Reading one of Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder comics is like wandering through a strange new city without a reliable guide.
Unlike Ursula K Le Guin, another master of anthropological science fiction, McNeil doesn’t build up her world systematically; instead, you discover information about the cultures in Finder almost incidentally, by watching the characters interact and keeping your eye on some of the key sights. No wonder Kelly Sue DeConnick compared the book to a shotgun blast!Still, I'll stick with my 'strange city' analogy, if only because of the comic's pace. Freshly released in a hardcover volume, Finder: Sin Eater is a brilliant, wandering introduction to a truly great comic book. It's a twisted mess of a story, with family ties, military ties and cultural boundaries revealing themselves at a leisurely pace, all the better to fully appreciate the damaged contexts the cast of characters live in. McNeil's art becomes more and less abstract as the story dictates, sometimes becoming almost manga-like in its simple expressionism, at other points snapping into realistic focus to give us a better look at the thoroughly singular world she's created.
What saves Finder from the most obvious pitfall of world-building fantasy is exactly this fascination with the demands character and story. While their methods may differ, both Le Guin and McNeil understand that the essential otherness that is at the heart of their imaginings is also the raw material of drama. Le Guin's great novels (The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness) draw grand personal conflicts out of the clashes between cultures or societies; McNeil's stories are driven by more grounded concerns, but her depictions of family interactions in Sin Eater have the same elliptical vitality as her most bizarre imaginings.
Indeed, there are passages in Sin Eater that show me just how lazy a reader most comics expect me to be. While McNeil is capable of broad cartooning, she's also happy to let subtle body language and bare bones dialogue suggest the bigger picture. So, for example, a character will tell another character that they can ask 'one question' without much in the way of an obvious build-up, and you're expected to infer the connection. It's a simple enough scene to parse, but most comics tend to signpost such conversational twists in a really clumsy way, so it's refreshing to be jolted out of your complacency, to have to deal with the strangeness of simple conversation.
And if you think that this is evidence of a lack of imaginative follow-through, there are also copious notes at the back of the book that show just how much thought McNeil has put into every detail of her work. Of course, you could argue that there are times where more of this should have made it onto the page, but in the end I would argue that Finder's strength lies in the way it takes many different times of oddness for granted. Like I said above, otherness is the stuff of pure drama, but it's also essential to the conflicts and pleasures of our day-to-day lives. Without any knowledge of who we aren't, we'd have a hard time contextualising who we are, you know? And if this play of difference can lead to love, or humour, or surprise then it can also lead to violence, bigotry and misunderstanding. It's this fact that smart writers of anthropological fiction explore, and it's this sense of exploration that makes a book like Finder: Sin Eater worthwhile... that makes it more than just fictive cartography.