The full transcript of S.I. Rosenbaum's interview with McNeil
So Dark Horse has come out with a Finder collection, and there'll be another one in the fall. Meanwhile it's also publishing each story as you finish it. But you're also doing short Finder comics in Dark Horse Presents, right?
The Dark Horse Presents stories are loads of fun because I finally got around to telling that story that's really just about Jaeger, not him doing something with someone else that's more important, but just him. He got a job! Heh-ha!
Are you talking about Jaeger's backstory?
Why things is the way they is.
I cannot promise I will answer all questions, but I will answer many. Since it's me, I'll probably raise a hundred more and people will be screaming, but just the same, that's what I like, so that's what you get!
You've talked about Jaeger as someone who's been around for a really long time in your head. How long is a long time?
Oh, since I was a kid. He was not the same character that he is on the page; but the core whch created the character you see on the page is something that's been building in the back of my head in some weird Jungian fashion since I was four, at least. Input from a number of people in my life — my brother, my father, my mother, some other friends — a particular mindset, a sort of miniature zeitgeist. The same core created Lynne, so compare those two and see what you've got in common and that's about it. They are very, very very self-willed people, very 'I'm going to go out and do it,' very, 'If it's broken, fix it, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, if you can't break it you don't need to fix it,' that kind of thing. 'Give it a whack every once in a while to see if it comes apart.' Just very oddly hands-on kind of people. They are funny creatures. They don't settle down easily, and once they do, they leave quite a footprint.
What's your earliest memory of Jaeger?
Um ... that werewolf-y thing in Talisman in Marcie's fantasy, is pretty much what he was like when I was small — so when I show Marcie palling around with this thing that goes from being much more human at certain parts of the month and much less human at certain parts, that's a more literal interpretation of how he shifted and slid and changed shape when I was young. And when I didn't mind having ninjas fight Mr. Potato head, that kind of thing.
You mind now? No, not particularly, but it's different. Nobody can do what they could do when they were eight. Except maybe Roald Dahl, and he's dead.
When you started producing stories about Jaeger for other peoples' consumption, what was that like?
He had to narrow down and become more of a person and less of an icon for me. He had to have a backstory, for one thing, where of course he never did, before. He had to have his own story, whereas he was just he was like a tiny little self-created deity, a spirit. He had to become a person. And honestly when I was finishing that Sin Eater, that first 14-issue run, I began to have nightmares, honestly, because I had to define things about him and I had never defined them before. And I had nightmares about him — let's see, one of them was 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. Stuff like that. A more literal image of a crystalized identity i coudlnt come up with on my own, frankly. But the dream supplied it for me. It was strange. Once I realized that Jaeger is really one expression of that core, it was easier for me to say, 'Ok, he will be a better character if he is not always mysterious. And eventually he will have to pay off. He will have to have a good enough story of his own to work as a person, not just as an iconographic figure. And there are little inklings of that same core in other characters. Marcie's got a little bit of it herself, though she's not really a whole representation of it, she would have to be a very different person. And Rachel has a little bit of it by acquisition, not by nature. Honestly, that's why I made that monster character in Dream Sequence. If I ever get around to telling the story that follows Dream Sequence, I've always toyed with the idea of bringing Marcie and Magri back into a story together. Basically that story would be dealing a lot with the aftermath of Magri's nervous breakdown, because basically a number of people who were trapped in his head now have little fragments of that monster in their heads. And some of them will do very well, with that thing driving them. And some of them will not, some of them will do terribly badly, some of them will die because of it. But others will do things they never dreamed of doing.
Mental illness as meme.
I hope you do that eventually.
Me too. It would mainly be a story about Marcie, the next step in the whole ruination on creativity that she represents.
I was just rereading Dream Sequence and before that I was rereading Sin Eater, Vol 1.
It was amazing how quickly your art becomes your art. Within two issues it's recognizable as your particular style.
I can see why some art teachers prefer to teach freshman classes, though. Any kind of instrucion creates dramatic differences for some people, and all of a sudden you get the pleasure of watching someone develop very quickly if you watch someone start at the beginning. I've seenthat evolution in a lot of creators and it's always kind of cool to go and look at the call backs.
It seems like you hit your stride really quickly.
Well, I hope so. I know I'm making a lot of changes to what I do now. I'm killing myself on Dark Horse Presents to show the life on the streets that I could never be arsed to draw before. I've never been as good at rectilinear things as I was with people, most people are only good at one or the other; and I'm trying now to draw the streets as they've always been in my head. Some are pretty, some are not, and all the ups and downs and byways of this place that I've envisioned.
Someone told me Jason Lutes forced himself to draw just buildings for a year.
