The Finders are now mainly forgotten. They were hunters, and trackers, and more. They lived secret lives. . . . It was the way of the Finder to help his people by standing apart from them, seeing them as only an outsider can. (vol. 1, pp. 74-75)
"Can you kill my husband for me?"
That was the one question she never asked me.
If she had, everything would have been different. (vol. 2 frontispiece)
Finder is a comic book.
Those of you saying "So what?" or "Cool!" can skip ahead to the next paragraph. But if you're reaching for that mouse to click the Back button: don't go just yet. If you think comic books are for kids, or if the phrase conjures up images of spandex-clad oafs with bulging muscles and women whose breasts are larger than their heads, then you haven't seen the good stuff. There are plenty of extremely good comics for grownups; this is one of the best.
Finder is the story of Jaeger Ayers, a Finder: hunter, tracker, scout, spy. ("Jaeger," of course, means "hunter" in German.) He inhabits a far-future world in which humans, AIs, artificially constructed part-animal humanoids, and beings who might be aliens live together in vast domed cities. The two volumes reviewed here collect the first fourteen issues of the ongoing bimonthly comic book series; together they form a complete self-contained storyline, titled "Sin-Eater."
(I should note before going on that this comic book is entirely unrelated to Emma Bull's novel Finder.)
In "Sin-Eater," Jaeger finds himself near the city of Anvard and drops in to visit some old friends: Emma Grosvenor and her children Rachel, Lynne, and Marcie. Emma tells him that the family endured horrible psychological abuse for years when they lived with Emma's estranged husband Brigham -- who was Jaeger's commanding officer during his military years. This information puts Jaeger in a difficult position, because, unbeknownst to Emma and the kids, Brigham has recently been released from military prison and is now in Anvard -- and Jaeger has been secretly helping Brigham keep tabs on his family. And so it becomes Jaeger's task to find out whether Brigham really is dangerous, and to try to ensure that nobody gets hurt in the process.
Finder is, bar none, the best SF comic being published today (which is saying a lot, considering the high quality of several other current SF comics) -- and for that matter, much better than quite a lot of prose SF. Like much good SF, it uses astonishingly inventive extrapolation as backdrop, while remaining focused on the characters who drive the story. The characters and situations are compelling, plausible, sometimes very funny, sometimes utterly chilling. Their world is among the richest and most complex and subtle I've encountered, inside or outside of comics, bursting at the seams with fascinating cultures and surprising details; the author's notes (in the back of each volume) are not necessary to make sense of the story, but they provide further depth. The storytelling is superb, as is the sometimes-hilarious dialogue. The series has layer upon layer of depth; re-reading a segment later always reveals more of what was going on, as later parts shed light on earlier parts. I love it when creators treat their audiences like adults -- the author doesn't spoonfeed us. (And, perhaps as important, I know I can trust that there's something under the surface worth digging for -- doing that archaeology is always worth the time and effort, never disappoints.)
The phrase "the author" is worth elaborating on. Most mainstream comics from the big comics-publishing companies are the work of multiple collaborators: a writer, a penciler, an inker, a letterer, a colorer, sometimes others. Like many independently published comics, though, Finder is entirely the work of one person: Carla Speed McNeil.
I consistently get the impression that McNeil knows everything about every aspect of her intricately detailed world, from architecture to societies, to flora and fauna, to politics, to personalities. World-building is an art, and McNeil is a master of it. Her sources and influences are wide-ranging: everything from Plains Indians culture to Mehndi (body-painting with henna) to Voodoo; from Shakespeare to pop-culture songs, movies, and comics; from the photography of René-Jacques to the art of David Roberts.
But detailed world-building, while admirable, doesn't by itself constitute good writing. In addition to her world-building skills, McNeil also excels at dialogue and characterization, and is fairly good at plotting. In a few places, she overreaches her talents: her pacing is generally good, for example, but occasionally the lack of answers in the early sequences can be frustrating. But by and large, she's an excellent writer, and getting better all the time.
Art is, of course, at least as important to a comic book as writing. McNeil's art in Finder starts out a little sketchy, with occasional oddnesses of proportion or face, but gets quite good very rapidly. Her facial expressions are superb throughout -- characters can convey volumes with a look.
McNeil is also good at handling certain tricky aspects of storytelling. For example, although Finder is rarely sexually explicit, there are a fair number of things about it that most parents would probably consider unsuitable for their kids, and McNeil handles these aspects with subtlety and skill, never pandering but never retreating into prudishness. Among other things, there's one scene (not a sex scene) in which a character's erect penis is shown; there's really no way that McNeil could have handled that scene without showing it. More generally, McNeil is aware that humans are, by and large, sexual beings; Jaeger and Emma are clearly lovers, and there's a certain amount of tension between Jaeger and Rachel (Emma's oldest child), a very mature fourteen-year-old who's had a crush on him for years.
And that brings us to the characters.
