[4 June 2012]
PopMatters Comics Editor
When I think about Person of Interest (it makes a certain degree of sense that a show about surveillance and post-9/11 paranoia would find its home on a station that has as its corporate logo a gigantic eye), two episodes stand out. The first has got to be “Cura Te Ipsum”; that confrontation in the final scene between Reese and the serial rapist teetering on the brink of becoming a serial killer was both a shocking and moving portrait of Reese and the psychic damage that had been dealt him by his time with the CIA. The second standout POI episode is much more recent, deep into the second half-season, quite near the end. “Matsya Nyaya”. In its original “matsya nyaya pranalia”, it’s a Buddhist mantra. The original Sanskrit renders down to something like “the principle of the small fish being eaten by the bigger”.
If you’re a fan of the show, this is definitely a rewarding episode. In the usual daily-grind of the high concept, we see Reese go undercover as a armored truck guard to prevent a crime against fellow guard Tommy. But Reese’s initial conclusion misread the intelligence provided him by the Machine. Tommy wasn’t the victim of the crime, the heist planned on the armored truck he guarded, he was the architect of that crime. Except by the end of it, Tommy actually was the victim after all, double-crossed by his partner and girlfriend, Ashley, Tommy was left for dead ignominiously in boxing gym in Brooklyn.
What makes this episode so artful in the context of the show however, is not the primary storyline involving Reese, but how the secondary ones. These storylines, the first involving Fusco, (the corrupt cop Reese flipped to become his informant) and the second involving Reese himself recalling his last CIA mission, echo the same narrative conceits of the primary plot. Fusco himself, in order to save Reese’s life, finds himself thrust into the same position as Ashley. Fusco kills his dirty partner, and in so doing becomes a “big fish” within the criminal conspiracy of cops known as H.R. And just like Tommy, Reese on his final CIA mission finds himself cast into the role of both perpetrator and victim.
This is a “folded” narrative, to be sure. The events befalling the characters in the secondary storylines don’t parallel those occurring in the primary, but they are imbued with the same thematic tensions. And this kind of storytelling is not all unfamiliar to comics readers of all ages. The most famous example of which, more likely than not when it comes the Batman Canon, being Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. It was a standalone graphic novel intended t be part of continuity. And it featured the most personalized crime by the Joker to date. Rather than simply have Batman’s archnemesis appear, run amok, then have the two settle into their old, familiar two-step, Moore’s subject was exactly the status quo between hero and villain.
Moore’s opening scene was chilling. Batman and the Joker, sitting down and being civil inside Arkham Asylum. Batman has come to the inescapable conclusion that if he and the Joker keep this up, sooner or later their conflict will in end decimation. Either their own, or this conflict of theirs will draw in all of Gotham. A kind of Mutually Assured Destruction of superhero/supervillain rather than by nuclear arsenal. And of course by the end of the book, Barbara Gordon will be crippled permanently, all but auguring exactly what the Batman envisioned at the book’s start.
Moore himself has gone on record to say that this is the one mainstream DCU story of his, he is satisfied with. It’s not hard to understand why, given the context of Moore’s high quality visions written for mainstream DCU superheroes and supervillains. At least one theme Moore had hoped to tackle was this MAD that is prevalent throughout Watchmen as well—the idea that an ongoing conflict will spiral out of control, will consume everything and everyone, even innocent bystanders. But in the localized reality of Batman, can Batman and Joker go on forever?
Another theme Moore tackled in The Killing Joke is the “folded” story dynamic that Person of Interest did in “Matsya Nyaya” and that writers Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV now tackle in the Batman Annual 2012, “First Snow”. Beautifully illustrated by Brian Bolland, the Joker attempts to recall his own origin in Moore’s graphic novel. But his madness means he can no longer make the connections he once made, and everything’s getting harder and harder for him to remember clearly.
If there’s any deficit with The Killing Joke, it’s that that sense of foldedness is absent. And as a consummate artist and as a perfectionist, I believe Moore was responding to this, when he appraised The Killing Joke as his least favorite of his mainstream superhero stories.
I don’t have too much I want to say about “First Snow” before you actually read it. But I’ll say this about Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV’s Batman Annual 2012 though. That foldedness is there, and wildly apparent. Every path through this beautifully crafted story leads equally and easily to the other paths and down to the end of the story. But that’s not the true beauty of this story.
The true beauty is this.
For all Scott’s writing about this Court of Owls and Batman struggling against an older, uglier Gotham, for all Scott’s horror-story-making of the Dark Knight, he’s brought a freshness and a new vitality to the character. We’ve seen Scott evolve the characters of Bruce Wayne and the Batman and Gotham. But this Annual marks a turn in Scott’s creative evolution of the character—it marks a point where he’s ready to tackle the past masters. And that, Dear Reader, is worth exactly all that’s at stake, for the entire game.