“There’s a cemetery on Hart Island at the western end of Long Island Sound. Unidentified corpses are buried here under plain stone markers at the rate of around 125 a week…”
-Jordan Halpert, Potter’s Field
Kind of chilling, isn’t it? In the city of New York, 125 people die nameless and friendless every week. That’s about 500 a month. 6,500 a year.
Who are they? How did they die? Does anyone really care about them?
I’m not sure how accurate that statistic is, but by opening his comic noir tour de force Potter’s Field with it, Mark Waid manages to ensure that he has our attention from minute one. After all, who want’s to die nameless and forgotten? The least dignity we could be offered is a tombstone with a name on it. Yet to the people of the Hart Island cemetery, the only indication of who they might be is a cold, impersonal number.
But there is a man. A man who hates that fact, who cannot stand to just walk away from those empty stones. So he walks the length and breadth of the city, piecing together the clues no one else has the time or the resources to find, and finding the names for these people and recording them in stone for all to see.
Like the people he serves, this man has no name to give to others, so they call him John Doe. To us, and to the people who help him, he is as much an enigma as the corpses he names. He seems to have no family, no friends, no history at all. And yet, there must be something that drives him to live alone, in abandoned buildings, eating canned food and sleeping on cots. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the real mystery is – John or the people of in the potter’s field.
Or perhaps, as his name suggests, John Doe is just another one of the nameless dead who hasn’t given up on moving around just yet.
Potter’s Field is the polar opposite of the last Mark Waid titles I mentioned. Where Irredeemable and Incorruptible are quite possibly the greatest superhero titles ever written, Potter’s Field is a tribute to the mortal man. John’s not superhuman in anything but his ambition. He scrabbles about for clues, risks his life every time he crosses with the criminal underworld and very nearly becomes a real John Doe on more than one occasion.
But, as Greg Rucka says in his introduction to the first collection, he still shows us Waid’s favorite kind of struggle. That of a man who stands on the side of what’s Right , opposing what is Wrong. The fact that he does it without spandex, superpowers or a second thought from the press and public only makes him more of a hero, not less of one.
And it gives one new hope in the potential of funnybooks to tell stories. For that alone it’s worth your time. Pick up your copy now and maybe someday you’ll be able to show it to your children one day, and say, “This is one of the titles that started the revolution. This is what made comics a force in our culture.” And really, how cool is that?