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.

(Geoff King, Mapping Reality – an Exploration of Cultural Cartographies - via Dylan Horrocks)

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’s terribly 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.

Finding a Finder part 2 – Ghost Stories

Finding a Finder part 3 – No Roads Lead Home

13 Responses to “Sex/Violence/Other: Finding a Finder part 1”

  1. Jenk Says:

    If you’re discussing Le Guin and “aboriginal science fiction,” you should not omit Always Coming Home.

  2. Illogical Volume Says:

    I’m sure I would’ve mentioned it, Jenk, except that - whisper it, quietly, so no one hears – I’ve not actually read that one.

    Care to educate me?

  3. Jonathan Burns Says:

    Impressive! This has all the literary values of good science fiction. Horace Gold or Anthony Boucher would have snapped this up for Galaxy or Fantasy and Science Fiction in the day.

    There’s even something of Cordwainer Smith about it. Is this bug a gizmo? Are we edible? Who do we use, who uses us?

  4. plok Says:

    Always Coming Home is a tricky one, I think…I was angry at it at the time, but I’ve got a real fondness for it now, and while parts of it are painfully prescriptive other parts are kinda luminously insightful. It’s your basic late Eighties (?) post-apocalyptic “tribal society” utopian-worldbuilding anthropological SF, something LeGuin was doing astonishingly well in short story form still at this point (or maybe I’m out by a few years?), but this one’s…flawed, maybe, in that the history and geography are unintelligible by the usual standards of this kind of story? But maybe that makes it better, I’m still not sure. I almost want to say it’s Ursula LeGuin doing Planet Of The Apes, for some reason…but I guess it’s more like…

    Otherness is Othered, or something?

    You never find out about anything, really, although you totally expect to. In a way it’s like playing, I dunno, Zelda or something. Languid atemporal post-feminist anthropological Zelda.

    Okay, I’m old.

    It’s definitely like nothing else, though. The world she builds doesn’t connect to our world in a way like, huh, even in a way like…I’ll go real weird and say it doesn’t connect with expectations even as much as Shardik…if that makes any s…

    Oh God, I’m so old.

  5. clever sobriquet Says:

    Since I stumbled across Finder earlier this year, I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen about how I think it’s the best comic I’ve read to date. I really like the dissonance between what we’re shown as readers (which is quite a lot) and the sense of how much else is out there not shown (perhaps not possible to show? I don’t know).

    There’s no sense to me of a writer simply throwing in cool objects, favorite characters and icons, trusting that their affection alone for the above will be cohesion enough. Nor is there a sense of the meticulously crafted world documented down to the finest detail, if only in author’s notes not intended for public eye. And yet, the gap suggests a whole that seems organic, as though there’s an indeterminate holography between the two that echoes our (my) sense of the hermeneutics of discovery of how worlds work.

  6. rev'D Says:

    ‘The Rescuers’ is cash.

    witty nick: “There’s no sense to me of a writer simply throwing in cool objects, characters & ikons…”

    Well, there is, a bit, but I rather adore how Carla uses collage to populate & decorate her mental universe. Just because I recognize the majority of her visual references without resorting to footnotes doesn’t mean the intent behind her work’s any less pure… But for a lot of folx– the type who trainspot cleverness on their webready phones 24/7, say –that density & layering constitutes a drawback. These are the same people who find it difficult to appreciate, say, William Gibson, Tarantino, or retired Scots ravers-turned-writers.

  7. rev'D Says:

    Anyway, heartened to see CSM receiving appreciation here. She’s well overdue.

  8. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Aggregator aggravator Says:

    [...] Finder, one by Matthew J. Brady, the other by some guy who’s going around calling himself Illogical Volume. Both of them are well worth your time, as is McNeil’s [...]

  9. Illogical Volume Says:

    Jonathan – Thanks mate, feel free to use this gizmo any way you like!

    Plok – Ah, see now you’ve gone and made me really want to read that book, which either says a lot about your descriptive powers or about my fucked up tastes.


    rev’d – Yeah, at this point my feeling is that ALL of Finder is cash, but you’re right that Carl Speed McNeil was overdue an appreciation here and elsewhere.

    Hopefully I’ll be able to do something to redress that in my next two posts.

    Speaking of which, I should probably go finish writing them!

  10. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Ghost Stories: Finding a Finder part 2 Says:

    [...] tape it back together and make it presentable, letting your own crappy handiwork overpower whatever world-building ambitions Tolkien might have had in mind. This was your first taste of your own power over books, and maybe [...]

  11. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » No Roads Lead Home: Finding a Finder part 3 Says:

    [...] away. I really shouldn’t have worried that it was going to be too straightforward, after my previous experiences with the book, but what can I say – I’m nothing if not overly [...]

  12. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » The 3 Bawbags of Xmas-yet-to-come present: Tue Massacre: Beyond the New 52! (featuring Mister Attack) Says:

    [...] I think I’ve already written enough about Finder recently to excuse myself from going into too much detail here, but there’s definitely plenty more to say about it.  2011 has been a good year for Finder, [...]

  13. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Dicebox: review Says:

    [...] ambulatory, a meander; to reiterate – the subtitle is wholly accurate. In fact, as Carla Speed McNeil puts it (whose Finder I, not having read, can only imagine – perhaps incorrectly [...]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.