Ha! Yeah, a year is about what it took when I was a teenager and set out to learn to draw people, so a year will probably be what it will takes. Just straight lines and right angles won't do it; You know, Donna Barr manages to draw fighter planes with enormous character.
Donna Barr is insane, though.
Well, yes, she's quite mad, but she's a wonderful, wonderful creator, and she's always given the impression that everything that she draws has a character and is a character and it shows.
The thing that's changed more than your art, is your writing, though.
Oh, yeah. I was always relatively confident that the art would get better. But I knew I did not know one thing about how to write a story — I mean, not one thing. And I just said, well, you know, Stupid, you've got fifteen sketchbooks and you've learned a few things about art from doing sketchbooks, you just have to start. So I just started.
What do you mean, you didn't know anything about writing?
I didn't! I'd read books since I was a teeny tiny kid, but I'd never taken a creative writing class, and I'd never sat down to write anything. Which is why, when people come to me now and speak as though it was a done deal that eventually i'll write one prose novel, I SQUIRRRRM. I don't know how to write prose! I really do not! I mean, I'm not even a blogger! I can't think that way. I can talk, sure, I can sit and talk your ear off, but I can not sit down in front of a screen and compose a logically argued statement, or present a scene, in prose. I can't. My brain automatically clicks to the panel: what is the seminal image of this scene and how many panels will I need to get that across.
How do you write the comics then, in thumbnail?
I write screeds of dialog with lots of messy notes on the side. The dialog comes first for me — well, really the outline comes first, which is basically you road map to go from New York to San Francisco, what cities do you want to hit on the way, what landmarks do you want to see. Then I sit down and start screeding out what people will say. For me, the magic is in the spoken words. But I can't describe anything in prose, it's really ridiculous. I'm tonguetied. It's the ultimate blank page for me. You can sit me down with a whole ream of cruddy bond paper and ask me to draw a comic for you, and I will draw it, but if you ask me to stick the same ream of paper into a typewriter and write the same story, I cannot do it. So I sit down and work my work through dialog and I make notes as to where the big dun dun duns are and what should be emphasized: you need to see this, you need to see that; these are the important visuals here, and this is the part that should be told silently. At that point, I work it out all visually. The grammar of the page predicates where any given character is, and how much of them are seen, and when you back up and get to see what they're doing or what they're wearing or what kind of physical condition they're in. And of course, there is an oblique quality to presenting things visually that allows people to enter into a story in the same kind of way although I'm sure with a different part of brain than when you get to that point in a story where the page opens up and you fall in. A good prose writer doesn't jolt the reader back out of the story, with a bad paragraph. And a good comix author-artist-whatever you want to call it gives people enough of what they need to see that their imagineatiosn are working double time to to fill in the stuff that actually isn't there. And I can do that with visuals, but I can't do it with prose.
This is what Scott McCloud called "closure," and I've always wished he'd gone into that idea more, because it's not just the space between the panels that do closure, it's also the space between what's shown in the story telling. As a prose writer, that is THE hardest thing, to figure out just how big that gutter can be. You have leave it big enough for the magic to happen, but not so big that people don't know what actually happens in your story.
People have has asked me, must be a hundred times since I signed the deal with Dark Horse, 'Ooh, what about that EDITOR that you have to have now? Is that going to be OKAY?' You know, as if I'm somehow going to be poisoned in my sleep by someone else's JUDGEMENT. I'm like, 'Look, the editor I have is wonderful, because she gets paid to do what I used to pester some of my friends to do, which is to read my stuff and tell me whether it's coming across or not.' That's what a good editor DOES. Yes, an editor can sometimes skin your cat for you, and say 'Well what I really wanted was a kangaroo,' and you'll have to say, 'Look, this is a CAT,' and insist upon it being a cat. But that's ok. You can always work with that stuff. And it's absolutely necessary to have someone who can tell you what they see. That's not every person is able to articulate what they're getting out of a story and where they were expecting it to go and whether they were pleasantly surprised when it went a different way. It's crucial.
That's worth its weight in gold.
Iwanted to ask — Sin Eater Vol. 1. I find it impossible to figure out what happens without the footnotes.
I'm sorry. I told you I didn't know what I was doing! I got better!
See, all this time, I've wondered whether this was some mind-bogglingly amazing experiment with narrative.
... That would imply that I actually knew what I was doing! Which, yes totally I did and I am totally brilliant and a genius and it's up to you to figure out what happened because obviously you're not following my lead ...
The two big points are Lynne bugging Jaeger's boot, and Jaeger setting up the fake apartment.That's something I just wouldn't have got.
