McNeil Talks "Finder" at Dark Horse

The Eisner and Ignatz Award-winning series "Finder" is set to make its major label debut next month with the publication of "Finder: Voice," the first in a rapid succession of collections and new stories arriving from Dark Horse. Carla Speed McNeil, who has self-published the highly-praised "aboriginal Sci-Fi" comic since the late 1990s -- first as single-issue print comics, then on the web -- will also continue the adventures of Jaeger, the Grosvenor girls and the rest of the title's eclectic characters in the pages of "Dark Horse Presents" beginning in April. In between, readers can catch up with these characters' earliest adventures in "Finder Library" volume 1 in March. CBR News spoke with McNeil about the world she's built, moving to a new publisher, maintaining the web series and what's next for Jaeger.

Though she's been writing and illustrating the series for more than a decade, McNeil confesses she's never been good at saying what exactly "Finder" is and hopes Dark Horse can do a better job of it. "The phrase I use at conventions is 'aboriginal SF,' which is an old term that basically meant planet-side encounters with weird alien cultures, as opposed to rocket ships and ray guns -- it's just that a lot of my weird alien cultures are human. A writer friend of mine suggested I start calling it 'technological fantasy,' because, although there's a great deal of science in it, the stories don't revolve around science. I'm thinking about that one, because certainly fantasy is easier to sell these days than science fiction. But Warren Ellis would get mad at me if I called it fantasy."

Whatever the label, McNeil has built a vast and complex world populated by societies and castes different from but comparable to our own. Set largely in the domed city of Anvard in a far-future world, "Finder" centers on the adventures of Jaeger, a nomad who divides his time between the city and the depopulated world outside, and the women of the Grosvenor family. Jaeger is the Finder of the title, a skilled hunter-tracker, and also a "Sin Eater," or ritual scapegoat. Emma Lockhart, wife of Jaeger's mentally unstable former sergeant Brigham Grosvenor, has undergone a tumultuous life since her wedding day due to the social impropriety of their marriage. Of their three daughters, the middle child, Lynne, is biologically male but has been raised as a girl, in accordance with Emma's clan's traditions but not Brigham's. From these characters, their relationships, and environs, McNeil explores the rest of Anvard, a city dominated by aristocratic families and introduces a host of enigmatic denizens, many of whom are something other than human.

The first Dark Horse edition, "Finder: Voice," collects a story that originally ran on McNeil's website. The book follows Rachel Grosvenor, the oldest of Emma's daughters, trying to make her way and struggling for acceptance in her mother's clan; Rachel's story continues in "Torch," which is now online, though the series has been dormant for some time. "The web series will be picking back up," McNeil confirmed. "I had to cram basically a year and a half's worth of work into about ten weeks, and my brain exploded and I simply could not keep up the web comic as well." That ten weeks, the cartoonist told CBR, largely involved inking 200 pages of "Voice." While "Torch" will complete its run online and receive a collected edition in 2012, McNeil said, "I think it is going to need major surgery. When it appears in print it will probably be quite different."

With the web series set to return, CBR asked McNeil whether this meant that the "Dark Horse Presents" strips, which begin in April with the anthology's relaunch, would revolve around "Finder's" ongoing heroes or whether they would explore side-stories and other characters within this universe. "Oh no, straight ahead. My main character from 'Finder' needs to get a job," McNeil laughed. "Jaeger gets a job! Woo hoo! It starts with him, and I'm going to try to grapple with all the backstory I never got around to telling. That's what the next few books that will be coming out from Dark Horse are supposed to do, so I'm going to start with him.

"I've never really gotten into what his everyday life is like, and considering that when he's outside being all Crocodile Dundee, he's basically a hunter-gatherer-warrior, when he comes into town, how do those skills translate to town life? Well, they don't. He's a criminal, he's a gangster. Doesn't particularly like it, and so it's time to [Singing] sha nana na, shananana get a job. So he gets a job."

McNeil told CBR that Jaeger's new job will put him in the role of courier. "Get this from point A to point B, which is basically what a Finder is -- locate this mysterious or difficult-to-find thing, get it into the right hands," she said. "I think it's going to turn out to be better than he expected, because he will still be doing what he was trained to do since childhood. It'll be good as a storytelling device for me because I can send him all over town, to the most unlikely settings basically just to be the FedEx man."

The "Dark Horse Presents" strip, subtitled "Third World," will make up the first half of 2012's "Finder" volume, which will also include the revised "Torch" storyline. McNeil described the short "DHP" stories, which will be in color, as "the jumping-on point to find out how this world is constructed and what's going on," and said that it will begin to explore the actual history and workings of the city. As longtime readers know, the technology that built Anvard has long been lost to the mists of time -- one of many remnants of a mysterious and long pre-history -- and the dome has begun to crumble. While occasional references to present-day pop culture and recognizable modern devices show up in the series, often without the characters properly understanding them, McNeil said that society's reaction to technology in "Finder" is not unlike our own.

"Most of us, I would say, don't have a clue how most of the things we consider everyday objects work. If you asked 10 people off the street why a lightbulb lights up when you flip the switch, they wouldn't be able to tell you," McNeil said. "They'd be able to tell you that electricity flows from point A to point B, it goes into the lightbulb and the lightbulb mysteriously lights up, but that's as far as they'd get. Somebody could probably tell you that when the filament breaks it won't work anymore, it just goes jingle jingle, but that's as far as they'd get. They don't know. Ask them to explain why their touchscreen phone works when they touch it, they don't know. Most of us don't know. It's technology, but most of us know so little about the things we interact with on a daily basis that we relate to it as fantasy. If you pull the wand out of your pocket and go 'squiddley-doo' and made a cheese sandwich appear, how is that different than getting it out of a microwave? You put it together, you heat it up in the microwave, but most people don't get that, either.

