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Comics Feature

Paradise Found

Bowie's Carla Speed McNeil Creates Her Own World to Explore in Finder

Uli Loskot
GO SEE THE WORLD: Carla Speed Mcneil's Jaeger, in a moment of dishabille

Comics Issue 2006

Weird Science City Paper's Fifth Annual Comics Contest

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Virgil Stahr, Vanguard of Andromeda In Tales to Impress | By Daniel Krall

Paradise Found Bowie's Carla Speed McNeil Creates Her Own World to Explore in Finder | By Violet LeVoit

Boys Life Sometimes a Giant Robot Isn't Just a Giant Robot in the World of Japanese Comics | By Jess Harvell

2 Morro Morro Land Sci-Fi Gentrification Writ Large in an Obsessive Hand, Courtesy Brian Chippendale | By Christopher Skokna

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 10/11/2006

Jaeger has looked pretty rough before, but never this bad. His head is nothing but a jaggedy egg inscribed with cruciform cross hairs, not counting the two slashes of graphite radiating from the cross' center. "That's why he has those two marks on his cheeks," cartoonist Carla Speed McNeil says about those commas of anatomical afterthought, as she bends over a notepad-sized snip of typing paper with her automatic pencil. "Because they anchor his eyes, and I always know where to put them." She hatches in the prow of Jaeger's nose along the egg's vertical stripe. It's an awkward shape, and when she moves to the jagged jumble of rectangles that's supposed to become his upraised hand, this reporter starts to get worried. How is she going to resurrect her most iconic character from this junk pile of scratches?

But once she uncaps her brush pen, all worry disappears. Black lines skate with sinuous ease along the periphery of the graphite framework with a certainty that suggests McNeil is tracing from some interdimensional template. There is the edge of Jaeger's jaw. There is the smooth freeway connecting neck to shoulder to bicep, there are the feathery black bangs across his brow and the cigarette jutting from the corner of his rakish smirk. There is the curl of chest hair at the hollow of his collarbone. There are his eyes, irises left unshaded and pupils barely flicked in. McNeil slides the completed drawing over so a reporter can get a good look, but in two beats she takes it back and uncaps her pen again. On Jaeger's hand, the one that's reaching for the cigarette, she carefully inscribes a railroad track of ink under his knuckles and dots below each tine.

That railroad-track tattoo is what marks Jaeger in McNeil's comic universe as a "finder." Finders are, as Jaeger himself describes, "hunters, trackers, and more . . . It was the way of the finder to help his people by standing apart from them, seeing them as only an outsider can." It makes sense, then, that he's the closest thing to a guide through Finder, McNeil's decade-long (and counting) comic-book series. The reader piggybacks on Jaeger's travels--sometimes alongside him, sometimes over his shoulder, sometimes departing his company and wandering back--through the vast multicultural terrain of interlocking, conflicting, and cohabitating culture that, regardless of what the book's title claims, is Finder's real protagonist.

"Everything is ordinary to somebody. There are still tribal people in Africa who are aghast at the idea of drinking animal milk," says McNeil, seated in her Bowie home at the kitchen table that doubles as her studio. "That's for animals! And you know, they've got a point. But then again, zillions of people all over the world survived starvation by being willing to drink animal milk and eat animal products that others wouldn't eat. If there were only one way to do things, then there would only be one way to do things. A culture is fluid."

That may be so, but the alien fluidity of Finder's culture could raise Margaret Mead from the dead for one last thesis. Among its landmarks are lizard creatures that gain pleasurable release from vomiting, a clan so devoted to the feminine that even men have breasts, a wraith who makes his living allowing people to enter his brain through hairlike optic cables in his scalp, a race of lion women where the females are bipedal but the males still quadruped, electronic kudzu that grows unchecked on urban surfaces and sprouts TV monitors like blossoms, and near-religious pilgrimages to a theme park based around Munky the Homunculus, a mascot patterned after the concentrations of sensory nerves in the human body. To ask what Finder is about is like asking what Europe is about. It's not about anything. It exists, and it unfolds.

