate around like Iceman from X-Men?

The King: Three Stars

(SOTB 89)

Batman fights Croc and seeks out a mysterious hero known only as the King, only to find that he is a former mobster who decided to try to do some good.

Comments: Good story, except for the Croc stuff.

I Cover the Waterfront: One Star

(Bat 569)

Batgirl tries to save one of the few working gas stations, fails, and gets forgiven by Batman.

Comments: Well, you may have guessed by now that I really do not care for the new Batgirl. I especially hate how she gets called a good soldier for attempting to follow orders when Huntress was fired for failing in a situation where she followed orders to the letter and failed (protecting the people from Two Face's thugs in "Claim Jumping").

I'd give this No Stars, but I must admit that telling the story from the thoughts of a mute person is a nice touch.

Homecoming: No Stars

('Tec 736)

Batman and Bane beat up on each other.

Comments: Brought to us by the same guy who wrote "Power Play", this is basically the same plot, with the twist that this time it is Bane with whom Batman fights while exchanging snappy banter.

Low Road to Golden Mountain: Two Stars

(LOTDK 122, SOTB 90)

Batman gets involved in a gang war in Chinatown.

Comments: Aside from the twist that the reason for the war is fought to save enslaved people who are being used to pedal-power lights, this issue could have just as easily been written as a Batman Special. It could be titled "Abuse of the Innocent" and show Batman trying to save children in a Honduran sweatshop. who are being forced to make Kathie Lee clothing. Still, I like Lynx and I enjoyed Batman's speech on what heroism really is.

Part Three: The Coming of Harley

Batman: Harley Quinn: Four Stars

"The First Couple of Crime" by Kevin A. Voith

We learn the origin of Harley Quinn.

Comments: I'm not going into detail again, simply because it MUST be read for oneself. If you have not read this yet, slap yourself very hard. Paul Dini himself wrote this and his love for Batman is plainly obvious. My one regret is they couldn't think of a way to work "Mad Love" into the continuity, but the story Dini tells here does manage to convincingly establish Harley's relationship with Ivy and with Joker. And Joker's "guy talk" discussion is one of the funniest things I've seen in a while.

The Code: Five Stars

"Harley Quinn" by Christian Moore

(Bat 570, 'Tec 737)

Joker runs for Mayor of NML and Harley starts playing hard to get with "Mistah J"

Comments: Okay. You HAVE to read this one too. I don't know whether it's because I love Joker stories. I don't know whether it's because I'm so happy to see Harley in the mainstream DCU. I think it MIGHT have something to do with the fact that this was the first issue in nearly two months that didn't read like a Mad Libs book. "So Batman went off to fight (insert B-Class, tough guy name here)." Regardless, this series was fun and funny.

Part Four: Outside Interests

Underground Railroad: Five Stars

(LOTDK 123, SOTB 91)

"Hardback" Bock is the focus of this story, where he oversees the protection of his old neighborhood.

Comments: I've never known much about Hardback, but he is now officially my favorite cop out of all the GCPD. It's also a refreshing change to see one of the stories focus on what a minor character is doing rather than month after month of "Batman beats up BLANK" stories. I'm going to stop whining now. Promise. :)

Going Downtown: Three Stars

(Bat 571, 'Tec 738)

Bane, hired by a "Outside Interest", blows up the Hall of Records while framing Two Face for a series of attacks on the few remaining gangs in Gotham.

Comments: It's nice to see Chuck Dixon back on one of the main Batbooks, however shortly. This story would be great, except that the artwork muddles and confuses the story, especially in the scenes with Two Face about to be hung.

Captain of Industry: Four Stars

(LOTDK 124)

Batman investigates reports of a tunnel out of NML.

Comments: Okay… I promise this will be the last "You Must read it for yourself" comment, but this story is too good to spoil. One thing though: I did like the long-haired Matches Malone.

Stormy Weather: Four Stars

(SOTB 92)

Clark Kent comes to No Man's Land to see what good he can do undercover.

Comments: One of the best Batman/Superman relationship issues I've ever read, this issue shows the World's Finest at their best. Not in a fight, but just the two of them talking about their situation.

Jurisprudence: Five Stars

"Two-Face" by Kevin A. Voith

(Bat 572, 'Tec 739)

Two Face puts Jim Gordon on trial for endangering the people of Gotham by… making an alliance with Two Face? And Batman finds out that someone is sneaking supplies, including building equipment, to Penguin. The entire Bat Pack helps to save the cops from Two Face's thugs, and the issue ends with Batman and Gordon giving each other polite nods and agreeing to talk.

Comments: This is a must read, just for the idea of Two Face trying Gordon for endangering the public and the way that Detective Montoya (a close second to Hardback on my favorite cop list) solves the problem of winning the trial.

