Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Carla Speed McNeil Intervew

Carla Speed McNeil has been self publishing beautiful, intelligent comics for the best part of 13 years. Making her debut in 1996, her ongoing ‘aboriginal sci-fi’ series Finder has gone from strength to strength since its inception, attracting much praise from fellow creators, fans and critics alike.

Finder is a striking piece of work, one which succeeds in sculpting sprawling, densely populated worlds, replete with their own distinct technologies, peoples and politics. Covering a myriad of topics from the tribal to the technological, Finder seamlessly marries the shamanic with the modern, fusing the traditions of the past with the futuristic urban sprawl of speculative science fiction.

I caught up with Finder creator Carla Speed McNeil to discus her latest book Five Crazy Women and the wider Finder universe.

For the benefit of our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you give us a very brief synopsis of what Finder is all about?

I like to say it's an aboriginal detective story, in that the series' usual hero, Jaeger, is a sort of half-Indian scout. Scouts were the ninja of the Native Americans. Finder is set in a science-fiction world where I can pile all the speculative ideas I get on top of a framework that allows me to make up things as I go, so if I want to set a horrible kidnapping story gone wrong in a domed city with piles of virtual reality and talking dinosaurs, I can do it.

You recently made the transition form publishing separate issues of Finder to online publishing. The majority of your new book 'Five Crazy Women' was posted online and subsequently released as a trade paperback. What motivated this change and how has it worked out so far?

I was content to keep on printing the issues as long as they made their money back and sold a few more with each successive issue. As long as even ten people more bought the book each time it came out, I was willing to keep on making it for those people. Somewhere around issue thirty sales went flat, and stayed flat; clearly they were not reaching new people anymore. I thought of the issues as advertising: if I could give them away at conventions and send stacks of them to shops, that was better advertising than single images in magazines. It worked-- for a while.

The internet works better.

Now that I'm off the treadmill of the recurring deadline, hey! I have time to write a whole script! I have time to figure out where the story is going-- and even to wrack my brains to make it go a different direction! I know I'm giving the readers better books now.

With Diamond now carrying fewer small press books, it seems to me that it's becoming harder and harder for independent publishers to get their comics into stores. Do you feel that online publishing, backed up by printed collections, may eventually become the norm?

It will become A norm. New approaches will arise more easily if more people are working at it, and as the water dries up, new land bridges may form.

Let's face it, most of us did loads of work for nothing more than feedback. Though it can be quite a pitfall, feedback is one thing the internet does provide plentifully.

Your new book, 'Five Crazy Women' is the eighth book in the Finder series and represents a further exploration of the themes you touched upon in an earlier issue entitled 'Beware of Dog'. Sex, relationships and desire sit centre stage in this book, with Jaeger experiencing all manner of strangeness as the reader becomes better acquainted with the female cast of 'Five Crazy Women'. Through the various characters you cover all manner of sexual fetishes and behaviours. What inspired you to explore such sexual territory in Finder?

It's as close as I could get to doing a light romantic comedy. For which I am truly sorry.

I'm always struck by the way you filter experiences and themes through your characters. In 'Five Crazy Women', each character seems to present the reader with a different slant on the same subject matter. You cover some fairly divergent sexual preferences but always maintain a very balanced tone. I get the impression you're far more concerned with exploring the 'human' element of things, getting to the heart of what makes people tick, rather than passing judgement on peoples' habits and lifestyles. Would this be a fair assessment?

I often forget writer's intent. I was glued to the screen watching THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE, which is all about protesting the death penalty, and it never even occurred to me that the writer of the screenplay might actually have intended the story to play some part in actually protesting the death penalty... Ehhh... well, it was such a well-played story, I was so caught up in the intent of the CHARACTERS that the preachiness of the film went so far over my head it left a contrail. Same with DOUBT, which is far more a morality play than an actual historical, but it took conversation with a friend and colleague to make me see that side of it. He was right, but for me the story's the thing, and the story's the people.

In science fiction, quite often the story's in the idea. The new widget or whoopdedoo or discovery takes center stage, and the only reason to have characters is to show off the idea, point by point. These characters are often quite flat and unmemorable. I loves me some Asimov, but I swear, I cannot name a single Asimov character. Clarke was better at it, but right this second I can't think of a single Clarke character's name besides David Bowman and HAL 9000.

For me the point of the widget or palmpilot or crackberry is the impact it has on the people. The people who invented it, who figured out how to sell it, who use it, and in what way... cell phones have changed the way cops pursue crime, the way families keep track of one another, the way people who still cook their food over dung fires in India manage their villages, the way detective fiction gets written. One really very simple invention and its proliferation into ubiquity has had a profound change on people, and its inventor's heritage leads backwards in some crazy directions, back to and including forties glamour queen Hedy Lamarr, who invented frequency hopping.

