I love Carla Speed McNeil's Finder, and I imagine the reason I love it is the same reason it doesn't get more attention in the comics press: it's simultaneously straightforward and labyrinthine, genre-based and uncategorizable. It's solid sci-fi of the kind they were making in the 1970s, Ursula Le Guin/Vonda McIntyre type stuff that's all about anthropology and world-building and a little bit of the old feminism. McNeil calls it "aboriginal science fiction," and, for fans, the obsessive, exhaustive endnotes that tail each volume are part of the draw. (The wonderful Spike Trotman has copied the Finder approach for her webcomic Templar, AZ, detailing every nook and cranny of her off-kilter, alternate-universe Arizona town in the print collections.)
The storytelling is straightforward enough, as science fiction or comic books go--McNeil is no formal experimenter, not by a long shot--and yet it's hard to describe what Finder is about. As of the latest volume, Voice, what we know is this. The setting is a far-future society built on the long-forgotten ruins of our own, inhabited by a mix of species human and otherwise. Most of the action takes place in the enormous domed city-state of Anvard, ruled by human clans that maintain genetic purity through breeding programs and strict eugenic self-policing. Only those who pass a clan's fitness test can claim full citizenship; those with no clan at all are non-citizens, many of whom live in nomadic, First Nations-like tribes outside the domes. Anvard is technologically advanced, but much of the technology seems to be old, the secrets behind its manufacture forgotten (no one seems to know how to keep the domes working properly, for one), and civilization as a whole seems to be quietly decaying, maintaining the illusion of structure only through the unbending propriety of the ruling clans.
It's taken nine volumes to piece this much together; McNeil deliberately keeps the details of her society in the background, always faintly out of focus, a backdrop to the adventures of her core group of characters. The protagonist of the series is nominally Jaeger, a hot half-breed who rolls with the nomadic Ascians, has a secret calling as a "Finder," and resembles Wolverine down to the regenerative powers (which, like so many things in Finder, have yet to be explained), but Jaeger barely appears in a number of volumes. Much of the narrative slack is picked up by members of the Grosvenor family in Anvard, with which Jaeger has a complicated (and, unsurprisingly only partly explained) history. Ask a fan to recommend a single volume of Finder, and she--let's face it, it's probably a she--will most likely hand you volume 4, Talisman, about the coming-of-age of bookish youngest Grosvenor daughter Marcie, who shows up in other volumes as an adult who runs a cozy bookstore/cafe and writes novels.
All the Grosvenor children are daughters, even the boys, because their mother belongs to the glamor-conscious Llaverac clan, which selects for feminine traits and maintains the social fiction that all its members are women... but I'm wandering down yet another of the comic's endless twining primrose paths. That's how Finder gets you, by drawing you into the Chi-Rho-page-of-The-Book-of-Kells-level complexities and intricacies of its world. It's easy to get sucked into the world-building of a lot of geek universes, of course--Star Trek, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings--but in comics, Finder might be the most elaborate example outside of Cerebus. Every volume raises ten questions about its setting and characters for each one it answers. McNeil is like Bastian Bux in The Neverending Story, unable to end one story before starting another one, constantly distracted by glittering new ideas. Typical note from this volume: "Brom is a vampire cowboy. I will tell his whole story sometime." Sure you will, Carla.
Okay, okay, Voice. Voice follows teenage Rachel Grosvenor, depicted in previous volumes as a shallow flibbertigibbet who fits into the image-obsessed Llaverac clan better than her siblings. In this volume, Rachel has made it to the finals of the Llaverac Clan Conformation Competition, which is run like a cheerfully crass parody of a beauty pageant. Emergency strikes, and Rachel spends a frantic night/day (light is variable under the dome of Anvard) tracking down Jaeger so he can use his skills as a Finder to find something desperately important to her. (As yet another parenthetical aside among many in this review, to the best of my knowledge Jaeger has actually done Finder work in two, maybe three volumes, despite it being advertised right in the title of the comic. This is typical.)
In the annals of Finder stories, Voice gets fan points for clearing up a number of questions about the workings of Anvard, especially the centuries-old clan eugenics programs that keep the dome's tottering society upright. It's also a bold choice to center a story around one of the less sympathetic characters in the series, forcing readers care about superficial, spineless, supermodel-pretty Rachel and her efforts to win the Llaverac cattle call. Making comic-book fangirls identify with nearsighted bookworm Marcie was shooting fish in a barrel; Rachel is a more ambitious choice of protagonist.
McNeil's art, strong from the start, gets more assured with each volume, and her visual storytelling more direct. I've always enjoyed her classic, comic-booky style and her bold, Steve Englehart-like inking, and her settings keep growing more detailed, her characters more expressive and less stiff. Given that the premise of this volume requires many of the characters to look similar (at one point, Rachel watches the Clan Conformation trials on TV and is unable to tell which of the leggy blondes on screen is herself), it is impressive that McNeil is able to keep them distinctive.
Still, Voice lacks the emotional intensity of Talisman, or the loopy sci-fi imagination of King of the Cats (which involves a tribe of lion-people trapped in a meticulously automated Disney World-like theme park/holy site) or Dream Sequence (about a man who carries a vast and enormously popular MMORPG inside his head). Those are the volumes I'd recommend, to the curious, as entry points into the series. Or Mystery Date, because it's the one with all the sex.
Not long ago, Kristy Valenti wrote, "out of the thousands of comics I’ve pored over and critiqued and argued passionately about and proofread and organized and hustled, there are but a handful about which I can say, this comic was made just for me." For me, and for other readers who have gotten pulled into McNeil's weird and woolly far-future world, Finder is one of those comics.