Finder: Volume One by Carla Speed McNeil

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsFinder: Volume One by Carla Speed McNeil

FINDER VOLUME ONEEven 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.

finder 1The 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.

finder 2This 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.

finder 4The 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.

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BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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  1. Wow! I just e-mailed my comic book store to see if they have this!

  2. You’ll love it! It’s truly amazing. I honestly don’t know why everybody doesn’t know about it. It’s THAT kind of book. I think over time, it will become more and more well-known. I can’t imagine that it will slip into obscurity.

  3. This is definitely at the top of my comic TBR list based on your recommendation. I particularly admire and want to support independent writers who rarely get the recognition they deserve. BTW, I noticed you used “comics” instead of “graphic novel”. Do you feel the term “comics” tends to make people take this format less seriously?

  4. Yes, that’s a problem, and I certainly know that people think less of comics because of the connotations. However, I use the terms comics, comic strips, and graphic novels very specifically and quite purposefully (and I cover these definitions fully in my essay on reading comics — the link is under my bio here on the site).

    I did not grow up reading comics — I just read comic strips and collections of comic strips (the short strips in newspapers and periodicals that last more than a single panel. Single panels are not sequential in nature and are quite different). As I started reading comics about eight years ago, I went to as many different comic shops as possible to learn what fans and those who work in the shops think about the terms. It became clear that there was a lot of disgust with the term “graphic novel.”

    Here’s why: Non-comic book fans started reading “graphic novels” and saying that they knew that comics were crap, but they had found a few good “graphic novels.” The implication was that Maus was amazing literature, and anything with a superhero in it was crap for kids. Instead of elevating the art form of sequential arts in general, the term “graphic novel” was used to solidify people’s beliefs that most sequential art — comics — was garbage, just like they always thought.

    So, in the 1990s, more and more people were coming into shops winking knowingly at those who worked there as they asked for the good “graphic novels” and not the “superhero comics” — you know, they wanted to read the few GOOD comics that had ever been written. They assumed most of the comics in the shop were crap and maybe they had a shelf of the only 5 to 10 decent graphic novels ever made. The employee — possibly interrupted reading a Brubaker Batman comic — would not be pleased with this assumption on the part such a snob, as they would be perceived.

    It’s much the same way — though the connotations aren’t as strong as they used to be — as saying that one watches “films” instead of “movies.”

    I use the terms in this way: comics are any type of “sequential art” (Eisner’s term). However, I will refer to comic books in three different ways: monthly issues, trade collections (of monthly issues), and graphic novels. Graphic novels, by my definition, are similar to regular novels: they are written and drawn by single creative team (usually), they usually have the same characters throughout, they stand-alone (for the most part, even if they are part of a series), they have thematic and narrative unity, and they have a clear beginning and end. Many trades that collect monthly issues work almost as graphic novels in that they present a series story arc. I still usually refer to these trade collections as trades.

    I refer to trade collections of monthly issues as graphic novels IF they clearly were designed to be read as a unified work with a beginning and end: Batman: Year One and Watchmen, for example, were both serialized and came out monthly, but they are clearly graphic novels. But NOT because of quality. They are graphic novels because of formal considerations.

    Any graphic novel that is published only as a book is clearly a graphic novel (or anthology of short works, and I call that a “graphic anthology.”): Many of First Second publications are graphic novels. Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor, put out by First Second, is a graphic novel by this definition.

    The problem I have is that people use graphic novel as a value term, and it’s people who haven’t really read enough comics who often use the term that way, almost deciding ahead of time that all the other stuff they won’t ever read must be bad and therefore should be thought of as comics. There are very bad quality graphic novels and brilliant trade collections and even sublime monthly issues, as comic book fans have always known. I learned a lot from these knowledgable fans.

    I met this one guy who liked to tell customers who asked for graphic novels that they didn’t have any at all, but that they had a hell of a lot of comics.

