Interview: Finder’s Carla Speed McNeil
by Adam Gallardo
Described as “aboriginal science fiction” when it was first released in 1996, Finder is the brain child of cartoonist Carla Speed McNeil. The comic is set in a world which may be our own in the far future, or it may be something else entirely. Regardless, the landscape is vast enough to encompass all manner of stories and a large cast of characters. The series has long been recognized as one of the best ongoing comics currently being published and has won several awards, including an Eisner, two Ignatz, and the Russ Manning Manning Award. In addition, the book has received praise from a number of comics luminaries including Jeff Smith, and Warren Ellis who calls the series “completely fascinating.”
Finder was self-published by McNeil’s own Lightspeed Press for thirty-eight issues before moving to a web-only comic. Eventually, Dark Horse Comics began publishing new material as well as collecting all the previous issues. The publisher is currently serializing the latest Finder story in their monthly anthology, Dark Horse Presents.
McNeil was gracious enough to let me email questions to her. The body of our discussions follows.
Mothership Zeta: One of the things that I find striking about Finder is how complete the world feels from the very beginning of the series. Would you mind talking about the process of creating the world and its characters before you began writing? How long a process was that?
Carla Speed McNeil: It’s been a very organic process, which is a pretty way of saying I’m making it up as I go. It takes a lot of concentration. Many times I have been approached by game enthusiasts hoping for back-matter to flesh out the world, show more of it so they could set games in it, which is tremendously flattering, but the world isn’t ‘alive’ for me unless I have set a story in it. The setting is an outgrowth of the story, and changes as the story’s needs unfold. Long story short, I would quickly make my world unable to host new stories if I nailed it down before I write any given story. I try to see the 20K-feet-up perspective and aim for my landing spot. Details for that spot fill in as I get closer. The rest remains nebulous.
I spent about a year writing and drawing every idea I’d had mulched away in my head for as far back as I could remember. At the end of that year, I had a foot-high stack of drawings and notes, and it was all fairy gold. It looks good: character drawings, little scenes, family trees, genealogy, notes on sidereal motion and the names of the hours and how they’d differ from place to place. It looks good, but it’s all crap, because none of it is a story. I kicked it under the couch, and put everybody who was in one place and one time together, and the only person who could possibly connect them was Jaeger, so he became the de facto main character. That was my first issue.
MZ: With Finder, you seem to squelch the notion of Romanticism. Everything is multifaceted, and nothing is ever just good or just bad. Was this a reaction to other SF comics at the time, or does it simply reflect your worldview?
CSM: There barely were any other science fiction comics at the time I was really incubating the first Finder story. There was Nexus, which is glorious space opera. There was Akiko. There was Matt Howarth’s Kief Llama. There was all that stuff I grew up with in Heavy Metal… I’m not sure I have a perspective on Romanticism. I think I just bought a drum and started hitting it.
MZ: In addition to your self-published work, you’ve worked with a number of comics writers. What’s the attraction, and what do you think you get out of it?
CSM: I love working with other writers. I learn a lot about the way they write, for one thing, and each person has a different form of collaboration. Comics people rave on and on about work process when we get together, and actually working together is the most intense way of getting into this. Also, I always work best on the thing I’m not supposed to be working on, so if I have two projects to trade back and forth, I can trick myself into working on the other thing whenever I get stuck on the first one. It’s crucial.
What I haven’t done a lot of is write for other people to draw. I wish I could; writing is so much faster, in principle.
MZ: You self-published for 15 years before being published by Dark Horse Comics. What’s changed about doing Finder now that you’re working with a publisher?
CSM: I have a lot of very talented, very earnest people working their butts off to make my book a success, where before it was just me.
MZ: That’s simple enough! And what’s it like to work with colorists? Working with other artists on something that had been yours alone must be strange.
CSM: It’s almost all done by Jenn Manley Lee, who is my sister from another mister, anyway. She makes it look like I would if I could, and she’s fast. Her own book Dicebox is wonderful too.
MZ: From where you stand, how has comics publishing changed since you started working on Finder?
CSM: It’s like asking how different the universe was one second after the Big Bang versus ten seconds. Everything is different. For a start, it’s vastly bigger. I never dreamed there would be so many great comics…
MZ: I’ve always been curious since there seems to be no sense of you making the story up as you go along, how much of the story did you have planned from the beginning?
CSM: Things roll along in my head for years until I get to doing them on paper. It doesn’t feel made up because I am very focused on flow. If a story crashes out, it’s because something’s missing. If the emotional thread is in place, the rest can be swapped out or changed, and the whole doesn’t feel faked.
MZ: The culture in Finder (at least in the parts of it we’ve seen so far), is dominated by a small number of clans whose members are all nearly identical. Is this a comment on the homogeneity of our current culture?
CSM: It’s more a comment on the extremely tight-knit families I grew up with in Louisiana. Let’s just say this: when David Simon’s Treme was on TV, there was a column in the New Orleans paper to explain details of the show to the locals. New Orleans and its surroundings are an intensely local place. If you live there, you know everything about your part of it, and not a whole lot about the rest of it.
MZ: And speaking of culture, there are little nods to our current popular culture throughout the book. I’ve caught so many, in fact, that I’m convinced there must be many more I’m missing. Why do you feel it’s important to include these? How do they inform the world of the story?
CSM: Partly, I wanted that shock of the familiar in the context of unfamiliar. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t included such direct references, even though I still like the explanation that I will someday weave into the story; sometimes I wish I had created new material (even though I am an embarrassingly bad poet, and consequently can’t write song lyrics). They do have a story behind them, which I spent way too much time picking at just today… the people of Finder have “memory people” who have various relationships with things of the past. They may get songs stuck in their heads that they’ve never heard. Or they may recite entire books in their sleep. Or they may have dreams of being random people from the past. Sometimes these relationships are disabling. Sometimes they make a lot of money from retrieving things from the past. Sometimes both, but saying more might be spoiling it. Can’t cut up the golden goose.
MZ: So far, you usually focus on either Jaeger or members of the Grosvenor-Lockhart family, both of whom are outside of society to varying extents. Do you find it’s easier to explore culture from the viewpoint of those who are outside it? And do you have plans for more stories that feature new characters?
MZ: There are quite a lot of new faces in the new story, “Chase the Lady”, though they’re all connected to Rachel Lockhart in one way or another. Will I detach entirely from Jaeger or the rest of the familiar faces? Maybe. I set out to create a world big enough to tell nearly every kind of story I wanted, and so far I have only one really big one that would be better done outside the world of Finder.
MZ: You’re currently working on a long story that’s being serialized in Dark Horse Presents. Do you have plans for Finder beyond that?
CSM: I expect it will take a couple or three more books to tell this story, which I hope will answer many of the questions people have, though it’ll almost certainly raise far more.
MZ: Finally, do you have any plans for more collaborations in the future?
CSM: Absolutely, always, yes. Currently collaborating with Alex de Campi on a brutal drama called No Mercy, about some teenage voluntourists who were out to build schools in an unfamiliar country whose bus falls off a cliff, after which things get steadily worse. I am also taking on art chores every once in awhile on a deliciously creepy ghost story called Harrow County, ordinarily drawn by the amazing Tyler Crook and written by Cullen Bunn. Other things are further down the road, but yes, many new collaborations, they are my headfuel.
Adam Gallardo writes comics (Star Wars: Infinities – Return of the Jedi and 100 Girls, among others) and novels (Zomburbia and Zombified, so far). He lives in Western Oregon with his family. He’s looking forward to the rain coming back this winter. If there are any books you’d like to recommend to him, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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