Posted by: Brian Hibbs on September 12, 2007
The first issue of Mark Waid and Paul Azaceta’s POTTER’S FIELD doesn’t feel like the first issue of a miniseries, which is what it is, or like the first 22 pages of a 66-page story; it feels like an adaptation of the pilot episode of a TV show. The premise is that there’s an uncanny, one-step-ahead-of-you guy known only as John Doe, whose life’s work is figuring out the names of unknown people buried in the public cemetery on Hart Island, and scratching them into their numbered stone markers; he has operatives all over New York. Hour-long TV detective drama, right? Or maybe the sort of series of short stories that used to appear in the back pages of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. (As is often the case with Waid’s writing, there’s some Biblical resonance here too–the title isn’t just the generic term for a mass burial ground, it’s an allusion to Matthew 27.)
The result reads a bit like Waid and Azaceta’s take on FELL–noir tone, done-in-one narrative, muted palette, eccentric supporting cast, perpetrator of inhuman perversions brought to justice. Azaceta’s artwork is chunky and vaguely Euro-ish–there are hints of David Mazzucchelli in the design, and a certain amount of Alex Toth in his linework (those surprise lines!). It looks terrific, for the most part, with unruly, jagged shadows and brush-crushing smears of ink turning up everywhere, although it doesn’t flow as smoothly as it might; a crucial wordless sequence is a little bumpy. He uses lots of shorthand to get around showing facial expressions (over-the-shoulder views, silhouettes, panels focusing on small details, faces hidden in shadow or seen from a great distance)–I still don’t have a mental picture of what a lot of the major characters’ faces look like–but he’s very good with body language: John Doe, in particular, has pretty much the same physical presence as the Spirit, fittingly enough for a guy who hangs out in a graveyard.
The writing, for the most part, is Waid showing off his particular skills, especially getting across a whole lot of information in very little space. The first four pages of the issue lay out Doe’s raison d’être and m.o. almost too neatly–it’s exceptionally tight storytelling (very much like Waid’s backup origin features in 52, actually), and it leads straight into the plot for the issue, but it also means that four pages into the story we know everything we’re ever supposed to know about Doe. He’s got a similar knack for establishing characters in a few lines: Doe’s operative Harold Steinway gets his personality firmly outlined in an amusing four-panel, one-page sequence that moves the plot forward too.
The actual plot of the story, though, is where POTTER’S FIELD falls down. The solution to the mystery involves some nearly impossible leaps of logic, and requires a particular character to be a household name in one conversation and nobody in particular in another. There are at least six characters here who look like they’ll be making recurring appearances, and we know the surface circumstances of all of them, but none of them have particular depth yet. And the ending of the story is strangely awkward: a character from the background of the plot suddenly jumps to the foreground in a rather forced way, and the “cliffhanger” ending seems more like the first page of the next story (in fact, the next-to-last page would work perfectly fine as a final page).
It’s a stand-alone story, but not terribly satisfying as one; if this were the first issue of an ongoing series, I’d imagine that Waid had some kind of bigger picture in mind, the way EMPIRE expanded beyond its initial setup. But there are only three issues of POTTER’S FIELD planned, as far as I know (although today’s Newsarama interview suggests there might be future minis too), and that means it seems more like a sales pitch for an actual TV show. It’s not just a detective series, but a series about a really specific kind of detection–the theme of the series, from its title on down, is “lonely death,” and I’m not sure how many interesting variations on that can be wrapped up in 22 pages, or for that matter 22 minutes. Very pretty to look at, but ultimately just Okay.