"All I've done is make the technology that they're interacting with a whole lot more complicated, in some cases. Some things are very familiar, they can get a cheap, throwaway cell phone out of a vending machine, but you can do that in Japan, too," she continued. "When I start to get into it, the reasons that the things they take for granted work are going to have underpinnings that are very strange. The city that most of the action will take place in is a stacked, multi-tiered city that is only physically possible because it is built inside of a theoretically indestructible dome, with an unbreakable latticework in the middle. Or, if not unbreakable, then certainly strong enough to risk putting building on top of building for ten or twenty levels, enormous things. Things that would make you feel like you're walking down a city street, not down a narrow little tunnel. That's what it is, it is a tunnel. Nobody who lives in the city right now has any idea who built it. They assume it was built with lost technology and that's all anybody needs to know. Where it came from, who built it, how much stress it really can take and under what circumstances, these are all things that people are going to have to find out. The really demented thing is, most of the population still won't care. We live in an age of miracles and nobody cares. That's the thing that's so amazing."

The fact that the dome is falling apart may have repercussions not only for Anvard's architecture, but also for the social order of the city. "It certainly affects the way you build, because the further up you go, that's where the rich people live," McNeil said, also touching on the bourgeoisie's attitude toward the world outside, to which they are in danger of being exposed. "They have a rather odd attitude toward what they consider 'radiation' -- because they live protected by this dome most of the time, which transmits light to the interior but isn't actually transparent, it filters out what it is set to consider harmful. So if you go on the outside and get a tan or a sunburn or break out in freckles, oh my god, you've got radiation poisoning! Because it's something they're not used to. They need sunlight for vitamin D production and whatnot, but they don't really understand what life on the outside is like," McNeil said. "Where the dome came from and who built it are going to be crucial questions that I hope tie things together in a very satisfying manner. But we'll see. I've spent the last six or seven years trying to figure out how to put together a plot-based storyline as opposed to a character-driven storyline, and we'll just have to see how well I do."

In crafting the world of "Finder," McNeil said that she began with a sense of how this universe worked and the rules that govern it, but has shifted her understanding as new stories are told. "It's kind of like the difference between having a road map to Tucson and actually driving there: you are going to have a lot of adventures along the way," she said. "That's kind of the fun part, really. If you make a structure at the beginning, and finding the little contradictory things, or things that seem to be contradictory-are they really? Or do they reveal something new? You can't flip out over every little thing that seems inconsistent, because there may be a way to make it consistent.

"That's the fun for a worldbuilder, and lots of little things do that with just the characters, as well," she continued. "For instance, the family that people will meet when they read the first book, 'Sin Eater,' was originally just supposed to be a mom and three daughters. I knew what I wanted to do with the youngest daughter, I knew what I wanted to do with the older one; the middle kid was just the middle kid, and anybody who's ever been a middle kid will roll their eyes at that because they know what it's like. Just a kind of a pissy, bitter kid. When I had envisioned the parents, suddenly, the way I had constructed their weird family alliances, their clans, suddenly made it perfectly sensible for me to have her actually be a boy, [but who was] raised as a girl because that's the way all kids are raised in mom's family and she wouldn't think anything of it. This would naturally put her in direct and nasty conflict with dad, who probably didn't even realize he had a son until she was two or three years old."

McNeil has been publishing "Finder" in print and online since 1996, usually releasing an annual collected edition for convention season. Asked about her decision to bring her series to Dark Horse, McNeil said the self-publishing experience was rewarding but that working with a publisher has benefits. "I rocketed along doing pretty well, taking care of myself, and I do think it's important for anybody getting into this business to experience the business side of things. To get to know the distributor people, to get to know how shipping works, to understand the inner workings. If all you know is what you want to know -- that is, sticking your nose over your computer or your drafting table -- then if things go wrong, it's very easy to just not understand, to blame the publisher, because obviously it's their fault. Whereas if it's you with all the pressure on you, there are a lot of things you change about what you do. An apprentice as a self-publisher I think is good for everyone," she explained. "However, as I said before, marketing has always been my short suit. I am not very good at it. I can get to conventions and get people to buy things by hand-selling, but I've never been able to muster a real marketing campaign. I'm lousy with computers, I've never had much of a budget for doing anything really creative to get the word out.

"It's just time. Because I've leveled out, I've been flat for years and if I wanted to step it up in any kind of way, I had to let somebody else do it who's better at the thing that I was bad at."

In addition to publishing new "Finder" stories and collecting "Voice" for the first time, Dark Horse will also be releasing omnibus editions of McNeil's stories to date under the title, "Finder Library." Volume 1, measuring 616 pages and collecting the arcs "Sin Eater," "King of Cats," and "Talisman," is in stores March 16. The artist said there would be no new or bonus material in the Dark Horse editions, but "the footnotes will actually match with the page numbers." "It's just going to be a nice, compact omnibus that people can read in the bathtub, have it all in one lump, a big chunk."

"Finder: Voice" is on sale from Dark Horse February 16, 2011.

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