Book Review: The greatest Batman story ever told?

May 28, 2013

No Man’s Land is considered to be one of the greatest Batman storylines, detailing what happened to Gotham City after a cataclysmic earthquake left it in ruins. As if the earthquake is not bad enough, the city is cut off by the US Government and declared a no-go zone after most of its citizens have been evacuated. There are some who, however, opt to stay behind. As summed up by the introduction in each story in the series:

“…and after the Earth shattered and the buildings crumbled, the nation abandoned Gotham City. Then only the valiant, the venal and the insane remained in the place they called NO MAN’S LAND.”

The series was originally released in 1999 and now has been reissued in four spanking collections. Unlike the previous five-volume complilation, this one comprises almost every comic that was written in quake-hit Gotham. The big question, of course, is whether the dozen and more years that have elapsed since it first appeared robbed this classic series of its edge?

You can rest assured: they have not.

No Man’s Land today is as grim, depressing and insanely inspiring as it was when I first read it. Yes, the addition of stories that were not in the original compilation do widen the canvas a bit, but the result is still something akin to a modern Le Miserables. Gotham is a mess, a concrete jungle that has been smashed to bits, and it is literally the law of the jungle that prevails. Cash has no value – it is all barter here – and territory is marked by graffiti signs. And thanks to Dr Arkham’s decision to free the inmates of his asylum when the earthquake struck, crime is running riot. The Joker, Two-face, Penguin, Bane, Scarecrow…they are all here. And in many cases are fighting each other for territory. Trying to keep some sort of order is Commissioner Gordon, who has stayed behind with some officers. But even his team is split in half – some believe in still going by the rulebook, while others want more extreme action.

And in the middle of all this, trying to win back the city is the man they call the Dark Knight. After a mysterious absence in the initial period following the earthquake, Batman returns to fight for his city.But even HE does not have things easy – his allies (Robin, Nightwing, Huntress and a new Batgirl) are not on the same wavelength always and there are a number of arguments. Adding to the confusion is Superman who makes a few appearances and clashes with Batman.

It is conflict everywhere, alliances are made and broken, people are betrayed, and the smell of death hangs heavy in the air. There are stirring moments galore – a doctor who tries to heal the person who tries to kill her, a priest who strikes a deal with a criminal to save those in his church, the various barter deals (an apple for two working battery cells, an empty bullet shell for a can of spinach…) and a girl begging for food in the streets with a valuable jewelled necklace in her hand (it is of no value in a city that has long since abandoned cash). And towering above all this is Batman – often lonely, never despairing, and simply refusing to give up on his city. He too strikes deals, he too at times seems to compromise with evil, but time and time again, he prevails.

Now imagine all this spread over four volumes spanning almost two thousand pages. Of stirring text (from the likes of Greg Rucka, Chuck Dixon and Paul Dini) and some very good illustrations – almost twice as large as the original collection. It is as close to epic as a graphic novel series can get and in terms of sheer expanse and powerful storytelling, perhaps the greatest ever. This is the entire Batman universe, allies, friends, villains and all, packed into one compelling storyline. Is it perfect? No, it is not. We cannot for the life of us why the collection excludes the stories that narrated the earthquake itself and its immediate aftermath. And yes, we think that the volumes could have been slimmer as managing them can get to be quite a task (and book-spine wrecking too).

Finally, do not try to read the series from end to end – it is just too vast. Partake of it in small morsels. And as you would with small morsels, chew carefully. Savour every story.

And keep your handkerchief near. For there will be tears

Be ready for rushes of adrenaline. For there will be moments when odds will not matter.

Buy it? Of course.

Read it. Treasure it. Read it. Again. And again.

For, this is as good as Batman gets.

Batman: No Man’s Land (new edition)
Volumes 1-4
Rs 1499 (Vol 1), Rs 1499 (Vol 2), Rs 1750 (Vol 3), Rs 1750 (VOl 4)
544 pp (Vol 1), 512 pp (Vol 2) 480 pp(Vol 3), 552 pp (Vol 4)
DC Comics

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