In New York, the unidentified dead are buried on Potter’s Field. All are assigned a number, but one man believes they need to be given names—their real ones. His motivation is never clear. Is he doing it because he thinks the ghosts of the dead can’t rest till their physical remains are correctly labelled and marked? Or, maybe, he doesn’t believe in ghosts and is doing this for himself. Irrespective of the motives, he investigates every case, identifies the unidentified, and, in many cases, metes out justice to those responsible for the deaths. In some ways he is, at once, both an archaeologist and a historian. In some other ways, he is simply an investigator. And in yet other ways, he is judge, jury and executioner rolled into one.
John Doe is the central character of Mark Waid and Paul Azaceta’s Potter’s Field and, as far as superheroes are concerned, he has a thankless job. First off, let’s establish the fact that he is, indeed, a superhero. He is extremely well networked; can get in and out of places others can’t; doesn’t leave prints; and—here’s the clincher—no one knows his true identity.
Graven: Potter’s Field is a bleak and taut tale.
Also Read R. Sukumar’s earlier Lounge columns
Let’s now address the thankless aspect. The dead, we know, tell no tales. They also give no thanks. And because John Doe’s job concerns the dead, it is only natural that he receives no thanks.
Unlike other stories with backstories, Potter’s Field has none. So, what we end up with is the bleak, taut story that screams noir from every panel.
Nor is there the promise of a sequel.
Waid, the author of the acclaimed Kingdom Come, and editor of Boom!, the comics imprint that published Potter’s Field hasn’t given any indication of revisiting the franchise. So, what we have is the 2007 miniseries and a single issue that came out sometime later. Boom! compiled everything into a nice hardcover and released it recently—which explains the timing of this piece—but, again, there’s nary a hint of what is to come.
Which is, in some ways, as irritating as a tune you can’t really identify that is doing the rounds of your cerebral cortex. And just a little less irritating than the fact that very little about John Doe is known. Who is he? What is his story?
Then, maybe it’s that mystery that elevates Potter’s Field—a tightly told and sparsely but powerfully illustrated story—from the good to the great. Sometimes, it’s the untold stories that make the told ones work.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.
Write to Sukumar at firstname.lastname@example.org