Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Potter's field: Stone cold"

"Potter's field" is the name of the first project writer Mark ("Kingdom Come", "Fantastic Four") Waid released through "Boom!" studious when he became their editor in chief in 2007. Aided by artist Paul ("Daredevil","B.P.R.D. 1946") Azaceta, the long-in-the-making mini-series published three issues, and completing it's first story arc, wrapped up by promising more.

Both creators had much to be happy with, since their efforts made for a very professional book, with an intriguing premise and flawless execution. But that's to be expected from the "Boom!" studios, who never let their status of an independent publisher omit them from putting out highly respectable material, such as "Talent" and "X isle". Still, with the way penciler/inker Azaceta kept getting more and more high profile work in the industry, it became doubtful that he would return soon to the book that just might be his best work.

It stands to the testament of both creators' belief in the concept, that they reunited for this one shot.

Now, having said that, the comic industry is no exception to the common problem of follow-ups, that which traditionally fail to engage the audience in the way the original work did. It's to be applauded then, that the creators take the effort to present the "Stone cold" one shot not only accessible to readers who have not re-read the original mini-series, but present their work in such a way that it's absolutely new-reader friendly.

"Potter's field" is a modern-day update on the pulp murder mysteries of the day, framed around a very distinctive concept. Waid's "Sherlock Holmes" is a mystery-man himself, who has set upon himself to discover the identities of the people buried in unmarked graves on Potter's field cemetery, hoping to bring closure to the tragic way in which their lives ended. Also, just like "the Shadow", he is pragmatic enough to recognise the need for the experts' help, making him more than just methodical, but relatively sociable, a rare trait in genre fiction of the sort.

"Stone cold" one shot starts with a grisly image that drives home perfectly the stakes in what turns out to be another detective mystery. The following several pages are exposition-heavy, but it serves as both a (re)introduction of the concept behind "Potter's field", as well as to lay out the particular problem our protagonist has found himself driven to solve. 

What follows is a mature effort by Waid and Azaceta, both time and again proven storytellers, as they bring their story to a definite conclusion, but not before dropping a few subtle nods as to the direction the series will, hopefully, one day continue in.

Once again, the book is soaked in the atmosphere of a lived-in big city, refreshingly set during winter time. Azaceta avoids using the familiar cues to drive in the "noir" feeling, dispensing with heavy rains, portraying all the characters in a realistic manner, with wrinkles atop their worried faces. This is a very sober and mature way to present a crime procedural series, helped immensely by Nick Filardi's earthy tones, that go hand in hand with Azaceta's afore-mentioned use of snow.

We are introduced to John Doe's current dilemma at night, on Potter's field, as it starts snowing. As her investigation starts, it's a new morning, with the weather changes picking up only later on, as the mood tightens, culminating in a very tense situation that resolves all the creators have been gearing towards. Conveyed in a subtle, but emotive way, all that goes to show the meticulousness of the author's approach, as the sure hands guide this franchise in a way that is to be commended.

The book falters only when it comes to the suspects behind the refreshingly new take on the type of the crime that seems uncommon but really amounts to a new take on the old con. To put it simply, 24 story pages is not enough space to introduce the cast of characters neccessary to plant the seed of doubt in a story where the basic nature of the crime is something that is not easy to explain.

But than again, not every story has to be a "whodunit", and this time around, the motives and reactions of the perpetrators, along with their reaction take center piece. In fact, the simple, even clumsy way, in which the antagonists have proceeded to carry out their scheme, is very convincing. The same is true for the rushed and emotional way in which they react when finally confronted with John Doe and his "agent".

Beat by beat, "Stone cold" remains a textbook example of crime fiction done in a smart, believable way, yet not without a couple of over-the-top action scenes. The final product seems so seamless in it execution that it cleverly disguises the hard work Waid and Azaceta put into it.

Of course, that also means that we've been once again some nods regarding John Doe's identity, that fit in both with the book's theme. In fact, the closing pages go so far as to tie that aspect with the particular crime that's been investigated, in the epilogue that brings the characters full circle to Potter's field at night. It's also a perfect tease for more "Potter's field" stories, that will hopefully show up once the authors find time in their busy schedules to go back to the concept.

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