August 23rd, 2011
Being: the first of three posts about Carla Speed McNeil’s “aboriginal science fiction” series Finder…
Reading one of Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder comics is like wandering through a strange new city without a reliable guide. Or a map, for that matter, but maybe that’s better in the end. After all, sometimes maps can cause a different sort of trouble:
A map can organize the world according to almost any principle of order…. All classificatory grids are arbitrary. They have no necessary or absolute status. It does not matter what kind of grid is used on the map. Any system of lines or points of reference can be imposed to provide orientation, although different mappings may serve very different interests…. For those who inhabit particular mappings, they are likely to be viewed simply as reality.
Forget maps for a minute. Let’s stick our head in there and see what we see…
Ah, well, as far as broad statements of intent go, that one’s as good a starting place as any for this post. You see, unlike that other master of anthropological science fiction, Ursula Le Guin, McNeil doesn’t pretend to build up her world up systematically in front of your eyes. Instead, find yourself discovering information about the cultures in Finder almost accidentally, by watching the characters interact and keeping your eye on some of the key sights. No wonder Kelly Sue DeConnick compared the book to a shotgun blast! Still, I’ll stick with my ‘strange city’ analogy, if only because of the comic’s pace. Freshly re-released as part of this collected edition, Finder: Sin Eater is a brilliant, wandering introduction to a truly great comic book. It’s a twisted mess of a story, with family ties, military ties and cultural boundaries revealing themselves at a leisurely pace, all the better to fully appreciate the damaged contexts the cast of characters live in. McNeil’s art becomes more and less abstract as the story dictates, sometimes suggesting an expressionistic hybrid of Western alt-comics and manga tropes, at other points snapping into “realistic” focus to give us a better look at the thoroughly singular world she’s created.
What saves Finder from the most obvious pitfall of world-building fantasy is exactly this fascination with the demands character and story. While their methods may differ, both Le Guin and McNeil understand that the essential otherness that is at the heart of their imaginings is also the raw material of drama. Le Guin’s great novels (The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, Lavinia) draw grand personal conflicts out of the clashes between cultures or societies; McNeil’s stories are driven by more grounded concerns, but her depictions of family interactions in Sin Eater have the same elliptical vitality as her most bizarre imaginings.
There are passages in Sin Eater that show me just how lazy a reader most comics expect me to be. While McNeil is capable of broad cartooning, she’s also happy to let subtle body language and bare bones dialogue suggest the bigger picture. So, for example, a character will tell another character that they can ask “One question” without much in the way of an obvious build-up, and you’re expected to infer the connection. It’s a simple enough scene to parse, but most comics tend to signpost such conversational twists in a really clumsy way, so it’s refreshing to be jolted out of your complacency, to have to deal with the strangeness of simple conversation.
And if you think that this is evidence of a lack of imaginative follow-through, there are also copious notes at the back of the book that show just how much thought McNeil has put into every detail of her work. Of course, you could argue that there are times where more of this should have made it into the story, but I would argue that Finder’s strength lies in the way it suggests that the “real” territory here isn’t completely layed out either on the pages of the comic or in the end notes. What McNeil presents us with are two incomplete, but overlapping maps – you might sometimes feel like you’re being presented with too much information, but this sensory overload is accompanied by the knowledge that there’s still far too much that you don’t know too.
McNeil’s not the first comic book creator to play with this technique, of course – Alan Moore is awful fond of it, and the annotations at the back of From Hell are a great example – but it’s an essential part of her style now, and thinking about it makes me think of… uh, Dylan Horrocks writing about Scott McCloud:
In fact, what Scott seeks is not the eradication of borders altogether; on the contrary, he simply wants to expand our own borders – to claim more space. He begins by announcing where he will locate the comics homeland, by recalling Will Eisner’s definition of comics as ‘Sequential Art.’ The ‘form Vs. content’ metaphor is invoked as a justification: previous maps of comics, he argues, have been based on ‘style, quality or subject matter.’ Not surprisingly, these maps have confined comics to a few small plots of poor land. Defining our territory by ‘form,’ however, should produce quite a different map – especially with ‘Sequential Art’ as its determining factor.
Next he goes on to ‘expand [Sequential Art] to a proper dictionary-style definition.’ He does this by progressively excluding various things which are (in his opinion) ‘clearly not comics:’ animation, text-only works, single-panel cartoons. Having mapped out his borders, Scott then turns to survey the territory he has claimed.
Of course, as Horrocks goes on to note McCloud’s new map excludes as much as it annexes, which is partly why I wouldn’t want to write-off McNeil’s strange hybrid of drama and Borgesian academia, comics and prose. You might not always know what to make of it, but confusion can be good for you. Like I said above, otherness is the stuff of grand political drama, but it’s also essential to the passions and the tantrums our day-to-day lives. Without any knowledge of who we aren’t, we’d have a hard time contextualising who we are, so sometimes it’s good to find yourself questioning fundamentals – to allow yourself to understand how warped your idea of the beaten path is. And if this exploration of difference can lead to love, or humour, or surprise then it can also lead to violence, bigotry and misunderstanding. It’s this fact that smart writers of anthropological fiction explore, and it’s this sense of exploration that makes a book like Finder: Sin Eater worthwhile… that makes it more than just fictive cartography.
This essay was originally published on my old blog, Vibrational Match.