PCU Interview: Carla Speed McNeil
PCU: So, you are now at the 20th anniversary of Finder. How does it feel after 20 years?
CSM: It feels really wonderful. I mean, it’s really great. When I got started [in 1996], things were in such a trough, you know? The 80s bubble had burst like a typhoon, and I just said to myself, there’s no sense in waiting for things to get good again. Get in now, and if things get good again, you’ll be right there. And lo and behold…wow, what a different world it is. There’s so many new movies, new TV shows, new comics, new faces. The whole environment is different, and it’s great.
So where were you in 1996? What were you doing at that age?
Not much. I still had my last straight job, working in a bookstore. Working in Borders, of all places. You know, which was a really fun place to work back then. That’s a whole other sob story. And you know, working, and doing the daily commute, and trying to find time and trying to figure out my work methods, so I’d always have time to work on it. And that’s the most difficult thing at first.
But you know, what you don’t realize when you’re getting started, and you’re always wailing about how you don’t have enough time to work on a comic, because you’ve got to go to work, and daydreaming of leaving the straight job and doing comics full time and everything? Well, you know, it’s still worth it to try to get as fast as you can while staying good because there will be other things that take up just as much time as a day job. You know, it’ll be kids, or it’ll be a sick partner, or God forbid, sick you. Or you’ll have to move home to take care of your parents. Or heaven only knows, you know? It’ll be something, and some other opportunity will come along that you really should not say no to.
So you’ve just got to force yourself to make time to do those things? If it’s your dream, you’ve got to do it?
Exactly. But there will always be time management issues, is my point. And not being precious about your work, and being good as you can while being as fast as you can, is always kind of a thing to work towards.
I’ve got to say: you don’t look like someone who’s been doing this for 20 years. What’s keeping you young?
What’s keeping me young? (Laughs) Am I? I don’t know. Look at the hair. I don’t know.
I love it. This is a thing I’ve wanted to do since I was itty-bitty tiny. I never really wanted to do anything else. I’m kind of a frustrated animator, but as I got to be a teenager and came to understand just how many people it takes to make an animated film…maybe I’m too antisocial. That kind of creative environment with a lot of really wonderful people all headed towards a mutual goal must be an incredible experience. But you’ve got to bear in mind that when I was going through college–I graduated high school in 1986–nothing was happening in animation. Nothing. The Disney Renaissance was years, years ahead. To go to animation school then, the only one there was, really was kind of a–this is what I want to do.
I didn’t grow up saying to myself: I want to work for Disney. This is all I ever wanted to do. No. Really what I wanted to do was tell stories visually. And so I said, as much as I am in love with and will always be in love with an image moving on the screen that was drawn by somebody, at the same time what I really want to do is tell stories. My stories. Comics were the only thing that does that. And does that so well.
So after 20 years, are there any particular issues of Finder that stick out in your mind? What’s a favorite moment? Where would you want someone to get started, because there’s obviously so much volume you’ve put out in 20 years.
Well, you know, the industry was such a different place when I got started that I’ve ended up creating a book that is kind of hard to explain, because I’ve tried to jam everything into it that I’ve wanted to do and leave a high enough ceiling that I could tell the kind of story that I wanted to tell.
How do you describe Finder? Because it is so thick with material. It’s gender studies, it’s anthropology, it’s pop culture, it’s science fiction. In your mind, how do you sell this to someone?
Badly, really. (Laughs) It’s hard to sell, to be perfectly honest. It is just the inside of my head, writ large. Because it’s everything that I’m fascinated by mooned into a story. All the pop science that I like to read and all done “wrong” so that scientists won’t write my nasty letters telling me that I’m doing it wrong. Because what fascinates me is the way human culture bangs up against itself so often. It seems so contradictory, and wherever there’s a contradiction, there’s a story. The fact that we live in an age of miracles and wonder, and yet it’s completely ordinary to us. The breadth of human experience. You know, you can wake up in a log shack and strap on a penis gourd to go fishing, and that’s completely ordinary. Or you can ride in a train underground, and go up in a box on a piston, and sit in a tiny cubicle with more computing power than it took to go to the moon, and that’s completely ordinary. It’s amazing, but it’s ordinary.
And so Finder captured some of that spirit. I know that when I first looked through the first volume, I went to a random page and I found a half topless woman, singing Annie Lennox songs, and someone says “Look, there’s your grandpa,” and I’m just reacting: what the hell am I reading?
And that’s not in a bad way, but it’s a very different, very cerebral kind of story.
The world is a wonderful place. That particular thing came from growing up in New Orleans. You know, New Orleans, there’s always a party somewhere. There’s always something growing on, and people take that completely for granted.
Going back to my earlier question, do you have any particular favorite story, that after 20 years, you’re just like: hey, someone should go read this one?
I’ve spent most of that 20 years doing individual stories that could be read as standalones. Just to experiment and find out: how would I do a horror story? How would I do a love story? How would I do a detective story? The one that’s easiest for people to get into of that lot is “Talisman,” because it’s about being a book nerd, about loving the book, and always having something in your pocket.
You know, I went in for carpal tunnel surgery, and I had a paperback that I was using as a bookmark in a hardcover, and one of the nurses kind of picked at me. Like, “Why do you have one book inside of another book?” “In case I get bored.” Of course, now, I can carry a whole library everywhere in my pocket and I still can’t get through that.