See, what was going on back then was, I didn't even have an outline — I didn't have a single clue where I was going. If you go back and look at the first issue, you'll see that Jaeger goes and sees about six different groups of people, or nodes. I didn't even know which group of people the story would revolve around until the second issue. DIDN'T HAVE A CLUE. I had a foot-high stack of paper with detailed histories and genealogies and blah blah blah, and at the end of a year's time I kicked that stack over in disgust and said 'All right, I'm never going to get anywhere with this, nobody wants to read a stack of stats who's not a gamer, and I have to have a story. I'm just going to pluck out all the characters who are in the same place at the same time and the only one who connected them or who could have conceivably connected them was Jaeger. And he became the default main character ... Not until Marcie opened her mouth and said: 'That's what Daddy says, that he doesn't want us to be scared — but Mama says he does, really' — I didn't plan that line of dialog, I just did it. And not until that moment did I realize that the story needed to center around them, that they were the most fraught situation I had amongst the rest of the groups of people. None of whom I have gone back to, you may notice. But yeah, I had every intention of doing ALL those stories in a George R. R. Martin kind of a way, although I hadn't read his books by then. But once it became all about Emma and her kids, that was the only place for me to go and I cut it all from whole cloth there. So, every time I finished an issue, I said "Oh, thank god,' and 'Oh, wow, I gotta get started on the next one! What's going to happen next? I don't know! Get back out on stage, start dancing!" So that's what I did. So a number of things didn't have the right impact, didn't hit the brain quite the right way. People weren't aware of the fact that Lynne was aware of what was going on was because she bugged Jaeger; the fakey apartment was Jaeger's attempt to protect them, all that other stuff. A lot of things don't make sense, a lot of things don't quite work. And that's just the way it was gonna be, it was my first story. And it was a really big story.
I'm impressed with how brave you were to jump into this.
That was the only way I was gonna learn.
People who have been reading the comics and reading the footnotes have extra knowledge about the world of the comic. I'm trying to think of things I know about Anvard that I don't know from the comics pages — the number of fingers constructs are allowed to have, the meaning of Medawar women and their hair. But when I look at the pages you're posting on your site, people are filling each other in. The thing that's really amazing about Finder that I think I haven't seen done anywhere else. You made it so we can navigate the city the way we navigate cities: visually. Everyone does this when they navigate an urban landscape; we're constantly being bombarded by hairstyles and street signs and grafitti tags and all kinds of symbols both organic and corporate that are useful in figuring out where you are and who you're dealing with. In Anvard, if you've read the books and the footnotes, you can navigate this way without it being explicitly spelled out for you. It's something that can't be done in a prose book, without the author pointing out those details and telling you what they mean. But in comics you don't have to do that.
Right, because you're presenting the visual and the verbal at the same time.
So you become a native, you become a citizen. I think it allows you to give a lot of information about characters very quickly.
That's one of the things I've always liked about narrative art that isn't always easy to do — you can both present the work in such a way that people get it quickly, but it is still open to a great deal of imaginatvie interaction. You know? I mean, how many times have we fallen in love with the book and then listened to the artist open their mouth and start talking and they don't have anything to say about it, or they're not very interesting. Heaven knows I'm not actually the fount of knowledge, and I do like the fact that better minds than mine can engage in my work and see many more things in that than I had intended. I think that's the beauty of it, really. Just that the presentation of the information exists in this gnomic kind of way. In many ways, until you verbalize something it is not completely realized in your mind. But nonetheess it is still there and your mind is engaged in it at a certain level. I'm always interested in what people see, because 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. The stuff on the top is what I'm trying very hard to make sure gets across, and everything else is half there, half realized, presented in a nonverbal way.
You mean the themes of the book, or the actual visual information?
So we're going to figure out what Jaeger is. Are you nervous?
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. Certainly I wouldn't be done with every single character in the book. But once a character gets to the point where their story has been told, I think of them as having become a 'face card.' When you present that face card again, you know what that person stands for. 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. Like Marcie, for example, you know what she's about, what she's like, what tone she's going to bring to any given story. Same thing for a number of different characters whose stories are more or less told, but who if you throw them together might have something more to say.
I'm sure it won't be what we're expecting.
Well, I'm only impressed with a story if it takes me somewhere I didn't expect it to go. I'll read something for an interesting character or if im bored and I need to read something but not until a story really surprises me, or a character surprises me am I really engaged. I was never bothered with reading the middle book in a trilogy or coming in halfway through a movie because however well it was done, I knew what was going to happen anyway.
I used to start books half way through when I was a kid. Then if they were engaging enough I would go back to the beginning.
Yup, yup, yup.
Do you ever think you're going to do a story that doesn't take place in this world?