Yes, I could go on about this a long, long time.

I have to ask, that scene with Genie… you know the one I mean, with the nappy and the horrible mess that ensues. What possessed you to take that particular angle? I doubt many of your readers saw that one coming!

Ehhh... it takes a lot to shock Jaeger?

Seriously, Genie was funny and cute and energetic and I liked her a lot, and I could not think of a single thing that would get him out of her bed and her life, and TA DAA, internet to the rescue. He's accustomed to the fact that people do all kinds of crazy things, and he's inclined to nod and smile, but whoa. All you folks out there, think of the nastiest, harshest, most OH GOD NO thing festering in the back of your head, and consider: somebody out there is completely bored with that, and has drifted away from a message board or two devoted entirely to that thing. And to those people, the ones who are bored with the insane thing: let some air into the house from time to time. Please. Recognize that that horrible thing may be old hat to you, but to many people, it is... not a hat they will ever want to put anywhere near their heads. Fly yo' freak flag, folks, go ahead on, I do; but recognize that that thing you like is WEIRD, and motor on.

I got the idea from a horrible baby device. It's a trash can with a hole in the lid and a really, really long plastic can liner. You drop soiled diapers in through the hole in the lid. You spin the lid to seal off the bomb you dropped in. When the liner is filled with twisted-up poo bombs, you tie it off and extract from the trash can what can only be described as the most horrible link sausage in the whole history of mankind. Off to the landfill, to preserve its contents no doubt for millennia.

This pinnacle of human ingenuity is called a Diaper Genie, and it left a nastier mark on my psyche than the adult baby sites.

Damn it, Phil Foglio TOLD me not to use that joke, that I'd end up talking about it forever, and he was right...

As in real life, everyone in the book has their own little quirks. I particularly enjoyed the way you flip certain conventions on their head. Jaeger’s own personal habits and tribal traditions don't always seem to make sense in the city. Are his habits and traditions based on real world examples or experiences?

What, mine? No. Friends of mine? OH HEAVENS NO, I WOULD NEVER INTRUDE UPON MY FRIENDS' PRIVACY. I get it all out of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN.

Jaeger seems to maintain a precarious balance between his time spent in the wilderness and his time spent in the city. He doesn't seem to be able to spend too long in a city without getting sick. In your liner notes for Finder: Sin Eater you mention that Jaeger becomes sick if he 'takes it too easy'.

He would say that he's like a shark, which, if it stops swimming, it will drown. Except sharks don't actually drown if they stop swimming, and he really doesn't know how his body works either. Frankly, he doesn't want to know. He's afraid he'll find out that he's really a construct, like a lot of the animal-headed people in the city. If that were true, he really would be a citizen of nowhere, since constructs that can pass for human are illegal.

Jaeger needs to periodically subject himself to some sort of physical shock in order to prevent the onset of this sickness. In 'Five Crazy Women' this takes the form of a brutal self inflicted bloodletting. During this scene, I couldn't help but think that Jaeger was physically purging the negative elements of the city. It's as if he'd absorbed all the filth, grime and decadence of the city. Is Jaeger's sickness a comment on city life? A case of rural existence vs. city living?

That's certainly how HE sees it. Of course, he's done it to mark the end of time spent living among nomadic hunter-gatherers, too. I hope to show him doing more of what he prefers to do-- dig things up. He spends much of his time with archaeologists and salvage merchants, and I haven't shown the readers much of that.

With Finder, I always feel like I'm steeping into a world as culturally rich and diverse as our own. You seem to have every detail sketched out in your head, from social structures right down to the way the phones work. The environments in your books seem to be just as important as the characters that inhabit them. Do you spend a lot of time developing the locations in Finder or is it something that evolves naturally as you go along?

Most of us view nature as a picture framed by a window-- something pretty that we look at from inside. Like a fantasy, we can go into that picture, but most of us go out and back. We don't live in nature. We live in our homes, in spaces we've decorated if not created. Manmade environments all have something to say about the people who made them and the people who choose to live in them. Environment is very much a reflection of character in visual storytelling. When I'm creating a character, or embellishing one, I always envision where they are: where would they be most comfortable, what is 'their' place? Where would they be most UNcomfortable? Which placement makes the better story? Where people live is just as fascinating to me as how they live.

