Interview: Carla Speed McNeil

Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder series has long been a favorite of comics insiders. She’s imagined an expansive world with a deep and layered society that lets her explore themes ranging from cyberpunk to aboriginal mysticism, all firmly rooted in the complex interpersonal relationships of a large cast of intriguing and believable characters. In 2011 McNeil transitioned from self-publishing to working with Dark Horse Comics, allowing her work to find a broader audience. Her first Dark Horse release was Finder: Voice followed by two volumes of the Finder library and an ongoing story in Dark Horse Presents. I interviewed her through email just as she finished up her first year with Dark Horse.

NFNT: Now that you’re a year in, how’s life with a big publisher? Any changes from self-publishing that were hard to get used to?

Carla Speed McNeil: Not really. It still amazes me to have so many dedicated professionals asking me what I think about this or that detail of production or promotion. When you’re a one-stop shop, it’s a bit different. The great thing about having an editor (when that editor likes and understands what you want to do) is that, when you call her at work to bounce an idea off of her, you’re not gonna get her in trouble with her boss.

NFNT: Dark Horse Presents is somewhat unique in the current American comic market; there aren’t a lot of other ongoing anthology books out there. What does the anthology format let you do that you couldn’t pull off in, say, a webcomic or a 32 page monthly book?

CSM: DHP is so jam-packed with Names every issue that people have to blast disdainfully past to get to me, it’s amazing. I’m sure that’s just what everybody does. “Frank Miller, bah. Eric Powell, what have you done for me lately? Howard Chaykin, Andi Watson, Steve Niles, Neal Adams, REALLY? AHHH, here’s the good stuff, Carla Speed McNeil.” DHP is the big kids’ table, and no mistake. I tend to blast past the other entries in the book to check on how mine turned out because if I don’t move fast, one of those bald eagles will eat me.

Seriously– it has been interesting, getting to the point of actually being able to write in little chunks. Eight pages is SHORT. I was never able to write short before– technically, this isn’t short, since these eight-page chapters are all pieces of a larger story, but cutting a big story into fractions like this, building anecdotal pieces into a larger whole, isn’t something I was able to do before. The art keeps pushing back; it wants more room to expand, but I must say that if it wasn’t somewhat confined, I would never have at last shrugged my shoulders and started drawing the layered city streets of my city in as much detail as I have in 3RDWORLD, my DHP story. I’d always meant to render them, but they want to be full-page images, multiple full-page images, possibly four- or five-page panoramas, and I always begged for mercy from the demands of my imagination and didn’t draw them. Now that a panorama has to be represented by at most half a page, I’m drawing them.

None of this rules out returning to a 32-page book or a webcomic.

NFNT: One of the obvious effects of your move to Dark Horse is that Finder is now available in a few different forms — individual issues, collected trades, big omnibuses, online, with notes, without notes — do you have in mind a “right” way to read them? When you’re working, how do you imagine the reader accessing your work?

CSM: No right way. Every way is right for different reasons. As a reader, I still want the TPBs in my hands, but I can’t resist some books as individual issues or as digital files. Some books I buy in all three forms. I never think of how the reader will access my work when I’m drawing it; this is why I never try out stuff like side-scrolling formats when I do webcomics, or any of the flash-comic bells and whistles. These often don’t translate well (or at all) into print, and I’m still very much in favor of printed books. People love the notes. Digital formats offer interesting possibilities for bookmarking and footnoting within the work. These don’t exclude print. I’m all for digital, but not to exclusion of other formats.

NFNT: Speaking of notes, your extensive world building is definitely one of Finder’s strong points. The notes deliver page after page of great little cultural/historical/character details that read like you’re working from a big pool of research rather than making it all up. What sort of prep work do you do before starting a storyline?

CSM: Oh, I’m easily bored, so I always have a jumble of bright shiny ideas in the back of my head to play with. I also have my mulch-pile, the stacks of pages and scrap paper that I have ideas and scenes scrawled down on. Bits of anthropology, sociology, history, folklore joggle around until I have a use for them. There’s a difference (at least, for me, right now) between these details, the characters who voice or enact them, and the creation of a plot. Plots may hinge on culture clash or the actions of people who think they agree but don’t, or who want the same thing but go about getting them in radically different ways, but those things that come from my research tend to spin things this or that way rather than form the seeds for a plot.

