Carla Speed McNeil and the Good Stuff
When I admitted to Carla Speed McNeil that her new graphic novel Voice was my first experience of Finder -- a world that she’s been writing, drawing, and self-publishing since 1996 -- she said: “Oh dear.”
“Most people start their stories from a simple place and get more complex as they go. I threw people in the deep end in from the beginning. Only now, more than ten years later, I’ve begun to understand how to give people a handle, something to get into the water with. Voice may be better than most for people to start with, simply because its protagonist isn’t that different from your average young girl. She’s working her way into the fabric of her society, and thereby makes a pretty good eye in the sky on how peculiar it is.”
Jaeger is Finder’s usual protagonist -- or so I’m told. First time, remember? -- but he appears only parenthetically throughout Voice. This time, the girl in question is Rachel, trying to win her place in the image-obsessed Llaverac clan by competing in a sort of high stakes beauty pageant. Flip to the back of Voice and you’ll find pages of footnotes; that’s something that usually makes me suspicious of a book. It can mean the writer hasn’t found out how to turn their epic backstory into actual, you know, story. Speed writes that there are fewer footnotes this time because she’s become “better at getting the good stuff into the story.” How does that happen?
“It was just time and experience. I never took a writing workshop in my life, and never had that ‘turning point’ teacher to make things make sense. The first issue I ever drew, I had no idea how to sit a ruler next to a pen and make a straight line. It’s so stupid! And it wasn’t that long ago, after spending so many years trying to figure out the ins and outs of a character-driven story, somebody finally sat me down and looked at me wearily and said ‘Look, what does your character want? And what they want will intersect with what all the other characters want. And go from there.’ And this was just an enormous mule-kick to the skull! I know, I know, it’s ridiculous -- but it’s not always obvious from the outside.”
In Voice, the appendix acts as part teaser, part diary, part Dungeon Master’s Guide. Sometimes it offers intriguing facts like "Llaveracs all have a natural ‘tuck’ kinda like a dolphin...”; sometimes it’s just the author’s hindsight about the story or praise for the Coen Brothers’ dialogue. And as a newcomer, it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t find Voice alienating in the least. In fact, one of the joys of reading it was plummeting feet first into this world. It reminded me of picking up random issues of superhero comics when I was young, and how I loved trying to figure out who was who and what their powers and relationships and histories might be. (I have a sad feeling that could be impossible today.) When characters arrive in Voice, they effortlessly carry the weight of their earlier stories with them.
“That’s one pleasure of comics. When a world is done well, it really does give you the sense of size -- that for every street you turned down, there would be another street. That every little house would have a family in it, people who have their own stories. That’s a pleasure for me too when I find it in other books. Even books that are set in the present day and don’t have any strange elements -- nothing for you to get used to, to figure out -- can lack that feeling, and that’s a bad envisionment of the modern world. Blame the cinematographer, I guess.”
Voice takes place in a science fiction universe, although there’s an easy argument to be made for its generic instability. Instead of foregrounding its differences to our world, Voice displays them with a casual wink. Rachel makes calls into a mime-telephone created with her hand, for example, and I happily intuited the kind of technology that’d make this possible. No explanation required. More complicated are the politics (both gender and otherwise) between the different clans that rule Finder’s world. Does Speed think of herself as a science fiction writer?
“The term ‘speculative fiction’ seems so pompous, but that is basically what I do. I love science, and my books when I was a kid were always National Geographic, science-this and science-that, and a great big set of encyclopedia with no ‘E.’ Imagine that! Science fiction is a term people understand. My neighbor, who writes romance novels, says I ought to call it ‘techno-fantasy’ because science fiction is a little bit taboo in marketing right now. It doesn’t sell as well as fantasy. Since there are lots of technical underpinnings in Finder but it’s not a rocketships-and-rayguns kind of a book, she suggests it might be easier for people to get into under a different name.”
Finder ended its run of self-published individual issues in 2005, moving first onto the web and then to Dark Horse, who are not only publishing Voice but new collections of the entire series. Speed says that she misses doing the color covers for each issue -- because if a cover’s done well it’s like “those old Saul Bass movie posters, back in the day” -- but otherwise she’s happy to be off the “bimonthly treadmill”:
“Once I gave that up, I had the opportunity to take several months, six months at the most, and actually write the whole thing out as long as it needed to be. And do a second draft! Wow! And go back and fix things! And make sure that things had time to be seen and had their proper impact and everything. I was something approximating a real writer for the first time, instead of just throwing on a new pair of shoes and running out onstage and going ‘Da daaaaa!’ and then running backstage and going ‘My god, what am I going to do next?’”
Finder’s been nominated for a half-dozen Eisner awards (and won one, too), and Voice is blurbed with praise that “McNeil is a cartoonist’s cartoonist.” Her panel-to-panel, page-to-page flow seems effortless; you can appreciate the work that went into it, but unlike with some other artists, you can’t feel it. If I had to pick a single element to explain why her work is striking, though, I’d say it was her faces. Her characters are like experienced actors making the most of meaty roles.
“When you’re telling a story visually, your art is your prose. There’s a grammar to the way a page is composed. Of course, whether it’s TV, movies, or comics the face of your character is the element people are most drawn to. The expressions come to me when I’m writing, and if I don’t have a strong impression of what a character is going to look like when they’re saying this thing or observing that thing, I know I don’t have a good grip on the scene. Perhaps there’s something missing. I need to go back and see if I can come up with something a little better.”
Early in Voice, we see a series of panels showing Rachel coming off stage and removing her heavy make-up. Her make-up is drawn in ink, of course, but there’s no skin, no muscle, no solid bone beneath. Unlike human actors, Rachel’s eyes and mouth are only ink, too. Speed lets her characters slip into moments of abstraction as the story dictates, as expected expressions become intangible in memory, exaggerated for comedy, or stylized into something like a dream.
“I use these things as part of the ebb and flow of the emotion of the scene. When I have a character’s eyes go all ‘Little Orphan Annie’ to represent shock, it’s because when you’re shocked, you’re not really in the moment any more. If I do it the right way it’s not alienating because people understand that. Later in the book -- when things are at their most intense out in the ecstatic dance scene -- it gets very abstract simply because I’m trying to depict emotion without any detail. When you’re at a concert or a club, you can’t talk to anyone. You’re supposed to be getting into the music, losing yourself. You’re not supposed to be talking, and you’re not really supposed to be thinking. It was very alien for me, and I always had a really hard time with it. I understand it better now that I’m too old to do it.”
Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. He apologizes for using the more familiar “Speed” throughout the above, but it’s such an awesome name he couldn’t resist.