Review: Constantine Vol. 4: The Apocalypse Road trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, March 21, 2016

I thought the recent Flash television episode "King Shark" was exceptional in how it took the common adventure trope of visiting a duplicate Earth and took it to its logical and very realistic consequences. Consider Barry and Cisco taking Earth-2 selfies at the start of "Welcome to Earth-2," versus everyone's post-traumatic stress after some significant deaths during and at the end of the journey. There's a certain Silver Age charm in imagining the Earth-1 Flash teaming up with the Earth-2 Flash, but "King Shark" demonstrated that a visit to an alternate Earth burdens one with the knowledge of missed opportunities, choices unmade, and fleeting glimpses of loved ones long dead, which Barry can't now forget.

Coincidentally, Raw Fawkes's Constantine Vol. 4: The Apocalypse Road deals with a similarly disturbing trip to Earth 2 (the hyphen, present in Flash, is not so in the post-Flashpoint DC Universe). I know many have felt that DC Comics's sheer act of bringing John Constantine into the DCU proper negatively affected the character, and indeed many of Fawkes stories -- though generally well-written overall -- have tended too far into the superhero realm for some readers' tastes (see Forever Evil: Blight). Surely crossing over Constantine with the mega-event Earth 2: World's End must be the pinnacle of jumping the shark.

Instead, the six-issue Apocalypse Road is unexpectedly fraught, as close to a horror story as Fawkes has yet presented in the Constantine title. Though set against the backdrop of Earth 2 and ultimately the cosmos itself, Apocalypse Road is exceptionally claustrophobic, almost a one-act play in which the small cast slowly and inevitably turns on one another. In terms of an actual tie-in to World's End, Apocalypse Road is entirely miss-able, but for the best of what the Constantine title has been so far, Apocalypse Road is a must-read.

[Review contains spoilers]

Fawkes's Apocalypse Road is a decompressed story in the best way possible, taking events inch by inch to build the rising dread. A good part of the second and third chapters, specifically, relate not to much to Constantine and the Earth 2 counterparts of his family and friends, but rather to gruesome scenes of the people of Earth 2 (and beyond) facing the end of the world, often through panic and chaos. Indeed, the entire second chapter only involves Constantine driving from Earth 2 London to Liverpool, but with scenes of destruction and a run-in with a feral killer along the way; the third chapter moves the characters just a few blocks, but through the terror of streets gone mad. Atmosphere is key here, and Fawkes rightly devotes a lot of time to it.

Things come to a head in the fourth chapter, where Constantine -- trying to save from destruction his Earth 2 self and the Earth 2 doppelgangers of various deceased loved ones  -- must murder his own counterpart to save the rest. His Earth 2 family is horrified and looks to torture and kill Constantine for the act. Even as Fawkes draws the characters through dimensions -- including cameos by Jeff Lemire's Animal Man's Green, Red, and Rot -- they're essentially locked in a room together and becoming ever more hostile, like something out of Reservoir Dogs or Saw. The social horror is palpable in that Constantine has just been reunited with his long-lost father, and now his father wants to shoot him in the head.

Apocalypse Road's conclusion is arguably superhero-esque, in that Constantine faces off against Darkseid. But Fawkes's Darkseid is not the cackling villain of World's End, but rather a gargantuan god represented mostly by his giant hand. That Constantine's venomous family stands in the background, and that Fawkes intersperses scenes of Constantine versus Darkseid with scenes of grim human drama, helps mitigate the out-there aspects. I was reminded here quite positively of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing; Moore did not shy from using the DC Universe in his stories but did so in such a way that was tonally consistent with the mature series.

In previous Constantine volumes I enjoyed very much the work of artist Aco, whom I'm eager to follow over into Midnighter. I was concerned about Aco leaving this book, as the other artists in Constantine Vol. 3: Voice in the Fire were hit or miss. But artist Jeremy Haun is perfect here in all the grittiness, and brings that same grittiness to the cosmic aspects such to make them more grounded. I always like when one artist draws an entire book, contributing as it does to the sense of a trade paperback as a graphic novel, and so I was pleased to see Haun's work all the way through.

Again, the Earth 2: World's End tie here is nearly non-existent. Apocalypse Road takes place on Earth 2 during the events of World's End, but otherwise Apocalypse Road does not reference World's End at all. Further, the actions of Constantine and also possibly Dr. Fate in Apocalypse Road and World's End are contradictory; both could not have taken place. This is better for Apocalypse Road, which tells a great self-contained story, but problematic for World's End, whose plot holes I thought would be answered in Constantine but are not.

Controversial as this Constantine title has been, Ray Fawkes goes out on the right note with Constantine Vol. 4: The Apocalypse Road. Though set against the DC superhero universe, Fawkes evokes the magic everyman horror the Constantine title needs. Those solely interested in Earth 2: World's End could skip this one, but it's good enough not to do so.

[Includes original covers, cover sketches]
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