NFNT: At the same time, you manage to avoid the common speculative fiction trap of letting the cleverness of your world building drag your narrative down into exposition hell. Is that something you actively fight against?

CSM: Ho ho ho. Yes.

Ever since Day One I’ve had letters from people asking “Why isn’t this or that cool detail actually IN the book? Why is it only in the notes?” Because I didn’t think of it until I was writing the notes. The notes are like a slightly perverse back-up story. I start with the stuff that would bog the story down (or bog it down FURTHER, in some cases), and start cramming more stuff in as I type.

NFNT: Since you’ve built such a large sandbox to play in, Finder’s able to wander into all sorts of places. Do you have any particular favorite locations or ideas you were able to explore? Alternately, have you had any ideas that you just couldn’t fit into your world? Has anything popped up while you were writing that surprised you?

CSM: Well, of course it was my intention to build a world in which I could tell any story I liked. That’s what you did, back when  six thousand pages seemed like too much. Back before online networking and author blogs, it was hard to keep track of your favorite authors and what they were up to if they didn’t have a personal project to publish in which they printed lists of other projects, show appearances, that sort of the thing. Print blogs, that’s what the letters pages of comics are. The idea was to make a world with a very high ceiling, so I could move around if I had to. Start a war in this part of the world? Move to a part that’s untouched by it. High tech story in this part, low tech over here. And of course in any part of the world I can set a small, personal story, which is what I’ve tended to do. I am laboring now under the idea of creating a big, overarching plot that will affect all or most of my world.

In the past, my itch to explore ideas not consonant with my world was scratched by collaborations with other writers. I will say, though, that I have a pet project that can’t be cut to fit or painted to match the FINDER scenario. It hatched out most unexpectedly at TCAF a few years back, and is more or less fleshed out now. As a writing exercise, having this wholly new Thing calve itself off of the parent glacier was very liberating.

Then there are a lot of explorations within FINDER; one’s about a mail-order bride from a clan in which all mature women look like ten-year-old girls. It’s a rumination on youth as a constant in the aesthetics of beauty. Thematically, it’s my old favorite, culture clash, but it will probably get me arrested. Give to the CBLDF, you never know who’s gonna need them.

NFNT: One of the more distinctive aspects of the society you’ve imagined is the dominance of a small number of clans all striving for physical homogeneity – something that sounds like an absolute nightmare for an artist but you  pull off really well. Have you ever had occasion to regret that choice?

CSM: Not really, because cultural identity within self-chosen and self-rejected parameters is something I think about a lot. People choose, and groups choose. Making them all look the same, or the same with specific variations, is just a way of putting the idea through its paces. Establishing a group identity is very like establishing a character’s identity: when people see a member of a well-known group, they are seeing a chess piece or ‘face card.’ if that individual character conforms to the group’s characteristics, the reader knows what to expect. If they don’t, the reader may be intrigued as to why. Given that I have a lot of clans, each of which has its own ideas, I don’t find it limiting.

NFNT: It’s pretty uncommon to see an author produce a main character of the opposite gender. How deliberate was that choice with Jaeger?   [A side note, when I discussed this with my wife she laid out some big Jungian theory I couldn’t hope to reproduce here so bonus points if you include Jung or the animus!]

CSM: Uhhhh… is it uncommon?

I didn’t realize. Jaeger is chipped off of a core personality in the back of my head (one of several). That core personality is ‘fed’ by a number of people, some of them female, but most of them male. This core personality has taken many forms, some of them nonhuman, since I was quite small. Once he became part of a story and had a name, Jaeger had to have a story of his own, rather than remain an elemental force. He is masculine because I love masculinity. I am fascinated by it in men; I am fascinated by it in women. Another fan favorite, Lynne, is also chipped off that same core, and Lynne loves makeup.