    I hope my long reply helps catch the flavor of the frustration that many comic book fans have with those who want to just switch the term to graphic novels. I get asked on campus to change my course title so it doesn’t include the word, “comics.” I won’t change it, of course, because any student who takes my class needs to learn about the debate and why those who read and love comics the most prefer the word “comics.”

    Not everybody agrees, but I’ve given the representative view.

    Comics also have their roots in the pulp tradition that ties them to early twentieth-century genre fiction such as noir, SF, and horror, so I like that connection, too. Just as fans of SFF want to cultivate an appreciation for the pulp roots of their genre-fiction, so, too, do comic book fans want to talk about the roots of their art form. If you saw what I posted on Facebook yesterday, you could see the noir-horror that was really pulp fiction aimed at adults. The comics were maturing quickly for an adult audience right before they started getting censored in the mid-fifties. That censorship is why comics are still considered kiddy books by many people.

    For SFF readers, it’s sort of the frustration we feel when a famous writer comes out with a SFF novel and it’s put in the “literature” section. And then it will be read by those who read “literature” but won’t “stoop” to read science fiction. And we want to yell, “you ARE reading science fiction!” When somebody reads Maus or any “graphic novel” that they are snobby about, I want to scream, “you are reading COMICS!”

    It’s about being a literary snob is what it boils down to. What’s funny is that the most intelligent and literate conversations I’ve EVER had in my life with strangers I meet take place in comic book stores. People who don’t read comics (and genre fiction) have less variety in their reading. People who read comics (and genre fiction) read a great variety of books, both fiction and nonfiction. It’s amazing. And these well-read comic book readers are from all classes and walks of life. It’s quite amazing. I’ve found comic book stores the best place to go for intellectual discussion outside of the academy. Just don’t judge the people by their looks: You’ll see all types. And I mean ALL types!

    Becoming a comic book reader has been the best change I’ve made in my adult life. Seriously.

    Thanks for asking. I apologize for the long answer. I just got on a roll and felt like thinking through my fingers!

    You are going to be blown away by FINDER.

  5. Wow, that was a very comprehensive response! I understand the background and baggage that comes with the different terms. To be honest, I actually thought that “graphic novel” was the term coined BY comic book fans to be taken more seriously by mainstream readers, but it seems to be the opposite.

    There is still an independent comic store miraculously alive in Hawaii that I used to frequent every week as a kid, and there are plenty of quirky people hanging out there, so I should make another visit someday soon. Would you believe that Hawaii may only have 1 independent bookstore left over? It’s pretty sad..

    • All I heard was Hawaii. I want to go. Forget the comic shop.

      Seriously, I’m sorry I wrote so much. I guess I was writing mainly for myself after the first paragraph.

      And Will Eisner DID comic up with the term “graphic novel,” though in my research I’ve found fascinating examples of early graphic novels that do and do not fit the term in a variety of interesting ways. I love the woodblock novels of the American Lyn Ward, for example (if I’m remembering his name correctly right now).

      So, “graphic novel” comes within the community, and then it gets used by people in a variety of ways. I started using graphic novel as a term to talk to people who didn’t understand, and then I realized that they STILL didn’t understand, so I went back to “comics.” And once people in the community explained that it was used as a value statement to devalue most comics created, I decided I’d only use “graphic novel” as a formal description.

      Really, I don’t correct anybody about it. Who really cares? I just talk about with students or with people who make the mistake of asking me my opinion . . . .

  6. Brad, I’m glad you gave the full-length explanation. It highlights how much meaning and nuance are embedded in seemingly straight-forward terms like “comics” and “graphic novels”, “sci-fi”, “genre”, “mainstream”, even “Romani” vs “gypsy”. Words are powerful semiotic tools and should be wielded carefully.

  7. I always get excited when I see new people talking about Finder! Count me in the group that can’t understand why it’s not up there with Watchmen and Bone, in all the Best Of lists.

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