November 20, 2010

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Potter's Field

Written by Mark Waid
Illustrated by Paul Azaceta
Boom! Studios

Mark Waid is by far one of my favorite comic book writers, even if he sometimes misses the mark. (I'm one of the few who just wasn't wowed by his run on Fantastic Four, for instance.) I'll follow the man to just about anything, even the Legion of Superheroes. He's almost always good for a quality story that works on an issue-by-issue level as well as a story arc and overarching idea level. That's not easy to do for any writer, but Waid manages it time and time again.

When I think of Mark Waid, however, I tend to think big, bold, and bright. Even darker stories, like Kingdom Come, feel bold and explosive. I wouldn't associate his name with noir--until Potter's Field, a great series that I wish there was more of than just this one trade collection.

Potter's Field is the place where unknown bodies go to their eternal rest. Often anonymous victims of horrible crimes, no one will ever tell their story. They remain numbers lost in a file somewhere, the case colder than the simple tombstones marking their place in life. In New York City, there's one man, known only as John Doe, who's dedicated his life to finding out who these victims are. Potter's Field is his story, and it's a good one.

From the very start, Waid drops you into a world that's modern, but looks like it would fit in perfectly with the noirish worlds of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. People are selfish, stupid, lustful, and murderous, all in the ways that classic noir characters were. Yes, there's modern technology like cell phones but they're kept in the background as most of the work is done by investigation, blackmail, and guns to the face. People here are acting on their worst impulses, and only a few shining characters like Doe himself or an honest cop or two, are there to try and break free to let the truth in. Like in all good noir stories, however, even our heroes aren't squeaky clean.

Waid's ability to capture a mood that's almost 100 years old is amazing. I like noirish stories, but so often writers just think it means being graphic for graphic's sake these days. Characters act like modern figures but wear a trenchcoat or something. That's not noir. Noir is when you live in a desperate world that doesn't play fair. It's a place where the hero gets it wrong as often as he gets it right, and victories can often be hollow ones. That's the nature of noir, and it's all over this book.

In addition to getting the setting and the characters correct, Waid adds a mystery on top, one that nicely doesn't get solved here. Who is John Doe and why does he do this? How does he manage to keep one step ahead of his enemies and how does he remain anonymous in this age of information? It's part of that ability I talked about above--Waid slips in an overarching idea without ruining the "basic" stories he's telling on the page. Sure we'd like to know who Doe is, but if we never find out, the comic is still just as good.

Waid's work here is nicely aided by Paul Azaceta, who I last saw on Grounded, a great comic that I also recommend. His style of angular, scratchy characters makes the pages look like a noir movie. Things are static and oddly placed on just about every page, keeping the reader's eye off balance. Everyone looks jaded and worn, loaded down with the knowledge that the world is a very awful place. This is not a story that asks for slick and polished work. It needs the rough hew that Azaceta gives it. My only minor quibble is that because of this style, action scenes look artificially frozen. I'd have liked to see those be given the contrast of a more flowing nature. Still, as with Sean Philips, whose work this reminds me of, I'll take the occasional awkward panel in exchange for creating a world that fits the bleak nature of the narrative.

Potter's Field is a great crime comic, right up there with those I've read by Brubaker and Rucka. Mark Waid can add another notch to his versatile writing belt, and I recommend that noir fans add this one to their reading stack ASAP.