Is that Jungian? I guess if it includes an interior masculine core, it’s an animus. I once told a male friend I had to get in touch with my inner drag queen in order to discover my tastes in specifically feminine clothing. He smiled at me quizzically and asked how I could have such a thing if I am authentically female. I could only say that that’s how it felt.

NFNT: Similarly, a lot of authors who take a shot at writing characters of the opposite gender come up short. Do you have some secret trick for writing believable men?

CSM: You’ve got to like what you’re writing about to write it well. I like people. Some of them are men. It’s just like drawing: if you want to draw people well, you’ve got to spend some time really looking at them. If you want to draw cars or trains or pastries or abyssal crab species well, you’ve got to pay some attention to them. Then you have to show what you see. You don’t leave out a joint in a crab’s legs because you don’t like it. If your story calls for a hyper-detailed crab, you depict that. If your story calls for a more symbolic rendering of an anglerfish, you do that. Same with trains and cars and pastry and people. If you can’t write convincing men, or women, or kids, it’s because you’re not paying attention.

Many of my favorite science fiction writers do not really have a dab hand at writing vivid characters, mainly because the progression of their core ideas are not dependent on the voice which articulates them. Characters are something that happens as the plot unfolds, rather than the other way around. What people do and how they do it is what I get into– especially the broad range of what people find boring. The AMAZING THINGS that are ordinary and banal. Characters’ sexual identities are loci in their personalities– collections of traits that lend themselves to storytelling. Sometimes you play a king, sometimes you play a jack. What body you put any given locus into can make things so interesting.

NFNT: Of course you’ve also got a slew of intriguing female characters and a great willingness to dive headfirst into thorny issues of gender politics. With that in mind, I was a little surprised to see you consistently cite Cerebus as an influence. Cerebus and Dave Sim are rarely mentioned without some acknowledgement of the misogynist philosophizing that cropped up in later issues. Do you see your work as inherently political or feminist? Do you  have any trouble separating someone else’s craft and artistry from their politics?

CSM: I don’t have an agenda, but I do have a point of view. I’m sure I’m missing things, I’m sure there are plenty of things I haven’t thought through. I don’t want my work to devolve into political tract, so I leave interpretation up to the readers. It was important to Dave Sim to do the opposite. I’m not wild about quite a lot of his content, but the man is a master of the form. My fascination with comics took hold with CEREBUS, and his soapbox rants about getting started and overcoming obstacles were a large part of the genesis of my career. His mysticism is cut from whole cloth and it’s worth study to see how its presentation evolves in his work. The length of the work, the ambition of the writer, and the texture and detail contributed by Gerhard have created an immense world. And nobody has the control of pacing and dialogue, the inflections of the spoken word, that Dave has.

I’m equally interested in the world that Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino have created, especially now that they’re really starting to move forward with it. Used to be, TV was where ideas went to die. Now, TV seems to be a place where they have a place to spread out and grow in ways that movies can’t. Seems heretical to say TV is better than movies, but TV studios are taking risks that Hollywood seems not to be these days.

NFNT: I’ve spent some time lately debating whether libraries should keep their graphic novels in a separate section or mix them in with the other books, putting them in fiction, sci-fi, nonfiction, and so on. If you had your choice, where would you like to see Finder shelved?

CSM: If space and available copies do not permit cross-shelving, I like to see GNs in their own section, divided into subsections. But as the current crop of kids grows up, I think it’ll be less and less of an issue.

NFNT: I just chipped in to the Smut Peddler kickstarter. At the same time, libraries are going crazy trying to keep up with the demand for 50 Shades of Grey (except for the libraries who’ve refused to shelve it, of course). Do you think we’ve hit some sort of tipping point for social acceptance of erotica?

CSM: Dunno. Dita Von Teese has her own line of lingerie and makeup, and I like her. An old friend of mine from high school now dances burlesque, and I only felt weird about really, REALLY wanting to see her perform for half a minute or so. I’m not that fond of sleaze, so it’s cool that there’s more stuff that doesn’t stink available. Ted Sturgeon’s 90% law still applies– but if the total is bigger, then the 10% contains more cool stuff to choose from.

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