Jaeger Ayers is your average quick healing, half indian, sin eating Finder trying to make his way in the world. Of course that world includes giant lizards, virtual worlds contained inside one man's head, domed cities, towns where people are a living theme park attraction and half cat bookstore security guards.
This the world that writer/artist Carla Speed McNeil has been documenting in her award winning series "Finder" for the past eight years, following Jaeger and an assorted cast's travels. McNeil recently announced that the long running, self published series would move to the internet starting with issue thirty eight, a radical change for the critically acclaimed series. We spoke with McNeil about her decision and where the series is headed.
"Finder," a complex series told by interweaving characters, has never been an easy series to put into a quick description, even for the person who created it. "The usual main character is a guy named Jaeger, who is an aboriginal detective. A half-Indian with no concept of minding his own business. The setting is nominally science fiction so that I can make things up and still depict a world that feels real." said McNeil, "Jaeger isn't always center stage. I've done stories with other protagonists, Marcie from 'Talisman' (still a fan favorite, since it's about being a book nerd), Vary from 'Mystery Date' (ditto, since she's a cute girl), and Magri from 'Dream Sequence' (surprising how well that one sells, since Magri's batshit crazy and not cute). Jaeger always plays some role in these other stories. Using him is like playing a face card. Using someone else is making a new face card. People expect a certain type of story when a face card is played; over time they build up meaning."
McNeil, a Lousiana native now settled in Maryland, has been making comics on her own for nearly a decade, but her love of comics goes back to a cousin's attempts to escape his mother's wrath. "I had a big box of EC horrors that my cousin dumped at my house to hide them from his mother," said McNeil. "Those things scared the whiz out of me. I loved 'em so much I don't dare try to collect them now; I'll never be able to view them the same way and I don't want to subject them to the jaundiced eye of adulthood. I went through my obligatory fling with 'X-Men' right about the time Paul Smith was drawing them. When Smith left, I lost interest. Didn't matter, because by then I'd found Alan Moore's run on 'Swamp Thing' and Bill Sienkiewicz 's art on 'New Mutants,' and not long after that I dug 'Cerebus' #52 and 'Elfquest' #13 out of a junk box at a flea market. One Pacific Comics order form later, and there really was no turning back."
The growing infatuation with the form didn't lead to creating her own comics until the mid nineties, when "Cerebrus" creator Dave Sim was running columns on self publishing their own comics. "I wanted to do comics, but just couldn't quite get my act together," explained McNeil. "Dave was giving practical get-off-your-ass advice in his columns, so I did it. I brought a stack of pages for my first mini to SPX, and in fall '97 published my first offset-printed book."
McNeil drew from a variety of sources when she was creating "Finder" referencing everything from pop science to southern classics in order to create the remarkably unique series. "I read pop science by the shovelful. Stephen Jay Gould, Marvin Harris, Jared Diamond. 'Microhistories' like 'Longitude' and 'The Great Influenza.' Fiction, fiction, hmmm... 'To Kill A Mockingbird' and 'The Haunting of Hill House,' though I can't write anything like either of them." said McNeil, "Artwise-- well, the Hernandez brothers still make it look way too easy. They're the only ones I can timidly point to as influences I've somewhat absorbed; others, like Marc Hempel-- well, I love his work, and Steve Rude's, and Adam Warren's, but they're nothing alike and I can't draw like any of them."
When she did take the plunge, McNeil went straight into self-publishing. Aside from occasional work for more mainstream publishers, as when she illustrated a volume of Warren Ellis' Apparat Comics for Avatar last year or her work on "Queen & Country" for Oni Press, she's never worked with an outside publisher. "No publisher's ever proposed it to me, and I've not really been on the hunt... when I first started out, nobody in their right mind would have taken me on. I look at my earliest work myself and think, 'About half there. If this kid lasts check her out again then.' I had to work to learn, and what publisher can afford a green writer or artist that kind oftime?" said McNeil, "I gave myself five years to starve and live in a tiny apartment and self-publish. If the thing wasn't turned around in five years, I'd think about changing my business model in some basic way. Five years came and went and I was doing fine on my own. Now, here in year eight, I'm making a big change in order to go forward."
The big change is dropping the single issues. "Finder" has never been a huge seller in singles, and has been mentioned repeated and inaccurately as one of the good, but low selling titles that might get the axe under Diamond Distribution's new benchmark policy, but the sales of the trade paperback collections have always been strong. The singles mostly served to promote the trades, a function they were becoming increasingly inefficient for. "I'd been thinking about it for a long time," said McNeil. "Quite a few people have. The issues had always been mostly advertising for me-- they made a little money over their print bills, but not a lot, and for two years, sales have been stagnant. If they're meant to be advertising, they weren't reaching new people. The web can."
A big inspiration to make the switch was Phil Foglio, who recently moved his series "Girl Genius" from print to a web format, a move which resulted in new readers and new life for that series. "Phil Foglio deserves the credit, really. Not like there aren't other webcomics out there that have their income streams all set, but Phil was the first I knew personally to go from print to web. I'm amazed at how little notice people have paid to his taking 'Girl Genius' on-line; it was a radical change and he says it's going like gangbusters. It has been a big step up. I've had retailers this summer shake my hand in glee, they say they expect their 'Finder' TPB sales to go way up."
McNeil doesn't regret the years she spent putting out the single issues, and thinks that print issues are still valuable for the beginning and experienced self publisher alike. "I would still print something. I will still print an annual, to serve as my giveaway at comic shows. Issues to give away have drawn in a lot of new readers."
From now on, each new issue will available, for free, at LightspeedPress.com with the trade edition continuing to come out every July, just as it has for the past seven years. The trades will have some bells and whistles that the online editions don't, like the popular endnotes that the trades feature, an idea she got from comics legend Alan Moore. "'From Hell' had notes detailing all of Moore's research and some of Campbell's. I imagine Moore did this mainly to defend himself from the avalanche of murder loonies who would land on him after he wrote that book," said McNeil. "Honestly, I needed a toy to put in with three-issue packs of back issues. I didn't want to do a cheap lasercopy and call it a 'print.' So I just blathered on in greater depth about all the details that I left out rather than let them bog the already-dense story down, and I started coming up with more details as I went. The notes now constitute a weird back-up story in their own right. People started asking for them all the time; it only made sense to include them in the collections."