“Potter’s Field” Retells the Drama of America

Everybody knows a kid like Miguel. He’d be off to the side on the playground, reading. He’d draw in a crowd and quickly captivate them by an impressive array facts he’d display with the showmanship of a great magician. He’d adjust his glasses by pushing back on the bridge with two fingers rather than one. Being friends with Miguel was like being friends with Google. Not because he knew everything, but because he gamed you into thinking what he knew was what you needed to know. So when Miguel pushed aside his Wolf and Child comicbook, glared at kid who refused to share her potato chips with him, and said in a low tone, “She is a warrior who has mastered the art of MSG”, you kinda knew where this was going.

Eight years old and Miguel already understood how social systems can overlay each other in a complex network of meaning (how a six-year old can be a samurai girl), the philosophical problems around behaviorism and functionalism (the strange siren song of potato chips) and the cliff wall traditional economics faces when trying to understand wealth generation (why she wouldn’t share). No surprise then when Mark Waid in Potter’s Field is able to trace a similar path through the history of philosophy. Put simply, disguised as genre fiction (it’s a detective story!), Potter’s Field is the story we’ve been telling ourselves ever since the beginning of modern history.

Mark Waid’s addition to detective fiction, as you may guess from the title, centers around NYC’s Potter’s Field, where Johns and Janes Doe are buried in a municipal cemetery not long after the official investigation goes cold. Paul Azaceta’s artwork is lavishly darkened and engagingly suspenseful; the cemetery at night is more an indictment than a scare. How could we have let things get this bad, Waid seems to ask, that we bury our own with only death certificate numbers adorning their headstones? Azaceta’s opulent brushwork immerses readers in this sense of futility and bureaucratic tragedy.

Waid’s nameless protagonist however, knows ways to reignite cold cases. He as a network of “agents” throughout the city. And each night, driven by demons we can only guess at, he chisels in the names of victims whose identities he’s already discovered. Potter’s Field is a horror story no doubt, but a story of the horror of human waste and the ineffectiveness of our social institutions to respond to it. Potter’s Field is the horror story of human subjects, treated as objects.

The split between subject and object first emerged in critical thought during the 17th century, with the philosopher Rene Descartes. It is from him that we draw the name, Cartesian plane, for the X-Y arrangement of grid references. Arguably though, his primary contribution to philosophy came with the motto, cogito ergo sum.

In English, “I think therefore I am”, the Cogito arises from Descartes obsession with beginning his philosophical program with dead certainty. What cannot be doubt? That would be the beginning of Descartes philosophy. For Descartes, even the external world could be an illusion. And yet, thinking itself had to be given. How could thinking be doubt, when the very act of doubting thought, required thought. Hence, I think therefore I am. What follows on from this formulation is the idea of dualism; that the world is constituted two distinct orders. On the one hand there is Mind (Self, ideas, Subjects who act on the world) and on the other, Body (Other, sensation, Objects that are acted on by Subjects).

Waid’s scenes, realized visually by Azaceta are simply haunting. They have the weight and the power of that indelible image from the original Matrix; the rows upon rows of trees of embryos. Waid’s protagonist stalks Potter’s Field. Unlike Batman who (always appearing between victims/criminals and the light) casts a protective shadow, Waid’s protagonist is subsumed by the shadows of Potter’s Field. Rather than a flashlight or a notepad or a voice recorder, Waid’s protagonist is armed with a hammer and a chisel. This is a powerful image, the investigator’s only task is to carve the names of the forgotten into the stone edifice of the city.

The central drama of Potter’s Field is one that goes back to the very root of our society; to the 18th century when the rules for living together in an economy of equals (far from the institution tyranny of monarchy) were first being written. It is a story told by the philosopher David Hume, refuted the idea of causality. Hume convinced his audience that the only certain thing we can say about two ostensibly related phenomena (letting go and something falling, say) is that experience of the past leads one to predict that the past will repeat reliably.

It was Hume’s deep skepticism that would eventually lead him to the quintessential conflict of the era; the battle between loyalism (to the idea of monarchy) and patriotism (the idea that the country should reflect all individuals equally). Author of Leviathan and key philosopher of the era, Thomas Hobbes, argued that, in order to limit each individual’s passions of egoism, a strong figure (the Leviathan) emerge to enforce law. This monarch should suspend free speech, and all men would owe obeisance to this Crown.

Hume vehemently argued against this. At the dawn of our society, he argued that it was not egoism, but partiality that drove human nature. The problem was that we were partial to some things (people, ideas) and not others. Postmodernist philosopher Gilles Deleuze writes the following of Hume,

But when Hume says that humans are not naturally egoist, but naturally partial, we mustn’t see this as a simple nuance of wording. It is a radical changes in the practical positing of the social problem. The problem is no longer: how do we limit egoism and its corresponding rights? The problem is now: how do we go beyond partiality? How do we go from “limited sympathy” to an “extended generosity”?… Society is no longer conceived as a system of legal and contractual limitations, but as an institutional invention: how do we invent artifices, create institutions that force the passions to go beyond their partiality, producing moral, juridical, and political feelings?

Hume’s philosophy is the central drama of our capacity to live together in the world. And Waid’s genius lies in his deep recognition that Potter’s Field is one of the “broken places” as Hemingway might call them. One of the places where the contract of creating space for each others’ lives has broken down.

Waid’s Potter’s Field is the story of the gift economy, the story of the Investigator’s secret team of agents (secret even to themselves) and the network of care that he constructs to associate them. It is the story of a very real kind of patriotism, one that values how we protect our shared values not simply for ourselves, but for those we share our nation, our city, our home with.

But the story of genius doesn’t simply stop with Waid’s recognition of the problems of philosophy. It continues in Waid’s articulating these in the genre of detective fiction, and the medium of comics.

Spoiler Alert

Detective fiction, when it’s done well, is about the horror of true crime. Quite possibly, the template for this kind of work has been set with James Ellroy’s My Dark Places. This book, in novel form, is the story of the damage done to Ellroy by the unsolved murder of his mother, Geneva Hilleker. It’s not the story of the body found by kids at softball practice on Saturday morning. But the story of how Geneva came to be the victim of the crime.

Waid’s crafting of the opening chapter of Potter’s Field is no less moving. And the tale is no less a lurid one. Farrah Stone, media pundit on the state of crime in the city was herself once the victim of crime. But her failing spousal relationship forced the police investigation to looking at her husband as their daughter’s kidnapper. Social pressure and the threat of child molestation charges ensured the husband’s suicide. The Investigator’s discovery of a soundproof room in the basement of Stone’s building is the break needed to solve the case.

The investigator’s words are chillingly compassionate.

“Imagine the sick horrors that little girl went through for ten years. Imagine how she would have been found a long time ago, and spared all that if her father had lived to prove his innocence. If he hadn’t been driven to suicide by an angry, misguided wife who took his death as an admission of guilt… …and built a television career out of her victimhood.”

“You’re blackmailing me”, Stone says when the Investigator suggests that the evidence he has need not be used to publicly solve her daughter’s death, “Blackmailer’s take, Ms. Stone”, the Investigator replies, “I’m giving you a chance to atone for a horrible act of misjudgment”.

Potter’s Field is different to every other true crime book you’ve ever read. It’s not about that Inner Darkness. It’s about the economies of action we take to defend the light of our ideals.