The first thing to know about Finder is that it is really weird. Carla Speed McNeil began crafting this story in 1996, self-publishing it for more than fifteen years before Dark Horse collected her first three Eisner Award-winning story-arcs into a single colume, released a year ago. (Here is McNeil telling the story.) The new edition is a finalist for the LA Times Book Prizes, which will be given next month.
Finder is a book full of beginnings, a provocative pile-up of crushing characters — both human and human-ish — living in and around the far-future domed city of Anvard. Here you will find familiar elements of great stories: a family strained by secrets, a man haunted by the mysterious and brutal legacy of his father, debates about how integrated we should be with our technology, political maneuvering, seduction. And here, also, you will find things wildly strange: sin-eaters, women with the heads of lions, yellow eyes, a "painwright" gallery where an oracle will barter with you for information on the pain of others if you share with it your own pain.
The "Finder" of the title is named Jaeger. Such a thing is described like this in the text:
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.
It is Jaeger's thread — and his other, darker identity — that ties together the wide-ranging storylines, though he is hardly the only narrator; he shifts in and out of the foreground as the cast itself overlaps, shifts, ages. Jaeger is among the characters who bring humor to the pages, weaving an enigmatic but wry voice into a story that traffics in ideas about cities, media, family, individuality, human nature, guilt, redemption, conforming ideals, and art. (I might add that it is McNeil's art, too, that leavens the story: dynamic without being indulgent, fascinating without being cryptic. It certainly carries its share of the storytelling subtlety and momentum.) As another reviewer pointed out: unlike many other science-fiction narratives, the fate of the world is never at stake in Finder. It is interesting, then, how tectonic this plated story feels.
What makes this world so utterly consuming, so glaringly immersive, is that it does not make sense. This is a world that is unexplained. (There are unnumbered endnotes, but I read for the first time without them, an experience I recommend.) Symbols will catch your eye, but have no apparent follow-through. Storylines flow deeply, but take abrupt turns, loose threads a-flying. There is no here-to-there narration. There are no instructions on how to make sense of these strange places, and the creatures in them. This, then, is what makes the weird Finder comics an ultimately realistic story: you must take what you are given. It is as it is. Move forward, and fall in love all the same.
"Talisman" is the section near the end that is dedicated to "the kid with the book, wherever and everywhere." Perversely, I wanted this part to be merely on par with what had come before — the back cover informs me that this section is a "fan favorite," and so there I was pre-emptively asserting my uniqueness. But in fact, the resonance of the pages burned, partly fueled by the circuitous journey I'd already been on with this strange story. My reading slowed. This is the section narrated by Marcie, who had been a young child and a secondary character thus far. You half-wondered if she really could do magic by the time you got to her section. The first lines in the first full chapter of "Talisman" read:
The greatest gift I was ever given was a book. It was given to me by a friend of the family who often turned up unexpectedly, like a neighborhood cat.
This friend, of course, is Jaeger. And over the panels, there is this lovely moment where he is reading the book to Marcie in his "gravelly" voice and you see how the hieroglyphs she can't decipher transform into full-blooded dreams as he narrates them, line by line. Marcie falls head-over-heals for the madly beautiful stories in the book, but Jaeger leaves before he finishes the book. Before she is able to read herself or find someone who can read the book "right" to her, it is thrown out. She goes on to fight a long battle in trying to learn to read handheld books herself (a neglected, artisan practice in Anvard), and then to struggle to write the stories she loves, that light her imagination aflame, that trail her like ghosts. There are so many empty spaces and blank pages. And screams. There is real pain in her difficulty in translating the transient but potent stuff of her mind into stories that make others see — see! — even as her real-life world creaks with duties and rages that have become ordinary. "It is in my nature to love chasing thngs that can't be caught," she tells us. "My book may be blank, but it will never be empty." I was barely begun with Marcie's story before I felt a full-body ache, a catch in my throat. It's beautiful.
I literally gasped when I turned the page and found my book finished. I had a healthy number of pages in my right hand still — all endnotes, which I will dive into as soon as I sign off on this review, and color plates of the original Finder covers collected here. I gasped. I was reading in the bath, and I leapt out, and here I am, still warm-flushed, to call to you. This book shudders with both great pain and joy. It bristles with uncertainty. You don't get to know everything you want to know. It's feathered with nods to other texts. Its characters beat powerful drums, every one worth hearing.
This story is ongoing, as yet incomplete, and that feels right.