One might imagine the overlord of this alien world looking like a multiarmed creation goddess with a rapidograph pen in every hand, but the tallish and sturdy McNeil, 37, could be any Kmart shopper, right down to the minimal jewelry and dun wavy hair tied in an infant-proof ponytail (she and her "computer guy" husband, Michael, have two sons). Once she speaks, however, you hear the timbre of the smart, sharp geek in her irony-frosted sentences and double-sawbuck vocabulary. During our conversation she invokes Carl Jung, the Alfred Hitchcock film Jamaica Inn, Los Bros Hernandez, and '80s kid superhero team the Power Pack with equal significance.

McNeil describes Finder as "aboriginal SF," a term that requires a bit of explaining. Whereas the most familiar examples of science fiction have their roots in "hard" sciences like astrophysics, computer science, or genetic engineering, there's also a rich tradition of sci-fi--think of Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, or Stranger in a Strange Land--based around "soft" sciences like psychology, political science, or, most apropos to McNeil's work, cultural anthropology. Finder doesn't have a Doctor Doom figure, a monolithic bad guy whose deeds are evil only by dualistic moral standards. Because the book's conflicts are between cultures, right and wrong is subjective--and the point of collision can provoke laughter as well as heartache.

"National Geographic was my bible when I was a kid," McNeil recalls of her childhood in Louisiana. "You've got the exotic locales, and then you've got some of the local stuff, and you've got some stuff about animals or whatever." She thrilled especially to the magazine's emphasis on archaeology--a passion stoked further by a childhood visit to the traveling King Tut exhibit, as well as discovering artist David Roberts' painted studies of Near East and Middle Eastern architecture, "from . . . back when it could get you killed to be a foreigner there."

But it was a cousin's vintage collection of EC Comics that got McNeil turned on to sequential art. "I was absolutely transfixed by those horrible things. And I don't dare go back out and find [them] ever again because I know they'll never hold up to my childhood memories. Shortly after that I got Cerebus No. 52 and Elfquest No. 13," she says with the certainty of the true comics junkie who can cite issue numbers like scripture verse. She went on to endure a less than earthshaking stint in fine arts at Louisiana State University ("I hate painting.") and a tour of duty in retail, but the die had already been cast when a comic store clerk tossed her a catalog from the now-defunct independent publisher Pacific Comics and she vowed to order one of everything inside. "From there," she swears, "there was no going back."

But McNeil's jump from aficionado to creator, distilling Finder from its pile of notes and sketches into a finished comic book, was prompted by the take-no-prisoners example of vanguard self-publisher Dave Sim. The notoriously contrarian Sim seems an unlikely guiding light for a woman in comics. ( He earned his most justifiable infamy after several misogynistic rants published in his comic Cerebus, wherein he described women as "a gender which has no ethics, no scruples, no sense of right and wrong.") But McNeil maintains Sim's no-excuses work ethic was the defib to the chest that Finder needed to live.

"In the front of [Sim's] book, when he wasn't screaming, he was giving serious . . . advice," she says. "Like, if you want to do this, do it. How do you think pro golfers become pro golfers? They golf. Get a piece of paper and start drawing! Do a page a day for 14 days, and if at the end of 14 days you don't have 14 pages, why? I did it the way I did it largely because of his motivational advice. And I've got to give the man credit for that."

Reading Finder's eight trade paperbacks (collecting 38 issues since 1996) in order of creation makes the fruits of that work ethic evident. The serviceable but not exceptional first issue is an uphill climb--there's no introduction to the characters or their situations, and McNeil's art, while not unfamiliar with anatomy and perspective, feels halting and stiff. (The footnotes in the back about unwritten subtleties of the cultures and characters involved are an indispensable crutch.) But something shifts around the fourth issue. Suddenly McNeil's lines develop weight and rhythm, and her lights and darks breathe easily in each other's company. Her "camera" gains mobility. And she develops a feel for the taffy-pull flexibility of comics time, zooming through zippier sequences and stretching some moments over multiple panels to correct a joke's timing or create tension.

That quantum leap into the beginnings of mastery is clearest in Finder's fourth paperback, Talisman, centering around Marcie, the preliterate youngest child of one of Jaeger's on-again, off-again lovers. Marcie isn't Jaeger's daughter, but he tenderly reads to her out of a favorite book so obsolete it doesn't come bundled with a voice chip. When Jaeger (predictably) disappears, Marcie begs her older sister Rachel to take up Jaeger's story-time duties. But the banal stories Rachel reads are disconcertingly different from the lively fantasies Jaeger told.