There's some gorgeous art in 'Five Crazy Women'. I'm not an artist myself but I can imagine some of the fine line work took absolutely ages. You suffered some health problems whilst doing this book and you seem to have really pushed yourself to meet deadlines. Was this a particularly hard book to complete?

Oh, the carpal tunnel thing? That had been coming for a long time. All that crosshatching probably didn't help, but having two kids didn't help either-- according to the docs, carpal frequently manifests in pregnancy. With most women, it goes away untreated. Mine didn't. But its okay, got it fixed, never looked back. Anybody who needs their fingers to make a living, listen up: if you've got tingling and numbness in your fingers, DON'T WAIT. Go get it looked at. It may be nothing. But if it isn't, nerve death is nerve death. They don't grow back.

I've always thought there was something deeply sensual about the way you draw people. You seem to have a keen appreciation of the male and female form and there's a beauty to your female characters I very rarely see in comics. They're sexy without pandering to typical stereotypes. How do you go about designing your characters? Is there a particular aesthetic you're aiming for?

Ehhh... me watch butts? Boy butts, girl butts, bring on th' badonka-donks.

No, I appreciate bodies in motion. I can't keep track of athletes' names to save my life, but I'm riveted to the Olympics every four years. Swimmers, gymnasts, skiers, skaters. I am just barely enough of an athlete to feel how hard they work and how grueling their lives are and how ecstatic their performances can be. And I pick up sketchbooks by Rodolphe Guenoden, an animator and kung fu aficionado, and Jaime Hernandez' Angel Of Tarzana stories, and I get quite a vicarious charge out of the energy and vigor of their drawings.

Capturing that life in all characters, not just the ones who think just as well upside down as right-side-up, is what I hope to do and what I don't think I've ever achieved, but I'm glad they look alive and pretty and sexy to people besides me.


How do I go about designing characters.... now, that really IS a long blather. That's the fun part, I can do that all day. I can talk about it all day. I have a pile of drawings right now, talking about just that, that I may try to whomp into some kind of sketchbook or minicomic. I meant to, for NYCC, and it just wasn't gonna happen.

Okay... when I am, for example, working with a writer, and I have no preconceived idea for a character, I have to feel out the writer's ideas. I usually ask them to start with an actor or actress. Which actor? Modern or yesteryear? Early career or late? In what movie, or even what scene? What impression did that actor make on you that you want me to capture? How do you want me to change him or her-- do you want an old Jimmy Stewart, or a young Louise Brooks, or Paris Hilton with leprosy of the eyeballs or something even more out there? We start there, and make adjustments. I've got a rogue's gallery of male and female faces that I've doodled up over time, and I often send those to writers to give them a catalogue of potential actors to thumb through, and say "That. But, you know. Different. Different hair?"

It's all according to the impression the character should make. I often design characters in a very cartoony style. I call 'em weebles, manga aficionados would call them chibis. I find that if the character works at a very small size and simple style, if he or she is recognizable with a bare minimum of detail, then he or she will be recognizable as a fully detailed drawing or anywhere in between. The clothes a character would wear have to be considered, and last I do a 'portrait' drawing: the character's story, or at least his or her situation, in a nutshell, as best I can. I try to think Norman Rockwell. Groan if you will, because he's so sentimental and twee, but he was very good at encapsulating a narrative in a single image. And he did some fascinating framing...

You've worked with a number of other creators, providing art for books like 'Queen and Country' and more recently 'Frank Ironwine' by Warren Ellis. How does your approach differ when you're working from other peoples' scripts?

Depends on how visual the writer is. Warren Ellis knows exactly what he wants, and he is always very aware of an artist's strengths and weaknesses. He wants you for what you can do. Do it. He'll do everything else. Greg Rucka also knows just what he wants, but Greg claims to be not very visual. He wants the artist to come up with his or her own panel compositions to increase impact of a scene, but he never overloads a page with too many panels or word balloons, so he knows what he's doing. Jim Ottaviani does thumbnail breakdowns of his pages, so his pages always work-- though, like most good writers, he's up for whatever you come up with that might make the scene better. Every writer's different.

Oh, you mean how is it different from what I produce for myself? Good god. There's no comparison. My scripts are just screeds of dialogue with notes on location jotted in the margins and slashes to indicate how many word balloons go into any given panel. My scripts are usually written longhand. Nobody could work from what I call a Finder script but me.

Oni Press are currently publishing a series called 'Wasteland' by Anthony Johnston and Christopher Mitten. You did art for a one off issue last year. Can I ask how that collaboration came about and what drew you to the series?

Oh, Antony and I have meant to work on something together for years. Haven't heard from him in a while. I'll have to dig him up. Set up a tiger trap baited with a fancy black hat or something.