Oh yeah, I hatched one out that I have been embroidering on ever since TCAF four years ago. It was the first time I had a full-blown story, characters, world, outlined beginning-middle-end, boom, just popped out of an easter egg shell. Something out of a Neil Gamon short story — boom, there it is.
He's very good at that.
Yes he is. I never had that happen before. Everything else had been in my head since I was a little tiny kid, and just slowly simmered away and become its own thing over time. Sometimes little things would surprise me but it was never a whole thing, all of a piece. And I had an extra day before TCAF, because I'm a dummy and didn't calculate the right days to be there for the convention, so I had a whole extra day to wander up and down Toronto and buy things that I couldn't afford, and write things down in a notebook. Then I would furiously text my friends, 'Well, what do you think of this?' — on and on, and another little piece would slot itself into place, and I would write that down. And it's an entirely different world, different set-up. I suppose if I cut it to fit I could make it fit in Finder, but it doesn't make sense to do it, honestly. It's an entirely different scenario and one day I'll do it.
I look forward to it. Do you know everything there is to know about Anvard?
No. Never. It's a big enough place. Even a 50-year native doesn't know everything about New York. It is a big place. That's the old joke about how there are 'a million stories in the naked city,' and you just missed 999,999 of 'em. That's just the nature of things. I wanted to make a world that was big enough to encompass nearly anything. That I could tell any story I wanted to in that context, not that I couldn't leave that context but it would have a big enough ceiling that I could do just about anything I wanted — which is why the books range so much in subject matter. Because I wanted to do different things. I did that intentionally.
Do you know when it is?
Because I like post-apocalypse, but not the classic post-apocalypse, which is poking around toaster parts in the ruins, with everything still ticking hot, and trying to figure out how to put things back together. I grew up on Mad Max and The Twilight Zone and all that, and I love them dearly, but I think its more fun to move another 50 or 100 years after the big climax, to see how things have shaken out when people think things are normal again. When things are weird to our eyes but have become ordinary to the people that live there. There is no sense of catastrophe in the air. There's always some doom that has either just gone by or is looming.
Is it meant to be contiguous with us, time-wise?
That's a good answer.
Everybody's put things back together in a weird way, because that's what they have to go on. So things have been put together in a weird way which doesn't make sense, but works for the people that live there because that's what people do. You don't keep something that doesn't work.
So things that bleed through, like Paul Simon songs, are coming from the past and not the universe next door?
That's a plot point. It's not the universe next door, and it's coming through by a mechanism that people aren't aware of as normal.
Oh my god! This is gonna be fun.
I hope so. I never did the dig backstory, because I never knew enough about plot to create an overarching plot that would affect everyone. I would stick to the simple character-based stories, because you don't have to do anything irreparable if it only affects a couple of people. But if you're going to do a big backstory that either shows what happened to create X Y or Z, or what will happen to change A B and C, then you are affecting everyone or a lot of people.
I think that's been one of the unique things about Finder — the fate of the universe is never in balance. The fate of a universe may be in balance in a Dream Sequence, but there are no climactic battles between good and evil that anyone is getting caught up in; it's always 'Are you going to be happy?'
Yup. I mean, the world is always ending for somebody.
Do you think you're going to be writing Finder forever?
I dunno. I probably could. But you know, a world does have its ebb and flow. And if I take a break from Finder, it may stall Finder out to where people won't want it anymore. And I don't know if I want that yet, but I also don't want to let other worlds that could hatch out die just because I don't want to pull away from Finder either. So either I will produce a most enormous and improbable rabbit from the hat and be able to tie all things together, or I will move on. Either way, I think I'm learning, and will be able to give people something new in the future one way or another.
How much does it matter to you what people want?
What people want is lots of explosions and the occasional boob.
Do they really?
Well, certainly the majority of the pop-culture-consuming public do. If they didn't, it wouldn't keep selling. But there was a time when people didn't want parmesan cheese, either. When you show people what's good, many will learn to like it, even if they don't initially like it. Some do, some don't, some are won over, some aren't. I want to show people what I like and hope as many people as I can get to like it will get into it. But I'm willing to meet people half way, to show them why I like it, and what I find exciting about it. That, I understand and can move towards. Whether or not I'm going to write a story that, according to my market research, is exactly what people want — No, I'm not going to do that. It's pretty boring. I have read books like that, and I've attempted to work with books like that, and they're annoying as all hell. If they don't have the spark of excitement of the originator than they don't last. Even J.K. Rowling was talking about that — when kids would ask 'What made you write Harry?' she said she was sitting scribbling in a notebook at lunch between classes, and she came up with something that made the key turn in her head. We've all felt that, when you read something and you say 'My god, I want more.'