Batman: No Man's Land (Greg Rucka)
The novelization of a over a year's worth of Batman comics and related spinoffs, No Man's Land tells a tale of a Gotham that should be familiar to recent converts: cut off from contact with the outside world while its diverse criminal population is running wild, Gothamites must band together to survive in the resource depleted environment while Batman swoops in to defeat the formidable rogue's gallery. Surprisingly, the struggle of the more human members of Gotham's population proves to be the most compelling element of the book, but that doesn't mean that Batman's blockbuster struggles with several of his most iconic foes is any less enjoyable. This is a book well worth reading and it is a huge improvement over the various No Man's Land comic collections because it cuts out on nearly all the filler while characterizing the villains in a nearly perfect manner.
The premise of No Man's Land is that a massive earthquake has badly damaged Gotham's infrastructure and economic output, to the point that the American government has declared it to be a zone where every man must fend for himself or leave by a specified date. After the date passes, the bridges leading to the city are blown up and we are left with a city where gangs rule and vie for influence over new sectors of the city. Batman has not been seen for many months and many of the Gotham police officers stay behind in order to keep the city safe in his absence. In addition to gangs headed by major Batman villains Two Face and Penguin, there are also a few smaller scale criminal gangs, Jim Gordon's squad of the remaining Gotham police, and a breakaway faction of those same officers that is harsher on the surviving populace. Even the Bat-family joins in the territory game, spray painting walls in the areas under their control. Although the spray painting kind of seems like something from a video game (Saints Row 3, for example,) this is the part of the book that works the absolute best. Watching the heroes and villains scheme together to plot the downfall of another group is quite satisfying and the GCPD get quite a few good scenes, particularly Gordon and Renee Montoya. Having "regular" humans be the center of a this story for the first act was a great way to give us a different take on what Gotham is all about and gives quite a few well established but often overlooked characters the opportunity to shine.
One of my favorite elements of this book is actually something that it avoids. The original No Man's Land had literally hundreds of comics with a great many characters popping in for random cameos here and there. There were so many books that some things have even been left out of the newer trade paperback reprints, and most of these books were the kind of cash grabs unfortunately associated with most crossover events. This novelization cuts out almost all of the useless filler and re works the narrative into something that is both engaging and cohesive. You no longer have to worry about weird inconsistencies in tone or story that result from having a dozen writers working on the project, and that is easily one of the most compelling strengths about this book.
I was less impressed with how the book ended. Lex Luthor eventually shows up to finance Gotham's revival with a sinister plan of his own to take ownership of the city after No Man's Land has ended. This is actually a perfect way to end the crisis of rebuilding and tie into other heroes' universes, but it takes a lot of the thunder out of the book and mutes the Joker's impact drastically. Because of Luthor's arrival, we get a pretty bad sequence where Bane comes back to Gotham as what amounts to a mercenary, then leaves after a scene where he kills lots of other bad guys then talks to Batman. Mercy Graves, Luthor's henchwoman, is a very bland character in her own right and perfectly featureless. Most of the things Luthor's introduction brings to the story are either totally forgettable or outright bad, and with the way it was handled it would've probably worked better to just have other random superheroes converge on Gotham to help fix it up. I was similarly unimpressed with the Joker's plan. He is totally under the radar for most of the last hundred pages or so after showing up with Harley a bit before that, which does help to build tension around his inevitably depressing plot to end the No Man's Land project on a sour note. The premise isn't bad, but it wasn't handled particularly well, especially in relation to how much this event is built up to. There is a great scene where the corrupted cops and Huntress confront Joker where he manages to showcase most of the things that make him such a strong villain, but otherwise the plan seems to be very one dimensional and simplistic. Maybe the author just ran out of pages or something, because the entirety of Joker's plan played out far too quickly and had very little to do with Batman. Sarah Gordon and Huntress, two of the books least intriguing characters, actually end up doing the most to advance the plot at the end, so a lot of my disapproval of Joker's plan probably stems from the fact that I have very little interest in either of these characters and would've liked others to feature in stopping Joker.
There is a large cast of characters in No Man's Land, a fact that makes their surprisingly layered portrayal that much better. Batman may not show up for the entire opening act of the book, but once he appears he is definitely in full fledged Dark Knight mode. An amusing counterpoint to this are his scenes (as Bruce Wayne) with Lucius Fox as the two discuss the ongoing movement to revoke the No Man's Land. In these scenes Bruce acts like a spoiled and barely interested playboy of low intelligence, all the while managing to advance his goals to garner public assistance for Gotham. He is backed up by a solid cast of bat-family heroes too, including Barbara Gordon as the Oracle (our narrator for the interlude sections,) Dick Grayson's Nightwing, Tim Drake as Robin, and Cassandra Cain as Batgirl. All of these characters are pitch perfect with their original creations, and their inclusion adds a bit of extra depth to many of the scenes. I particularly enjoyed Cassandra's build up as Batgirl. It is extremely predictable, but she is easily the most intriguing and innovative character fighting for good in this book, so it was very fun to watch her overcome her speech impairments to become a highly competent superhero in her own right. Huntress (Helena Bertinelli) plays a crucial role in the book too, but I'm not much of a fan of her. She is similar to Batwoman in the New 52 in that she is a Gotham crime fighter working outside of the jurisdiction of Batman, but the similarities pretty much end there. She is barely competent, headstrong, and combative. Her redemption arc is enjoyable, but otherwise this character just wasted a lot of time and was a surprising disappointment. in an otherwise strong cast.
No Man's Land tackles the internal thoughts of some of Batman's most famous villains and does it quite well. Joker is a background force for most of the book, operating behind the scenes and bidding his time only to appear in a big way for the finale. His characterization is more in line with that of Mark Hamill's character on the animated series, and there is a suitable balance struck between his depraved acts (beating people to death, stealing children with the intent of killing them) and the campier moments that have always defined the character (plenty of wisecracks, his relationship with Harley.) Two-Face's split personality is captured perfectly through the use of internal dialogue during his point of view scenes. We are treated to a sinister look inside his mind that shows a different dimension to the coin-obsessed criminal. Lex Luthor pops up in a very surprising lead antagonist role for much of the latter half of the book, and while we don't get much time inside his head, trying to buy and restore Gotham definitely seems like a thing he would do. Penguin is more of a generic crimelord here, and probably the only villain I didn't like outside of Bane, though at least Bane's motivations were handled well, ditching the classic but overused desires to break Batman and destroy Gotham in favor of more of an honor driven mercenary.
The writing did very little to astonish me, but it was far from bad too. Expect a lot of the usual grim and gritty imagery associated with Gotham to be conveyed here, but with an interesting twist in that the city is even worse for wear than usual. Crumbling Gotham is even more sinister and depressing than regular old corrupt Gotham, and author Greg Rucka manages to do a fantastic job of showcasing this, particularly early on. The dialogue is pretty much average, although the scenes with Bruce's alter ego were perfect, and the relationship between Joker and Harley Quinn leads to some comedic moments too. Nothing extraordinarily bad, which is always the fear with comic-based story telling. There weren't many noteworthy elements, good or bad, with the writing, but luckily most of the action scenes are entertaining and there aren't any cringe worthy phrases or moments.
Condensing a great event into only the most important happenings, No Man's Land is everything a novelization should be. With a fantastic opening act that is far offbeat from most Batman works and strong characterizations of so many iconic characters, save yourself some time and money by skipping the comics and reading this very strong take on most of the same events.