WASTELAND was a natural for me, being speculative fiction set in a post-apocalyptic Old West. Antony and I are more interested in the more distant aftermath of society's overturn. Not just what happens while the fires are still burning, but what people come up with once they get used to the rubble and rearrange it to suit themselves. Chris Mitten's done a terrific job giving the series its air of old-and-new together.

Have you ever considered writing another series in addition to Finder or would that simply be too much to take on in addition to your already sizeable workload?

Don't know yet. I've written full (intelligible) scripts. I wrote a short story for Ivan Brandon's second NYC MECH 24SEVEN book, drawn by Bruno DAngelo and Diego Sanches. They made it gorgeous, so I must have given them enough to go on. After spending so much time trying to create a world into which I could stuff every idea I liked, it's hard to extract new ideas from the framework of Finder to see what new framework could be built to house them. But I've been so much more focused on writing since I went web-only, it's probably a good time to be thinking about it.

I've always felt Finder deserved more recognition than it currently receives. Are there any artists or creators you feel deserve more attention?

Most of us have plenty of attention. What we need is a little more money.

I mean, how can I say that Steve Rude is one of the greatest anatomists of our day, when nobody outside of comics knows who he is? Or that Raina Telgemeier is brilliant but obscure when she and Dave Roman are doing an X-MEN book for Del Rey Manga? Or Dylan Meconis, who does hella good comics but is making major money showing businessmen how to communicate something memorable? Phil Foglio is a pure entertainer, so why ain't there little wind-up Agatha Heterodyne dirigibles at Mickey D's? They all deserve more attention in different ways, they're all obscure in different ways.

Oh, okay, fine. Vasilis Lolos did a beautifully atmospheric strange little fantasy set on a moving train called LAST CALL: if you love Hayao Miyazaki you'll love his book. Oni Press. Kate Beaton (www.katebeaton.com) is just FUNNY. I'm not funny, best I can do is witty. Kate Beaton does strip-style history comics, does for history factoids what Schoolhouse Rock used to do: makes 'em so you'll remember them. Nina Paley has made a full-length movie, SITA SINGS THE BLUES, about getting dumped IN INDIA. Only at film festivals so far, an inspired depiction of characters from the RAMAYANA juxtaposed with torch songs, some hella funny shadow puppet narration, and a personal memoir thrown in for good measure. Has plenty to say about love and mythology, and it's pretty pretty pretty. And Nina did it all herself. It's a tiny bit like watching the best thing you've ever seen on YouTube, except it's not over in six minutes and the camera doesn't shake. That is to say, it's very personal, very idiosyncratic, and very funny-- with lots of handmade animation.

Your new book 'Voice' seems to be pretty much in the can. When can we expect to see that in print? Can I coax you into giving us any titbits on what we might see in future Finder books?

Don't know when VOICE will see print yet; I hope no later than the fall. VOICE is a kind of prequel to the Big Backstory, which has begun on my site with TORCH. I've sifted though all the biggest questions people have asked me over the years, threw in some new ideas, and shook it all up, and lo, there was enough to pick apart into a story. A big one, anything from three to seven books, which I hope will explain where and when the events of Finder are taking place, who Jaeger is and where he came from and where he's going, how all the oddball clans came to exist and why they're all so different, and what 'happened' to the world, the nature of its not-so-recent apocalypse.

TORCH starts with another half-native kid named Jack, who will find an ad for a correspondance course which is a whole lot like the Famous Artists course, you know, DRAW TIPPY. Except the one he's found is for engineers, and it will set him on the path to becoming an engineering wizard. It will also set him up to see just how bizarre the world in which he lives is, and start asking the right questions about why it doesn't work.

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Everybody out there, make some minicomics. Minis are the best calling cards. Those are the baseline of comics. After the zombie apocalypse we can still pedal the bamboo bicycle to power the Xerox machine, and comics will live.

Interview by Matthew Dick. March 2008.

More Finder can be found here.

4 comments:

english kate said...

Hey1 I followed the link from page 45's newsletter to read the CSMN article. A great interview of a fantastic author. Nice start! Will be reading more

Matt D said...

Thanks Kate, (and by association Page 45)

Glad you enjoyed the interview. I hope to have some new content up next week.

Cheers for reading!

karolos said...

hi guys, i was just pointed here by our common friend greek zac. And i am hooked! First a very nice manga and then i scroll down and i see an interview with carla speen mcneil!! I am impressed, I have been an avid finder fan for years and noone knows her damn it!

Great work, keep it coming.

Carapace said...

Great article with one of the aboslutely best comic makers today! Thank you!