Having entered her “Spotlight” panel on Saturday at Comic-Con International in San Diego with a cheery “Hello” followed by proclaiming a dislike for microphones, Carla Speed McNiel, writer and illustrator, opened the panel by discussing the fact that her self-published science fiction graphic novel “Finder” – a science fiction graphic novel who’s protagonist, “Jaeger”, lives in a world where overpopulated domed cities are surrounded human and non-human hunter-gatherers and he makes a living as a nearly invulnerable fighter/killer for hire – is to now be published by Dark Horse.
“I’ve been going to the Portland show, Stumptown, for quite some time. That’s [Dark Horse Comics’] home base so I had started to get to know a couple of the editors and other folks in charge. I hadn’t met himself ( the Dark Horse Editor) before I signed up but he is gratifyingly excited. Serious working professionals have a very good opinion of Dark Horse and so does my agent. So right now everybody’s happy, we’ll see it may be a very good home for me. If not I’ll go somewhere else. ”
Asked what the publication date for her next story was, McNeil answered, “The next story you haven’t seen, unless you’ve been it following online, and if so you have, God bless you, is coming out in January. The content of the first four paperbacks is also coming out in a big whoppin’ omnibus at the same time, and then in the fall, the other four books in another big, wham, wham thump! From there, should be a new book annually, just as there was in the past, but they will be all sparkly and nice. Also, “Dark Horse Presents” is being revived. I am not sure when the production schedule kicks in for that, but it will contain 8-page color “Finder” stories. Jenn Manley Lee, the lovely lady who does “Dice Box,” will be doing the color. She will do it exactly as I would do it if I was able to do it.”
Attendance was sparse, but the audience was peppered with thoughtful and devoted fans to whom McNiel announced “I’ve nothing to lecture you all about, so I thought I’d just make it a Q & A. I have strong views on character building, world creation and character design and what not and am pretty much up for anything.”
One fan was interested in how much “science” was in her science fiction, stating, “I guess I’m sort of interested in where the line between science and science fiction breaks with rules of science and reality.”
Laughing, McNiel answered, “Most of us don’t know the rules of science. Most of us are not actual scientists, I hate to burst the bubble.”
The young man persisted, responding, ” But I know you’re breaking rules. We know people can’t fly. Do you say to yourself, ‘Well, I know that can’t happen in the real world, but I need it to happen to fit the story.’ What do you do?”
In reply McNiel said, ” Well, I generally follow the rule of cool – if something is exciting to you as a story element, it doesn’t matter if its about a person’s relationship or their job prospects. It’s not different. Whether or not a layered dome city, which is what I have in “Finder,” is impractical [doesn’t matter]. It’s whether or not it seems like it makes for something cool in the story. Something that gives you an emotional aspect to the environment that people are living in. It took me a quite a long time to realize that super-heroes are not actually science fiction. From the time I was eeny-weeny, I thought they were, because they used ‘sciency’ sort of terms. It wasn’t until I saw the first Spider-Man movie and having come back out having had a good time and never having liked Spider-Man to begin with, but I enjoyed it and it occurred to me, “It’s a personal fantasy narrative that’s been smacked on the head with a science stick till it sounds ‘sciency,’ but in fact isn’t.
“Basically, almost all stories that are not hard SF have that core in them that you are taking, well one hopes, the emotional realities of a situation, and you’re sort of embroidering them with scientific fact,” McNeil continued. “It’s not until you get to the works of actual scientists, your Asimov, your Clark and so on, that they are able to start from a scientific premise and then populate it with characters. I don’t have enough of a background to do that. I have tried to work from a premise and then stick characters into it, but it, and inevitably what I’m good at is, say, character study, suffers. I cannot balance it as well as, for example, Clark or perhaps Heinlein did, though Heinlein is more of a person and less of a scientist. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, just, that’s his focus. I tend to think there isn’t much of a line between fantasy and science fiction in the same way. Just that fantasy, when its done right, is still speculative fiction. It’s simply that it derives from the softer social sciences – anthropology, archeaology that sort of thing – as opposed to deriving from the hard sciences, the things in which math actually matters. I tend to think of superheroes as a subset of fantasy rather than a subset of science fiction, and my work isn’t qualitatively different on that score. There are more things that reveal themselves as good possibilities as I plow through pop science books. I say to myself, ‘Oh, wow, that’s cool! Lets have some air handlers, because the dome is mostly closed.’ The dome is closed, but it does all kinds of things. You just go on that way, and its a balancing act making it seem like I know absolutely every little detail of my world, which of course I do not, having never been there. If you can keep the plates in the air, then it seems as if you do and leaves you, the reader, and me, the writer, because I have to inhabit it, to tell what you guys might get out of it. It leaves us with the feeling that it’s a real world. Which is the name of the game.”
Moving to the next fan, a young lady asked, ” In your creation process, do you create as you go or do you plot everything out?”
Responding, McNeil said, “There are many different ways into a story. Sometimes it’s just an oddball quality of a particular character. Sometimes it’s an actual premise. It always comes from, ‘Hey, what if?’ Everybody walking down the sidewalk today has enough ideas to keep any writer busy until doomsday. Its just a question developing in your mind the process that allows you spin an idea ‘Hey, what if’ into a story. It’s not always easy.”
Another gentleman was curious about other projects asking ” As much as you love “Finder,” do you ever feel you should put it aside and doing something else?”
“That was the original intention when I started it up but bear in mind, in ’96 when I started ‘Finder,’ ‘Cerebus’ was still going strong and wasn’t completely insane,” McNeil said. “It hadn’t gone all Mel Gibson on us yet and it seemed as if the wisest thing, both economically and creatively, was to create a home for myself that all my work could go into. And that whatever I did on the side should be incorporated into the ‘Finder’ world in some way, shape or form. So the idea was to create a world in which I could tell any story I wanted. But as time has gone by, I’ve come to actually realize its not going to kill me to step away from that world and do something entirely new. Let me now tell you the tale of TCAF (the Toronto Comic Arts Festival). I went there last year. I got there a day early, because I completely mistook the days of the show, and so I spent the entire day wandering up and down Bloor Street and writing. I hatched out an entirely new story that has nothing to do with ‘Finder,’ either philosphically or in terms of its design. I would love to go back that. Many days when I’m working on ‘Finder’ and feeling kind of tired, I work on that for a while. Its titled ‘Onera Dora,’ and it’s actual, honest to God fantasy romance. Considering how off beat romances have to be to appeal to me, I think it will be bent enough to amuse all of you who like the book I’m doing now. I won’t get around it for quite some time. But, again, you never know.”