WORD AND PICTURES: “Finder” and its Footnotes

Finder is sf of a very distinctive kind that isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. I’m not even certain it’s wholly, or always, to mine.

But do I think it’s remarkable? Absolutely. I’ve got a feeling that if comics were regarded as a normal, integral part of the sf field by fans and particularly critics, in the way that novels, short stories and to some extent film/TV are, there would be those – not everyone by any means, but some folks – citing Finder as a major work in the context of that whole field and giving it a lot of awards.

Do I wish there were more comics like Finder in the world? Definitely; but not too many, because I’m not sure my attention span’s up to the job. I don’t think my descriptive faculties are up to the job of conveying what Finder is like, either, but it doesn’t do to let inevitable failure deter one so off we go.

THE FINDER LIBRARY, Vol 1-2

by Carla Speed McNeil, published by Dark Horse

It’s a happy coincidence that the estimable Mr. DeNardo recently produced a series of Kirkus Reviews blog posts talking about ‘social’ science fiction, because Finder is sf as urban geography, anthropology, sociology, psychology, theology and various other –ologies, many of which you might call ‘soft’ sciences.

It’s a series of loosely connected but self-contained stories set in a single, science fictional world. In these two chunky collected volumes for example we get, amongst much else: a complicated tale of ex-military family strife and history; a lampoon of the corporate theme park industry (combined with an intro to a nomadic society of cat-people); a bleak crime story inspired by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping; a gently amusing tale of eccentric romance, higher education and prostitution; and a loving pseudo-fable about the importance of books to their readers. All near-impossible to concisely summarise beyond those one sentence overviews, so I’m afraid I’m not even going to try.

Threaded, sometimes incredibly thickly, around these already intricate narratives is the connective tissue of world- and character-building. It’s full of familiar sf tropes and conceits – virtual realities, neural jacks, cyborgs, domed cities, alien species, disintermediated mass media etc. – but it’s the social speculations that are foregrounded: the details of personal relationships in a world full of different species, and many shades of difference within species; the strange traditions and rules of the clans into which much of human society is divided; the entanglement of the real world, virtual realities and pure imagination. This is sf about people and the lives they’re living.

There is plot, and good it often is, but it’s a vehicle for the exploration of the inner world of complex characters and the outer, science fictional world in which they live. McNeil has built a vast sandbox filled with a huge cast, to serve as the venue for the telling of whatever kind of story takes her fancy at a given moment. The world and its inhabitants enact her stories, but at the same time are fleshed out and complicated and illuminated by them.

Many, but not all, of the stories involve – sometimes centrally, sometimes peripherally – Jaeger, the Finder of the title (Finders are a semi-secret society who … well, find stuff, basically). He’s also an outsider, a sin-eater, an ex-soldier and more. Jaeger is a charismatic creation; emotionally unavailable but well-intentioned, physically capable but also empathetic. Handsome too, the lucky swine. He’s so appealing that it’s tempting to imagine Finder as a love letter to him from his creator. I don’t for a moment think it’s that simple, though; nothing in Finder is that simple.

The whole thing is idiosyncratic, thoughtful, demanding, profoundly humane and sometimes obtuse science fiction of a rare kind. It won’t appeal to everyone, but those who like it will discover a comic that is absolutely remarkable in the extent to which it both requires and rewards their full attention.

And if you’re not giving it your full attention, Finder will pretty much chew you up and spit you out, reducing you to a little masticated puddle of bewilderment. Which was my experience of the first hundred or more pages.  I had a strong suspicion I was reading something very unusual, and probably extremely rewarding, but it was making mush of me with its mighty molars of density and complexity.  I had to read the first volume three times before I could follow every key nuance of setting or narrative or character interaction without recourse to the footnotes that lurk abundantly at the end of each volume.

Which made me think about what footnotes are for, because I adore the things on principle (technically they’re probably annotations here, but footnotes sounds better so I’m sticking with that), and intentionally or otherwise they are central to Finder in ways that are unusual.

A lot of Finder‘s footnotes are of an interesting but unremarkable sort: confessing the author’s influences and noting homages, explaining the stylistic effect being attempted, expanding upon incidental details of the setting. But I’ve not often encountered a fiction in which footnotes are also used quite so frequently to explain to the reader what’s happening in the plot and why characters are doing what they’re doing. Telling the reader, in other words, what it is they’re actually seeing on the story page.

Now, this raises an obvious question. If the full sense of the narrative, and of character development and motivation, isn’t evident from the actual illustrated story, and requires elucidation through footnotes, has something gone wrong? I don’t know.  Maybe?

I suspect, particularly but not exclusively in the early stories, that on occasion there’s a level of narrative obscurity that’s not entirely intended. Clearing this up through explanatory footnotes makes sense.

That’s a bit humdrum, though. There’s another, more romantic, way of looking at it (which doesn’t exclude the possibility of the humdrum explanation being true as well). That is that the footnotes in Finder are an integral part of the reading experience; not annotations at all, not even expansive, illuminating commentary on the main text, but just as much part of that ‘text’ as are the pictures and dialogue balloons. The thing is a unified whole, properly regarded as a single package, in which the story resides as much in the footnotes as in the words and pictures. Once I adjusted my assumptions to that view, the whole thing became much more readable, and indeed enjoyable.

(I’ve got another possible take on the footnotes thing, which is that Finder, in addition to its many other aspects, is akin to a puzzle, and its footnotes are the instructions for solving it, for mentally wrangling it into a coherent whole. But honestly, Finder is that rare thing: a comic open to so much consideration and reflection that at some point you have to stop thinking about it and just let the thing happen to your eyes and brain.)

And lo, not for the first time, I’ve got more or less to the end of one of these columns without having said anything much about the art. (I can’t help it; as a writer, I often get fixated on the writing-related stuff in comics). This’ll have to do: McNeil is a fine artist, producing precise black and white illustrations that occasionally flirt with the cartoony but are essentially realistic. She has a particular gift for expressive characters that look and emote like real people.

So, in summary: Finder is a remarkable work of social, personal science fiction that is so dense and intricate it can sometimes be just a bit too much for me. But when I’m in the right mood, and when McNeil is firing on all cylinders, it’s exceptionally distinctive and engaging sf and as impressive a slab of comics as I’ve read in the last five years.