I always look forward to an appearance by John Constantine.

Spoiler
Would’ve been awesome if he’d actually shown up.

Tom King continues to try our patience with his Nightmares arc in an issue called “Smoke and Mirrors” which is essentially that: a whole of nothing made out to be something, but proving immaterial in the end. At some point you would think I would just reconcile myself to the fact that we’re going to have to get through these nightmares before we get anything substantial, and to some extent, I think I have. I certainly feel like this one has a hit a stride where it doesn’t irritate me as much as what’s come before, though that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m enjoying it.

Here’s the thing: when I was a kid and we read those “What If” comics by a certain comics competitor, they always had the most exciting premises: “What if Gwen Stacy had Lived?” But the story always unfolded in some dreadful and destructive way that somehow attempted to convince us, as readers, that the dreadful and destructive thing we would have liked to have seen be undone was the least worst of possible outcomes.

Was anybody really convinced by this, though? I don’t believe we were. It was mostly an exercise in frustration and for me it always felt pointless after reading it. King has us relive those memories whether we want to or not. And he does so specifically by salting that wound that’s been festering for 13 issues now.

That’s more than six months of Batman moping about being jilted at the…rooftop. That’s the entire life span of a dragonfly, which, by the way, if you’re missing your obscure literary lesson in this issue, is the symbol of resurrection. Dragonflies are born, metamorphosize, reproduce, die, and inspire great art and aspirational hope in the span it’s taken Batman to do what? Beat up a bunch of people because he’s upset about his ex-fiance?

And if you think I’m being hard on King about this, well, he’s the one who’s taking three months to tell us stories about Batman’s nightmares instead of moving the character along in some positive (maybe, i don’t know, heroic?) direction.

Oh my don’t they look so very happy!

Anyway, King paints an alternative take on the disastrous events of Batman no. 50 by offering a look at the road untaken. Tp be honest, it’s genuinely entertaining because it’s probably what a lot of us would have liked to have seen: Bat and Cat side by side, partners in crime-fighting as well in life. Of course it’s glossy like an over-polished piece of furniture and we’ve got Constantine dogging us with his “ghost of Christmas future” narrative going on. So it’s all very suspect from the start, and in no way a “realistic” glimpse into that currently-extinguished possibilty.

And of course it’s a dream and we know that, so no part of its unreality should really surprise us.

But let’s his bask in the joyfulness of this other outcome for a moment. Because Mikel Janin absolutely revels in the rendering of it, and that’s admirable and noteworthy right there. So even if the full page scene of Constantine in an elevator talking to some schlubb in a “red hood” (hint hint wink wink) doesn’t really do anything to advance the story in any interesting way, at least it’s pretty to look at.

And honestly, as a standalone this isn’t great, but it’s not the worst thing. There’s some weird scene endings–like where Bats punches out Constantine and calls him an idiot and then…right, nothing happens. We just move to another scene (same with the aforementioned elevator moment).  And by the end of the story, I have to seriously question why we’re following Constantine: the world’s most unreliable narrator (and perhaps doubly so in this particular mirror). On page 12, we get our single connection to the overarching story: Constantine asks about why Bruce is so slow at putting two and two together.

Right now, the answer for me is that he’s slow because it’s convenient for King to keep him in this limbo. Will it ultimately pay off? There are some interesting possible hints in this issue about leaders and followers and the fates, but for the moment it all just feels like King just waxing lyrical once again. At least this is the first issue we’ve had in a good while that he hasn’t resorted to long-winded allusions or dredging up old literature and lore, so I’m likewise grateful for that.

Is there no other way for them to be than cloying?

But ultimately Constantine makes no sense as the narrator of this story. It’s Batman’s dream. Is he dreaming of following Constantine around talking? And what’s the point of that? And again we get references to godheads in the elevator. But Batman isn’t even in the scene. It’s a cheap cheat, narratively, if you ask me. Again, just because it’s a dream doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have some kind of logic or “tell” to it. But King wants to have it both ways, unfortunately. And in the end, it all just feels rather…mundane.

Good thing Janin does such a clean job of making the mundanity of it pop a bit. I especially like Batman and Catwoman in the rain. Just lovely crisp moments of character interaction. It’s what will pull you through this. And make you feel like you read something with more substance than it actually has to offer.

Recommended If…

  • You liked that contender’s “What If” series of alternate realities in comic books.
  • You’re a fan of the snot-off antics of John Constan–no, wait, never mind.
  • There’s a too-brief, but fun glimpse into what a Cat/Bat ongoing team might have looked like. You know, if that wedding had gone off.

Overall

Mikel Janin turns out some nice sequences with Catwoman, Batman, John Constantine, and even a mini-cameo from one of our favorite Gotham schizoid personalities, Two-Face. Meanwhile King takes us through the paces of yet another dream sequence during which we gain little to no traction on the whereabouts or actual condition of Batman. We seem to be trapped in this stasis like a bug in amber. And like that bug in amber, it’s pretty to look at, but beyond being decorative, it serves little purpose.

SCORE: 6/10

 

Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with an advance copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.