This leads us to the present, with so many questions left unanswered. The biggest question of all being: "Who Is This Outside Interest?" Many theories abound, but two main ones have sprung up. A favorite among many on the Internet, the idea of Ra's Al Ghul being the Outside Interest has been a long favorite. One of the main reasons for this assertion is the idea that with this whole year having been a Who's Who of Batman's greatest foes, it is only appropriate that Ra's show up. That, and the fact that he has been working behind-the-scenes in every other major crossover before Cataclysm for a few years. However, there are a few flaws in the idea of Ra's as the Big Power. Namely, conquering Gotham is too small scale for Ra's attentions. Additionally, after the events of Legacy and the "Bane of the Demon" storyline, it is unlikely Ra's would hire Bane again.

This leads to the other popular theory, Lex Luthor. The reasons for this Lex are more substantial, ranging from Lex's nursing a grudge against Batman to simple "needing a hole to toss his dirty money down. There is a good deal of evidence to Lex's desiring revenge. In JLA 80 Page Giant #1, Batman was able to clear Superman of a murder charge that Luthor tried to frame him for. He determined that Luthor was responsible for the frame-up and confronted Luthor. Luthor's swore that one day he would rule Gotham like he did Metropolis. And let's not forget that it was Batman's tactical skill that defeated Luthor's Injustice Gang in the JLA: Rock of Ages storyline. In fact, in a recent issue of JLA, Lex Luthor discussed his plans for the new Injustice Gang and mentioned No Man's Land in the same breath as "all the distractions I've made for the JLA". The one flaw with this plan is the sheer amount of work and planning across several books it would take to make all these "clues" work. Not to mention that the Superman offices are notoriously protective of the use of their characters elsewhere.

Regardless of the outcome, the rest of NML should prove to be an interesting ride and I personally cannot wait to see the end.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was turned in three weeks ago and has not been edited since. When asked to comment about the accuracy of his prediction, Matt Morrison said "As many Batman comics as I've read in my life, some of that detective stuff was bound to sink in sooner or later."

Monday, November 1, 1999

Nightwing #38 - A Review

Nightwing #38 Nightwing #38
Written by Chuck Dixon
Pencils by Scott McDaniel
Review by Matt Morrison

It’s very rare that a story comes along that elicits a strong emotional response in a large number of readers, be it sadness, anger or just outright ecstasy at the coolness of a situation. It’s even rarer for people to get strong feelings for a single issue of a comic. Simply put, Nightwing #38 IS such a comic.

I don’t usually pay much attention to the art in a comic but the first splash page in this issue just grabbed me. Maybe it’s just because I’ve always had a crush on the classic Batgirl but something about it just grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me with it. And talking of the art, Scott Daniel’s proves in this issue that he can draw quiet talking scenes as easily as he can the high-action scenes for which he has become famous.

The issue continues the on-going story line of Nightwing’s involvement in No Man’s Land and also refers back to things discussed in Birds of Prey #8. BOP #8 was a flashback where Babs and Dick went on a date and had a moment that was romantic, touching and awe-inspiring all in one.

The Kiss I will not go into detail of this issue, simply because doing so would be a great disservice to Chuck Dixon, who tells this story in a way so well that for me to strip it to the bare bones would be sacrilegious. Quite simply, Dick and Babs talk, they open up to each other and then all Hell breaks loose when a gang of rogue cops break into Babs’ apartment to capture “the Brain behind Copland”. And a surprise guest shows up, who nobody is that happy to see. Trust me. You will not regret spending the $1.99 on this issue.

Okay, I know I’ve done nothing but harp on about how GOOD this issue is. Surely there must be something bad about this issue, right? Well, there is ONE flaw.

As I said, this issue continues the storyline involving Nightwing’s attempt to retake Blackgate Prison… and yet, no mention is made of how Dick wound up beaten, bruised and on Babs’ doorstep. This is a part of the one flaw that keeps me from giving this issue a perfect rating. While it’s highly likely that most of the readers of Nightwing are Dixon fans who have read the BOP “date” issue (which is rather indirectly referred to by Babs) AND have been keeping up on what’s going on in No Man’s Land (and who the guy leading the cops is), the fact is that the issue is dependent upon the reader’s knowing what has been happening in other books and mini-series in order to enjoy it to its fullest. Also, no reasonable explanation is given for how the head cop knows Babs is planning things in the Copland.

Forgive me an overused melodramatic statement, but there are no words in the English Language to describe how good this issue is. This is undoubtedly one of the best things Chuck Dixon has written and you would be sorely remiss if you did NOT read this issue.

My vote: 9 out of 10