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Birds of Prey wouldn’t exist without this one underrated comic

How No Man’s Land made Warner Bros.’ all-women movie

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Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Birds of Prey (Or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is an odd duck in the superhero movie world. The movie’s cast barely resembles its comic book counterparts, and Harley has never been one of the Birds of Prey’s central members. Harley, Black Canary, Renee Montoya, Cassandra Cain, and the Huntress have never shared an affiliation before.

But there is one comic book event that took Renee Montoya from a bit part to a major player, gave the Huntress a starring role, and depicted Cassandra Cain and Harley Quinn in comics for the first time. No Man’s Land was a 1998 “maxiseries” that massively altered the status quo of every Batman-related comic for more than a year. It didn’t just tell a story, it created its own era of Gotham City; an old-school crossover event with repercussions that spread across the DC Universe and lasted years.

No Man’s Land is also, frankly, a riveting read. But even though it inspired both Christopher Nolan and the makers of Gotham, the 20-year-old story never gets the same adoration as other big Batman events like Knightfall or even Bruce Wayne: Fugitive. Birds of Prey proves that No Man’s Land is vital reading if you want to understand the state of Batman comics today. This is why.

Batman watches a post-quake Gotham, full of rubble and toppled buildings, musing on how ill equipped he is to combat a natural disaster, in Batman: Shadow of the Bat #76, DC Comics (1998). Image: Alan Grant, Mark Buckingham/DC Comics

No Man’s Land began with a single, ludicrous plot twist

An executive order from the president.

Following the outbreak of a deadly virus and a devastating magnitude 7.6 earthquake — Gotham City is the only urban area on the East Coast of the United States sitting on top of a major faultline, who knew? — Batman’s hometown lay in absolute ruin. And the federal government decided it had had enough.

With a shattered population, a ruined infrastructure, and the highest murder, suicide, grand theft auto, and Other Bad Things rates in the country, the president decreed that Gotham wasn’t worth saving, and both houses of congress cooperated to work it into law. Citizens were given an evacuation deadline, after which all the bridges and tunnels into the island city were blown up, because I guess that was necessary? Imagine president Gerald R. Ford’s refusal to grant New York City a bailout during its 1975 fiscal crisis, but in comic book logic.

Naturally, there were criminals who thought a lawless society sounded pretty great. There were also a handful of Arkham Asylum inmates who were simply left in the abandoned facility when no other institution in the world volunteered to receive them. And, of course, there were citizens of Gotham who were unable or unwilling to evacuate.

And where there were innocents and criminals, there was a stalwart group of righteous police officers loyal to James Gordon who was also elected to stay behind in the name of keeping order. With no infrastructure behind them, the last noble cops in Gotham established their own territory as the city devolved into factions, divvying up streets with graffiti tags.

This was the new day-to-day status quo of every DC Comic set in Gotham City for (real world) months. There were no courts, no jails — there wasn’t even electricity. And when batteries become more valuable than bullets, even full out gang rule becomes tempered by shaky diplomacy. And that’s the key to No Man’s Land, a story that sounds bizarre on paper.

No Man’s Land was about characters

Most comic book crossovers are stories designed to sound bizarre on paper: What if Superman died? What if the Avengers fought a Civil War? What if Doctor Manhattan messed with the main DC Comics timeline? And they’re also notorious for being unable to live up to the pitch.

No Man’s Land’s succeeded because it was really only 10% about the pitch. With 15 years of character growth since the last major reboot, the Batman family tree had spread into a Game of Thrones-sized cast. And between the action, the rubble, and the risk-taking, the series was a test lab for character studies. Here’s just one example:

When the deadline came down and Gotham was declared No Man’s Land, Batman was nowhere to be seen. That was because Bruce Wayne had abandoned his vigilante persona to spend all of his time in Washington, D.C., trying to rally congressional representatives to reinstate his home.

He was stymied by one of Batman’s greatest assets: Bruce Wayne’s carefully cultivated international reputation for being a trust-fund idiot without pretensions of power. And by the time a chastened Batman returned to Gotham, he’d lost the trust of his oldest ally. From Commissioner Gordon’s perspective, Batman had disappeared when he was needed most.

And so, one of the major turning points of the entire No Man’s Land story is a scene in which Batman finds a way to restore Gordon’s fragile trust.

To the writers behind the event, the setting was a mandate to tell stories that couldn’t be told in any other period of Batman continuity. Two-Face took control of a third of the city with his own gang, and eventually formed an alliance with the police. The Penguin became a major player by locking down his own secret route in and out of the city, using it to trade food and basic goods for the scavenged riches of Gotham’s exiled elite. Poison Ivy held control over Gotham’s equivalent of Central Park and a hand-picked clan of homeless children until Batman convinced her to grow fruits and vegetables for everyone else.

