Mark Waid talks "Potter's Field" with Paul Azaceta

By Mark Waid

"Potter's Field." I'm way overdue for another creator-owned book. People have been asking me to get back on that bandwagon for years. But Boom! Studios publisher Ross Richie, one of "Empire's" big fans, is the first one to physically threaten me unless I finally got something down on paper - if not for him, for anyone, just so he could read it. We like Ross.

"Potter's Field," starring a mysterious detective known to his operatives only as "John Doe," is a project I've had kicking around for nearly ten years now. Hart Island, the main locale, is a real place in New York - it's where the city buries its unidentified dead. John Doe, for reasons of his own, has taken it upon himself to investigate each and every one of these deaths one by one - identifying who he can, settling scores and doling out justice when merited, and in general putting ghosts to rest. "No one," he says, "should have to die unremembered."

When I first came up with this notion - then titled simply "John Doe" - I wrote a short "pilot script" for the series. Years later, I was describing it to Ross over dinner and, after asking me to send it his way, he came to the table with a relatively new, largely undiscovered artist who'd be willing to take on the assignment as a mini-series.

To my regret, I winced. Really. Few phrases chill my blood like "relatively new" and "largely undiscovered." No writer is eager to have his script be part of someone else's learning process. But then Ross showed me Paul Azaceta's work, and I was sold. Immediately sold. Here was a guy who was part J.H. Williams, part David Mazzuchelli, part Alex Toth, and Ross, don't let this guy get away, I yelled.

Lucky for me, Paul turned out to be not merely a skilled illustrator. He also proved, in our conversations and in his work, to be smart and articulate and a really gifted collaborator who knows how to tell a story. I promised him that when time came for retailers to place their orders on "Potter's Field," I'd bang the drum so that no one would overlook his work and how good he makes me look. I swapped e-mails with Paul recently to get his insight on the project.

Mark Waid: Paul, I've had this project on the back burner since you were, like, in high school, but - and not to wax your car - your being on-board as artist was what got me re-charged after so long. How'd we find you? What were you working on when Ross called?

Paul Azaceta: The story as I've heard it is that Ross was looking for an artist with a vibe that could fit your project and, through a mutual friend, he and I were introduced. I had just finished "Grounded" (my creator-owned Image book) and was looking for something with a bit more grit. Then when I heard the pitch and that you were writing it, it didn't take me long to say yes.

Waid: What about "Potter's Field" convinced you to take the assignment? (Don't wax my car.)

Azaceta: Besides the name Mark Waid under the title?

Waid: Car.

Azaceta: What I look for are the kind of stories that not only spark my interest but I think also fit well with my art. I love crime noir and detective stories. This story had a cool twist on that theme and just sounded like it was gonna be a blast to draw (and it was!). Speaking of that, where did you find the inspiration for the story? Was it when you came across Hart Island?

Waid: Yeah. When I first heard of the place. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, and the moment I heard what it was, the entire concept fell into place immediately. I could see how I could use the setup as a springboard to tell any kind of story I could imagine: crime sagas, murder mysteries, black comedies, stories of loss and of hope, stories about John's network of agents, stories hinting at why John is an investigator...anything.

Azaceta: I really liked the script for the first issue. I think it throws a lot of info at the reader without cramming it in. Was that something you were going for? Was it your way of giving the reader his money's worth?

Waid: I really, really like the first issue of anything to be basically a "done in one" story, if possible. Certainly, you can plant threads in your first issue that will lead you to upcoming developments - our first issue "ends" on page 21, but on page 22, there's a tease that segues into the next story - but I'd much rather a reader come back next issue because he wants to than because he feels like he has to in order to get a complete story.

On another note, you're still a New York area guy, while I ran screaming outta there nearly a decade ago - meaning that I left some of the scene choices and locales optional, like the bridge scene and the subway-platform scene, bowing to your greater sense of the city. Any reason you chose some particular locales? What else were you looking at as you designed the series and its characters?

Azaceta: While other people like yourself try to get away from the hustle of a cramped city like New York, I think I revel in it. The more claustrophobic and gritty, the more I seem to be inspired. Places like the Brooklyn Bridge and above-ground subways to me are the coolest looking things in a city. Rows of trees just aren't as interesting to draw as rows of tall buildings. By the way, giving me that leeway to pick settings and pace out some talky scenes was probably one the things that made this book so much fun to work on. Do you always work in such a collaborative way with your artists?

Waid: It depends. Sometimes, I have to write scripts not knowing who's going to illustrate them, so in those cases I tend to call the shots more specifically. But if I know who I'll be collaborating with, it's just foolish not to work towards their strengths and encourage them to draw what they enjoy drawing so long as we're both telling the same story.

Azaceta: As for the characters, I just tried to make everyone distinct and feel like a real person. I also tried to have their personality come through visually in their design.

Waid: You got Steinway, maybe my favorite of the agents even though he only has one scene. And I love the fact that all the females in the book look unique and interesting without being cookie-cutter or stupidly glamorous. What were the biggest challenges for you on this? What parts came easiest?

Azaceta: I'm not sure if there was a "hard" part or an "easy" part. I usually try to think about the book in scenes, and each scene had its own challenges - although I think the last issue was the most fun because that's when our hero really gets into trouble.

Waid: Who should I have our agents call when it comes to (knock on wood) casting the TV show?

Azaceta: Let's see...Going for John Doe first, I think Jason Patrick would be great in the role. "Narc" is such a great movie and Jason is a big part of that. He has a way of looking like he's plotting something at all times without losing his good nature. I think he'd be perfect. I'd love to see the now out-of-work actors from "The Sopranos" fill the roles of the Tannori gang. Last but not least, if there was any way to get Artie Lange to be Halpert I would jump with glee. He's the perfect loveable slob.

Waid: Good call. Especially with what happens to him in issue three.

"Potter's Field," issue #1 of 3 ships to stores in August and is available for pre-order in Diamond's Previews catalog now. I'm as proud of it as I am of anything I've ever done, including "Empire." Take a look. Hope you join us.

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