Potential spoilers: While Christopher Nolan has discussed the influence of this storyline on the movie, stop reading if you're a total pansy about spoilers.
In Knightfall, a character named Bane comes out of nowhere to defeat Batman, breaking the Dark Knight's back over his knee. That story led to a sequence of events where a couple of other guys took over the Bat mantle - it was the time of The Death of Superman, so DC was hot on introducing underwritten villains to kill characters and then replace the heroes for a hot minute.
But there's another storyline that really informs the film's second half, and it's a storyline I thought would never make it to the big screen: No Man's Land.
No Man's Land was the culmination of a long string of Gotham-oriented storylines that went beyond the usual superhero tales. It all began with a story called Contagion, where a horrific strain of the Ebola virus - popularly known as The Clench because of the way it contorts its victims in a rictus of pain - hits the city. Chaos ensues, and Batman is fighting an enemy he can't punch out as the city devolves into an apocalyptic nightmare where people are barricaded at home and death makes its way through the streets. It turns out that R'as al Ghul was behind the outbreak, hoping to give Batman an enemy he couldn't defeat, but our heroes finally found a cure (and even teamed up with Bane for it).
The Contagion was a mess, but things were quieter in Gotham for a little while - until a massive 7.6 earthquake struck in the Cataclysm storyline. This 18 part crossover was, again, a superhero story unlike any other because this time there was no villain*. It was simply a natural disaster. In the first five minutes after the earthquake an 80 foot tidal wave hits the city (the first of nine), gas mains rupture and explode, turning the city into a firepit, the tallest skyscrapers collapse, Wayne Manor is leveled, Batman is briefly trapped in the Batcave, Commissioner Gordon is pinned beneath the fallen Batsignal and a riot erupts at Blackguard prison.
Over the next six days Batman and his 'Gotham Knights' - Oracle, Robin, Nightwing, Huntress, Spoiler, Azrael, and a cast of secondary civilians - work to save people, to restore some semblence of order and just to stay alive.
And that's when the story gets weird.
The US government, looking at the events of Contagion and the sheer scale of destruction in Cataclysm (and Gotham's general fucked-upedness), calls the city a wash. They blow the bridges and cut it off from the rest of the world (after giving people a chance to get out) and write the whole thing off. Gotham is no longer part of the United States of America - it's a no man's land. That's where the story title comes from. Get it? You probably thought everybody in Gotham turned into a woman.
Anyway, this happens over the course of a couple of short storylines, Aftershocks and The Road to No Man's Land. Batman decides that Bruce Wayne is the most useful part of his personality here, and he heads to Washington DC to argue in favor of rebuilding Gotham, but to no avail.
No Man's Land is a massive storyline spanning 80 issues and taking up an entire year of Batman family comics. In many ways it's longform comic storytelling at its best; while you can skip comics you don't normally read, taken together they weave a really compelling story that is wildly different from the standard crossover.
Bruce Wayne spends the first month of Gotham's No Man's Land period out of the country, defeated. Unable to save Gotham as Batman OR Bruce, he's been drifting into his playboy persona. But he's unhappy, and he lets himself get beat up as a way of punishing himself - and possibly killing himself. He's rescued by Talia al Ghul, Ra's' daughter, who reminds him of his mission in life. Emboldened, he decides he's going to return to Gotham and take matters into his own hands.
Returning to Gotham a month after NML begins, Batman discovers the city has been carved up into crude territories, each held by a warlord. Many of Batman's fiercest enemies hold their own territory. But there's still some hope: not every good guy has left Gotham, and the remnants of the Gotham City Police Department, now a gang known as The Blue Boys, hold the southern tip of Gotham. Alfred has returned to Gotham ahead of Batman, preparing the way; even though Bruce told his faithful butler that he was finished, Alfred knew that he would return.
What follows is a great story of post-apocalyptic warfare as Batman begins reclaiming the city, one territory at a time. It's a real Escape From New York situation on the streets of Gotham, and gang wars rage out of control, with hundreds killed. Regular civilians who could not or would not evacuate huddle in terror as their neighborhoods change hands from one warlord to another. Meanwhile, everything becomes morally grey as Batman and the Blue Boys are forced to forge alliances with characters who would have been simple criminals before NML. The Penguin, in particular, has established himself as the center of a trade empire, having some secret pipeline to the outside world. And GCPD Detective Rene Montoya becomes a liaison with Two-Face, who falls in love with her.
And there's even friction between GCPD and Batman; as the hero returns to the city (marking his territory with Bat symbols), he's told to stay away from GCPD territory. To many Batman had forsaken Gotham at its lowest moment. There's a great moment, ten months into NML (!) when Batman and Gordon finally meet again face to face. In an attempt to heal their relationship, Batman takes off his mask to reveal his identity, but Gordon turns away, saying he already knows who Batman is.
As Batman retakes neighborhood after neighborhood, he hears more and more stories of an Outside Interest who is interfering in Gotham. In November, eleven months after NML begins, the Outside Interest is revealed - it's Lex Luthor. Despite several government injunctions and the freezing of his assets, Luthor comes to Gotham with an intention to rebuild. His timing is perfect, as the media has been agitating for an end to NML. Batman knows the truth about Luthor, but is powerless to stop him.
The ending of NML threatens to be an anti-climax, as Luthor (working with Waynecorp, now headed by Lucius Fox) quickly gets water and electricity running. But The Joker always makes things interesting, and in the final days of NML, as the city emerges from rubble, he lashes out in the most horrible way possible. After kidnapping all of the babies born during NML, he kills Commissioner Gordon's wife, a terrible blow as he crippled Gordon's daughter years ago. Holding The Joker at gunpoint Gordon almost kills him... and then puts a bullet in his knee instead.
At the end of NML Batman visits his parents' graves and renews his vows to be Gotham's defender. The city is re-opened, with a major power shift happening in the DC Universe, as Lex Luthor has begun his path to becoming President of the United States.
The Dark Knight Rises takes elements of this storyline - Gotham is cut off from the world, the police band together - but in general Nolan passes up the most exciting opportunities offered by No Man's Land. It's a sweeping story of primal survival that could only be told using a fictional city as well-defined as Gotham. In fact one of the best parts of No Man's Land as a reader is seeing Gotham truly coalesce into a very specific place. Over the years many writers and artists have contributed to the idea of what Gotham City is, but No Man's Land brought that city very much to life in a new way.
Reading No Man's Land is a helluva endeavour - it's been republished in five volumes - but I think it's one of the bright spots of 90s comics. I'm not sure if the story is in continuity anymore; the New 52 of the DC Universe is younger, and having Gotham destroyed for an entire year feels like something that wouldn't fit into the new timeline. It's too bad, because the creative talents behind No Man's Land - including Greg Rucka, Paul Dini, Bob Gale, Chuck Dixon, Greg Land, Alex Maleev, Dan Jurgens (and an army of editors keeping the story mostly straight) - created one of the most unique Batstories in the character's 70 year history.
DC Is republishing No Man's Land this summer, tying in to The Dark Knight Rises.
* Unless they've since retconned it.