And it was publically upstanding businessman Lex Luthor who eventually swung congress’ opinion on the Gotham problem and opened a path to reinstatement — all in the secret aim of falsifying enough records to say that he owned as much of Gotham as he does Metropolis.

The concept of No Man’s Land — Gotham City as closed-off, lawless disaster zone — can be adapted. That concept framed an arc of the TV series Gotham and the second act of The Dark Knight Rises. But it’ll never have the breadth of the original story without an interconnected setting of a dozen individual titles. It wasn’t a story about Batman, but a story about Gotham City as a whole; exploring the nooks and crannies of narrative potential that appear when you start stripping the very “cityness” away.

And even after No Man’s Land concluded, it kept generating stories. Though his plan was foiled, Luthor used the good publicity it generated to run for and win the presidency of the United States a year later in the Superman books. And his destruction of Gotham’s public records house, to use an even more specific example, threw its courts system in to disarray and made the city an easy target for human traffickers. For once there were concrete narrative reasons behind why everything in Gotham was falling apart — it had literally fallen apart!

But even if it hadn’t had a huge impact on Batman comics in the ’00s and our current cinematic landscape, No Man’s Land would still be a great story. It represents the peak of the superhero comics genre’s potential: Fantastic plotlines that keep a foot planted firmly in the real world; a massive scope that still has time for individual characters; stakes that are as high as an entire urban metropolis, or as small as two old friends repairing their relationship.

Helena Bertinelli/Huntress tracks down some missing school children in the rubble of Gotham’s No Man’s Land, in The Batman Chronicles #14, DC Comics (1998).
Huntress searches for some schoolkids lost in the quake.
Image: Bruce Canwell, Jim Aparo/DC Comics

How the Birds of Prey fit in

A story as big and wide-ranging as No Man’s Land was a haven for B- and C-level characters to step into bigger roles. Renee Montoya had been ported over from Batman: The Animated Series in the early ’90s, but No Man’s Land saw her become more than just Harvey Bullock’s long-suffering partner. After Two-Face developed a fascination for her, Renee served as a skilled envoy from the police to his gang — her delicate manipulation of his mania for good ends is one of the story’s more compelling subplots.

Huntress defended Gotham in Batman’s absence, swapping her usual purple getup for a black batsuit in order to use Batman’s legend of fear to keep things in line. This didn’t exactly make him happy when he got back, and after a few manipulative moves on his part, he forced her to give up the Batgirl identity.

But Helena’s costume was quickly inherited by the first new Batgirl in over a decade, Cassandra Cain, created for No Man’s Land. And while she wouldn’t have a huge role, writers chose the series as the right time to introduce Harley Quinn to the main DC continuity, as one of the villains left behind in Arkham. Seven years after her debut in Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn met the main DC Universe’s Poison Ivy, and their relationship has been blossoming ever since.

To be fair, Black Canary was not involved in No Man’s Land in any way, but that still leaves 80 percent of the heroes of Birds of Prey owing a huge debt to the series.

How do I read it?

Naturally, the prime difficulty of No Man’s Land is that it’s difficult to collate and consume. It reframed every title set in Gotham City in 1998 and 1999 — including standards like Batman, Detective Comics, Robin, Nightwing and Catwoman; alongside more esoteric books like Azrael: Agent of the Bat, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, and Batman: Shadow of the Bat. Not to mention the stray one-shot crossovers from the likes of Superman or Young Justice, which were given a strip of black and yellow hazard tape down the left side of their covers to denote their No Man’s Land connection.

Gotham City’s red ruined skyline and its reflection in the river form the batsymbol on the cover of Batman: No Man’s Land. Image: Pocket Star/DC Comics

You can read DC’s collected No Man’s Land in four- and two-volume collections of selected comics. But if you want this comics editor’s advice — don’t tell anyone, or they’ll take away my license — I favor the prose adaptation.

Comics writer Greg Rucka took on the task of condensing No Man’s Land into a novel, and the book is just deliciously compelling. Rucka liberally hops between point of view characters to paint a cohesive picture of the event. Most memorably, a large portion of the book is told through Barbara Gordon’s digital journals. She’s writing them to her father, Commissioner James Gordon, out of a fear that if she — a paraplegic computer hacker who elected to stay in Gotham to help its people — doesn’t survive, he will never know about her secret life, either as Oracle or Batgirl.

So, if you pick up a copy of No Man’s Land, you’ll also get a great introduction to the major missing character of Birds of Prey, founding member of the team, Barbara Gordon. Birds of Prey screenwriter Christina Hodson is even working on the Batgirl movie. Maybe she’ll show up in the sequel — and then No Man’s Land will be just that much more relevant to the state of superhero blockbusters.

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