McNeil reveals Marcie's revelation in 13 near-static panels spanning two pages. Rachel's expression is unchanged in each, but Marcie's face, delineated in spare slashes of ink for mouth, eyebrows, and meat of the nose, traces the path of her discontent, from polite interest to mild perplexity, then boredom, then frustration, and, finally, seething anger. That subtle sequence could not work in a prose novel (not enough visual opportunity) or a film (too motionless). It's the unique gifts of the comic book that make it work. "I'm glad to hear you say that," McNeil says, "because so many of my colleagues take it for granted that I am going to write a prose novel eventually. And I have no idea how to go about writing one. I know the grammar of the visual page." That's an understatement proven by the rest of the excellent Talisman, a profound elegy to the love of books and the courage required of every writer to triumph over their inertia one quaking step at a time.

But Finder's most poignant book is its seventh, The Rescuers, a noir-dark tragedy of errors based on the Lindbergh kidnapping and McNeil's memories of the 1977 Disney movie of the same name. "I remember being mildly obsessed with [The Rescuers] as a child, because I loved animation with a passion that knew no bounds. But at the same time, in the back of my head I felt cheated, because there's all this fuss, the whole animal kingdom turning upside down to help this little girl who's in a bad situation, as if there was nobody else on earth who needed rescuing. Because I knew perfectly well that horrible things happened every single day and nothing happened to help those kids. Even at the age of 8 I knew that. I felt cheated." In McNeil's retelling, the infant son of a wealthy mother is kidnapped from the family mansion for ransom and Jaeger is recruited to track the culprit--meanwhile, in the mansion's outlying grounds, a mother from the Ascian tribe is compelled by tradition to execute one of her newborn twins. The situation contains the seeds of a beautiful solution, but, due to misunderstandings between divergent cultures, nobody gets a happy ending.

McNeil has just released the follow-up to The Rescuers, the much lighter (and kinkier) series Five Crazy Women, wherein Jaeger bemoans how girls insane enough to sleep with him always end up being trouble. You can order the book directly from her web site (www.lightspeedpress.com), but if hard copies aren't your thing, virtually every page is available there for free; beginning with Five Crazy Women, McNeil has abandoned individual comic books and has started releasing her new material on the web before collecting it in trade paperbacks. It seems counterintuitive to sell a book by giving away its content, but McNeil maintains that it works just as well as the usual method of selling individual comics and then issuing the compilation.

"My issues made their money back and a little bit of pocket change, and that was pretty much it," she says. "As I've always viewed [individual comics] as advertising, then two years worth of stale sales means they're not getting to new people anymore. And it's time to come up with some new model." She waves a copy of the Five Crazy Women book, the cover displaying Jaeger juggling an armful of variably sane beauties while clutching a rose in his teeth. "These things, on the other hand, sell and sell and sell and sell and never grow old." Next stop: chain bookstores, where big distributors will carry your goods only if you've got a line of 10 books. McNeil has two more to go, after which back issues of Finder will be as ubiquitous as Batman reprints.

Finder's books may never grow old, but there's nothing protecting its characters from the onslaught of time. Marcie is now a preadolescent, and in one sequence we see an older Jaeger's adult daughter and grandchildren. People age and change in the world of Finder, and that's just fine with McNeil. "Charlie Brown doesn't change. He doesn't need to change," she says. "But when you're trying to describe nonarchetypal human characters, if a character in a book doesn't evolve, you get tired of them. They get kind of sickening, frankly, if they go through the same dramas we all do and don't come out of it.

"Someday [Jaeger will] be old and die. And he'll be gone," McNeil continues. "And he has occupied such a big chunk of my psyche for such a long time that I wanted him to be able to change and grow as a character, yet not destroy the core from which other characters can grow." In other words, Jaeger dies, but the world of Finder goes on.

"I always knew I was in it for the long haul," McNeil says about the stack of typing paper that became a decade-and-counting anthropological study in panel form. "I didn't know how far it would get. I never really craved to be famous or anything like that. Really, I just wanted it to be able to have enough momentum to make enough of a living to keep on doing it." Her sketch of Jaeger still smirks up from the page. The glint in his eye broadcasts a nearly audible declaration of intent: Keep on drawing them. I've got plenty more stuff to do.

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