COMPLICATED CLANS The fate of the planet is never in the balance in the Finder stories — “The world is always ending for someone,” McNeil says.
In person, Speed (as she is known) is a disarmingly friendly, slightly owlish woman with a bit of a Louisiana drawl and a brain that seems to work by quantum entanglement. The roots of Finder go back to McNeil's childhood, she says. She first invented Jaeger, the wanderer who connects the series' various plotlines, when she was four.
Back then, he was a kind of sympathetic werewolf. By the time he became the protagonist of Finder, he'd become a half-aboriginal outcast with an unexplained need to get badly hurt on a regular basis. We still don't know his story, but he's the one element present in all the books — sometimes in the foreground, sometimes on the margins. (McNeil's meticulous rendering of his body hair is her Sistine Chapel.)
It was hard to take such a personal creation and put it on the page, she says. "He had to narrow down and become more of a person and less of an icon for me. Before, he was like a tiny little self-created deity, a spirit. He had to become a person."
As she finished the first 14-issue story, she says, she had a series of vivid nightmares about Jaeger. "One of them was that he was committing ritual suicide in order to save somebody; in another he was sealing himself up inside a giant metal statue that looked like him — knowing that he would die in there and there was no choice but for him to do so."
It was a symbol of what she was doing to the character, she says — "defining things that had never been defined before."
In later books, McNeil's storytelling quickly caught up to her art. But the footnotes remained a key feature in each bound collection she released, functioning as commentary track and sourcebook, and as a key to the codes of Anvard society. As you work through the footnotes, the language of the city becomes clearer and clearer.
For example, the city is ruled by clans that require their members to have a particular phenotype; clan membership is determined by a process McNeil describes as a cross between a cotillion and a dog show. A given clan might have three approved face shapes and two official hair colors; one clan is so uniform that men and women alike conform to a blonde-bombshell ideal, tits and all. It's a city where you can read someone's heritage and social status on their face — a perfectly visual society.
McNeil's art is subtle enough to realize this on the page: if two characters look the same, it's not because that's just how she draws faces. Often, the plot hinges on the similarity between clan members. In one scene, for example, Rachel — one of the book's protagonists — is uncomfortable in a train full of Medawar men, all of whom look like her abusive father.
This is the real brilliance of Finder, the thing that allows it to do what prose fantasy worlds can't. Because Finder is a comic, and not a novel, a reader who has learned to recognize its cues is able to navigate the city of Anvard the same way the characters do: visually. You become, as you read, a citizen.
"I think that's the beauty of it, really," McNeil says. "I'm moving too fast to verbalize everything. Everything has to be poured out onto the page, and by its very nature there's more in it than I even intended to be in it — half-there, half-realized, presented in a nonverbal way."
McNeil also trains readers in a more meta-narrative visual code. Each story involves a different set of sometimes-overlapping characters; when characters from older stories recur, they do so as what McNeil calls "face cards." It's like a musical motif returning in an opera: a signal to the audience.
"When you present that face card again, you know what that person stands for," she says. "You know what they mean, you know their major themes, so when that card is played you know some of the things that are coming."
Now, she's working on books for Dark Horse that will finally turn Jaeger into a "face card." There has been much speculation among readers about his backstory, informed by visual hints: is Jaeger really an outlaw genetic construct? Is Lynne, his old girlfriend's daughter, actually Jaeger's kid — since the two look so much alike?
I ask McNeil if she's nervous about finally pinning him down. "You can't not be nervous about presenting the possibility that you might actually be done with a character that's been very important to you," she says.
But she's going to tell his story all the same.
"I cannot promise I will answer all questions, but I will answer many," she says. "Since it's me, I'll probably raise a hundred more and people will be screaming."
To read the full transcript of S.I. Rosenbaum's interview with Carla Speed McNeil, continue to the next page. Warming: containers spoilers and nerdery.