Finder: Volume One by Carla Speed McNeil
Even though your to-read stack of books is overflowing, even though your Amazon wish list is daunting, and even though you are starting to worry about running across another review of a book you’ve just got to read, I’m afraid you’ve found one more not merely to add to the list, but to put on the top of the stack of books—if you can resist the urge to buy the book immediately on Comixology, which isn’t a bad idea since it’s great to read with the guided view technology. The book is Finder by Carla Speed McNeil, and fans of intelligent independent comics have known about Finder and McNeil for years. They told me, as I will now tell you: Finder is one of the most interesting, intelligent, sophisticated works of SFF in all of comics, at the very least, if not in all of SFF in general. I know that’s a grand statement, but I’ll stand by it. I’ll even go so far as to say that if you haven’t read Watchmen, then you need to read Finder first. I even like it better than Saga. Unless you are looking for a light read every time you pick up a book, then you want to get a copy of Finder.
Carla Speed McNeil writes and draws all of Finder, which she started publishing on her website in 1996. Periodically, it would be gathered into separate trades. Now is a perfect time to read Finder because Dark Horse has brought together all her earlier work into two large omnibus editions, and her latest work is out in two smaller volumes, the last of which, from what I understand, features color for the first time. In this review, I am writing solely about Volume One.
The world of Finder is easy to get into because each separate story focuses on an individual character. So, you can start anywhere. In fact, I started in the middle of Volume Two because that’s all I could get my hands on initially. As you get to know each character and the world s/he inhabits, you are introduced to peripheral figures. Then, in other stories, the peripheral figures become the main characters, so that over time, an elaborate, rich world builds up, much like the work of Gilbert Hernandez in his Palomar series. However, while Hernandez uses magic realism, McNeil uses more science fiction, or what she calls, “aboriginal science fiction,” a phrase that caught my eye and made me want to read her immediately. The author includes extensive endnotes that are not necessary to read the first time through (and probably should not be read the first time), but they add to her world-building. To summarize, I’m amazed at her ability to create such a complex world that is easy to enter.
This first volume opens with Jaeger Ayers, a finder, waking up alone before heading back into the city of Anvard after a period of “wandering.” As we enter the city with him, we are struck by the diversity of McNeil’s world: People with tails, various blends of cultures and ethnicities, animals that seem to act like human beings, and all sorts of religions practiced by a wide variety of creatures. The city is jam-packed, and pedestrian rush-hour is a frequent problem unless one takes the side-streets, as Jaeger does when he ducks into a book and music store.
Once inside the store, Ayers talks with some of the employees and then joins an old lady in the back room to show her some stones he picked up for her. He flirts in a lively manner with her, and she warns him she’ll call his bluff one day. He responds by giving her a passionate kiss! McNeil shows how he sees her: In a single panel, as he holds her face in his hands after the kiss, her wrinkles vanish as she smiles back at him (and us). In the next panel, she is appears as normal, wrinkles and all. She responds that she’s still not going to call his bluff, and they proceed to discuss the stones he’s found for her. When he playfully asks if she’ll do some sort of fortune-telling as a witch, she raises her head with dignity and says, “Ethnofolklorist, if you please. This is my research.” These few pages are representative of why I like McNeil so much: She shows us an older woman who seems perhaps not all there mentally, and then very quickly makes it clear that this is a beautiful, brilliant woman if you have the ability to see clearly, perceptively.
This theme about the beauty of women being more diverse than we often allow is driven home in another scene when Jaeger is holding in his arms Emma, another woman, this one middle-aged. They are old friends, and they are laughing, but not in a denigrating way, about her teenaged daughter’s flirting with Jaeger. McNeil makes it clear that we should not condemn the open sexuality of a young teenage girl: McNeil even has her mother accept it as routine and normal and natural. What I love best is Jaeger’s response to Emma’s saying that her daughter is probably more to Jaeger’s sexual taste now than she is. Jaeger replies: “A young girl just out of her change is beautiful . . . but a full-blown woman is lovely too . . . and an old woman too. Women are always on their way to being something else. That’s what I love. Men never change. I don’t know what you see in us.” I’ve gone into detail about only one point in order to show how McNeil is a thoughtful writer who thinks intelligently about what aspects of our world she wants to critique via the characters in Finder.
The rest of the story involves Jaeger’s helping out Emma and her daughters as they deal with their father, now released from prison, who was a hyper-masculine father in the worst sense. He fed off the fear of the family, as Emma describes it. In other words, Finder directly deals with feminist concerns. I happen to love novels with feminist themes, but if you don’t, Finder might not be what you are looking for. Personally, I find it refreshing in the male-dominated fields of comics and science fiction. However, her feminism is in no way simplistic; after all, the person who is helping Emma with her husband is a male. And in other scenes, women complain about women and how much better men are, since women “are just as mean and unlovely [as men], but they get all pious if you call them on it.” Ultimately, this series is about blending the best qualities of being masculine with the best qualities of being feminine, whether we are male, female, or something else. The goal is to have good qualities, whatever they may be. The plot, too, is not simplistic. Jaeger is a more complicated person than he at first appears. And why does he always get in fights? Isn’t his turning to violence in every situation the ultimate stereotypical hyper-masculine reaction? And what is his past involvement with the military? And why does he seem to heal so quickly? Who is Jaeger? Does Jaeger even know? Can Emma really trust him? Can he trust himself?
I’ve never felt so inadequate trying to write a review of a book; there’s no possible way I can do justice to its magic. The dialogue will slip off out of sight and be replaced by quotations from Thoreau and then shift into poetry of the author’s own devising. We might even get commentary on the nature of smells: “Smells are hotlines to memory, directly galvanizing the oldest parts of the vertebrate brain. Even the weak human nose can discern the chemical signatures of home, family, and suitable mate; of fear, disease, and death. To creatures more definitively ruled by the sense of smell [such as Jaeger], an overwhelming stew of odors is a powerful intoxicant.” We also see inside the mind of certain characters, their dreams and nightmares, their waking fantasies of all kinds, and we are led to wonder how much the people around us have similar imaginative worlds to which they escape.
I could write for pages and pages about Finder: There’s a great scene accompanied by lyrics from one of the best Oingo Boingo songs by lyricist Danny Elfman; there’s the meta-narrative questioning of Jaeger’s story of his own past as he tells it to a bartender; and there’s a wonderfully satiric story that offers a combined parody of Disneyland, Epcot, and Reality Shows. Finder is — along with Sandman, Bone, RASL, Planetary, Saga, and Elephantmen — one of the essential SFF comic books. I consider it part of an unofficial SFF Comics Canon, and it is not to be missed.