The primary character, of course, is Jaeger himself. Jaeger doesn't know much about his own past: never knew his mother, and his father died without telling him where he's from or why he is the way he is. He was raised by Ascians -- roughly equivalent to American Indians -- and considers himself one of them, though he looks mostly white. (He has a fight early on with a market warden who doesn't think Jaeger looks Indian enough to qualify for Free Trader status.) Jaeger has a mysterious past; be forewarned, those mysteries are not all resolved in these volumes, though the hints that McNeil drops about them are tantalizing.
One thing that may take readers a while to notice is that Jaeger is not a particularly nice guy, at least not to people he doesn't like. He's very physically oriented -- prone to violence, uncomfortable with the trappings of civilization. As he says about himself, "I can handle anything except peace and quiet. . ." (p. 69) He has an extremely good sense of smell, unusual agility and strength, and uncanny healing speed. He's also got a complex and internally contradictory moral code. In particular, as discussed in a note in volume 2, he's both a Finder and a sin-eater (someone who takes on responsibility for others' sins, for a fee): Finders aren't allowed to be paid for their services, but sin-eaters are always supposed to be paid for theirs. The result is that Jaeger stays on the move a lot to avoid having to think about these things; he generally reacts to things at a gut level rather than stopping to think about anything for very long.
Early on, one of the minor characters says this about Jaeger: "He is arrogant . . . shameless, immoral, anti-social, irresponsible. . . . He's . . . charming, but he's callous, cunning, and too self-assured. He is dangerous. He has an explosive temper, and someday it is going to go off big time. He's a psychopath waiting to happen. . . ." (p. 20) The character in question doesn't like Jaeger much, which affects her perceptions; but it's not an entirely inaccurate character portrait (though certainly incomplete), and it's a good warning to the reader not to expect this protagonist to be a traditional sort of hero.
There are plenty of other interesting characters here, of course. The Grosvenor kids, for example -- Lynne in particular, the middle child, is a remarkably complex character, one we don't find out much about for a while. Emma, the kids' mother, spends much of her time retreating into a fantasy world -- she has what she refers to as "'princess' psychosis." We eventually see some fascinating views from inside the mind of Brigham, Emma's husband. And there are a host of minor characters who pop up at various times, including Ann Handler (a lesbian bookstore manager); the oracle in the Painwright gallery (an AI who trades in information having to do with pain); a noblewoman of the Nyima (leonine humanoids, possibly aliens); Blythe (Emma's pert little personal-assistant AI); and a reporter-priest for the First Church of Huitzilopochtli.
The characters are not the only richly imagined aspect of the series. Among other things, the cities are almost as impressive. Anvard, where the "Sin-Eater" storyline takes place, is one of several ancient and gigantic domed cities. Throughout the story, we get glimpses of Anvard -- a piece of the dome breaks off and falls at one point early on, for example, and volume 2 opens with a tour of the city. (And excerpts from a self-directed walking tour are scattered throughout the story.) The city features elevated walkways, layer on layer of enormous buildings, and vast crowds on foot and in vehicles. To give some idea of its size: "Many citizens of Anvard traverse the city all their lives without ever touching the ground." (p. 24)
And that's not even mentioning the world outside of Anvard, some of which we see in later issues of the series. . . .
So this story clearly packs a lot of information into a compact space. Like much of my favorite fiction, Finder takes a certain amount of work to get into. Nothing is spelled out, especially in the early issues. There are plenty of subtle details that you don't need to notice, but there are a few others without which it may be hard to follow the story. My recommendations on how to approach these books:
- Pay close attention.
- Go back and re-read earlier parts regularly.
- If it doesn't feel like cheating to you, read the Notes in the back of each volume as you go. Some of what's going on behind the scenes is explained in these notes -- some obscure references, tidbits about the characters and cultures that you can't figure out from reading (but that you don't need to know to follow the story), and so on. And a few things are covered in the notes because they aren't clear in the body of the story. For example, Jaeger at one point calls Emma "Mom" -- but, as explained in a note, that's just a phrase; she's not his mother.
- The first fifty pages of volume 2 answer several important questions. If you don't read the notes in volume 1, then be patient and take things on faith. It's worth waiting for answers -- and once you have those answers, it's worth going back and re-reading to see the things you missed.
Details that you don't need to catch include in-jokes and references, and signs displayed in the backgrounds of panels. There are visual references to lots of movies and comics: Casablanca, My Neighbor Totoro, Amy Unbounded, Love & Rockets, and many others. (Readers unfamiliar with those works won't lose anything; the references of this sort are in-jokes that go by in the background, not important to the story.) A Peanuts reference: Emma's daughter Marcie calls another character "Sir." There are advertising signs, such as "BORDERS: books / music / cafe / auto parts / call girls." And social-commentary signs, such as this one in a hospital: "Please have as many forms of ID as humanly possible ready at all times." And a cigarette-ad billboard: "You've got a long way to go, baby."
So I don't want to make it sound like reading this series is a chore. It's not: it's a delight. Even in the occasional parts that aren't immediately clear, the richness of detail -- and the humor -- are plenty to keep readers interested.
In short, Finder is rich, complex, moving, sad, funny, and altogether wonderful. And highly recommended. Go buy it.
Jed Hartman is Senior Fiction Editor for Strange Horizons.