“Talisman” was born out of writer’s block and the things you do to get around that. I was reading this amazing William Gouldman book, The Color of Light, at the time, which is also a writer’s block novel. The character in it has written an amazing first novel, very very young, but he’s done it by immersing himself into the most painful memories that he can conjure up out of his childhood. And so he’s written this incredible novel and everybody’s lauded it, money’s coming, and now it’s time to write that second book, and the only he could get to top it was so horrible, that it broke him and he could not write the book. And I was just like, “Oh my god! Oh my god! William Gouldman, what are you doing to me?” And I started writing this other thing, in a way, casting a spell over myself to get through that, something I couldn’t write, couldn’t get straight on. And people really seemed to respond to it. That’s the old book that I throw at people. Because that was the first one that I could really see as a writer with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and where I wanted to go with it.
Of the new stuff, probably the easiest to explain is one called “Dream Sequence,” which is about a guy…it’s kind of a flip side of “Talisman,” really. It’s about a guy whose whole purpose in life is to create a meticulously detailed fantasy world inside his head, so that millions of people on a daily basis can jack in his skull and visit as if it were a real place. And he’s got this Disney World-sized corporation that’s entirely dependent on his ability to continue doing this. Which means he has no privacy at all and no time for himself, and he’s having a nervous breakdown and doesn’t understand why. And that’s a horror story, because we all have at least one creator whose skull we’d like to crack open like a candy jar to get something out of if we thought it would work. We would kill the golden goose without hesitation, just out of desire.
Do you ever have a secret fear that someone’s going to crack your skull open like that?
I’m sure there’s those who would, but I have those that I would too, so….
I can tell there’s crazy stuff in your head. I think there’d be some writers who’d be fascinated by what goes on in there.
(Laughs) I’m very easily bored. I always have to have something going on in me.
I do notice that you step away from Finder every so often and then come back. You take some breaks, and then come back.
I never really leave. Because I’ve always got a script, and I’ve always got a chapter that I’m working on.
But you do take time off. You’ve worked on My Little Pony, The Legend of Korra over at Dark Horse [Editor’s note: she actually did Avatar: The Last Airbender]…
I did the Free Comic Book Day book, but just because I’m working on those does not mean that I’m not workng on Finder.
So it’s ongoing even when you’re on a break.
Absolutely. It comes out in eight-page chunks in Dark Horse Presents. Eight pages takes me next to nothing to do. So I’ve got plenty of time while maintaining that schedule to do all kinds of other things. And I really enjoy my collaborations with writers. I’ve really, really gotten a kick out of that. I’ve learned a great deal from the way other people do their thing. It’s like being a session musician and jamming with somebody. It’s really fun.
What else do you have in the hopper right now besides No Mercy?
Well, Adam Warren and I have been talking about how I need to draw something for him for years now. I’m finally going to do that next year. I’m going to do an Empowered short series. And he gave me the character I wanted. I get to do Sister Spooky! She’s going to be great.
Of course, more No Mercy.
I know you’ve done some kid-oriented stuff. You did My Little Pony…you’ve got at least one child of your own, right?
I’ve got two.
Does any of that drive what you work on? You’re not going to let your 10 year-old read No Mercy.
Nooooo. No. But both my kids like My Little Pony and both my kids like Steven Universe, although I love Steven Universe beyond all reason. I really ought to go beg at Kaboom! and see if I can pitch something there. I’m always ready for little side jobs. I met a bunch of guys at the Archie table .
You did “Archie Meets Finder” during the Predator crossover.
I did two pages. And that just about broke my head, but I figured it out, how to present the characters together without either of them looking too weird. And now that Archie is OK with new styles that are not the “house” style, I could do Archie. I could have my fun with that stuff. That’s definitely part of my childhood makeup.
And, oh, yeah! And how can I have forgotten this? I’m doing fill-in issues for a horror book for Dark Horse called Harrow County, which is a great, creepy, ghost story type of thing.
Let’s talk No Mercy. So you did for issues, took a break, did another five issues, took a break. Now it looks like we’re about to start up again.
Well, I don’t know where it is in the pipeline right now. But issue 10 is completely done, issue 11 is…
I’ve seen it solicited. I think November it’s coming, so 10’s got to be September-October.
11 I just finished inking, 12 is penciled. So, you know, it’s chugabooing along.
How do you want to describe No Mercy at this point? When I first read it, it was initially “Kids in Mexico have a very bad day.” But it seems to be morphing into more of a social commentary about young people.
You know, an event like that in your life is never really over. You know, there’s never any “Oh, what a terrible vacation” and then everything goes back to normal. It’s never normal. And that was really kind of the point. The thing that Alex [De Campi] is really good at is capturing that oil and water combination of youth where you’re capable of such wonderful, heroic things and such horrible, selfish things in the same moment sometimes.
We’re reading this book now. My wife and I both agree: all of these kids are awful. Except the deaf kid, Antony.
They’re all awful. You know, everybody’s awful somehow or other. Tiffani and Deshawn are pretty good. Tiffani is never without her emojis even when her phone is no longer with her, and Deshawn’s the strong, silent type, so we don’t actually know a lot about him just the same. When you’re young, you’re just not who you’re going to be, and you’re not used to being the one who decides the way things go. You’re used to having a safety net of adults somewhere who are going to be the ones who fix things, and when it’s just you, you’re going to do some amazing screw-ups before you do anything terrific. But you’re still capable of so much.
This whole drama is: bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people. Bad people do heroic things sometimes, it’s very messy and confusing, but it’s the essence of drama.
I’ve got to ask you about issue #9, the Charlene issue.
Sebastian. That’s his real name.
Sebastian. OK. So how much did it suck to work on that issue? That was such a kick in the nuts to read that. [Note: No Mercy #9 revealed that Sebastian, a transgender character, had spent time in a “child correction center” where another character committed suicide. The issue included a list of real-world children who died in such facilities from suicide or maltreatment.]
Gave me “the mean reds,” as they say, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s not even depressing. It’s so horrifying that this kind of thing exists and goes on all the time. It’s way beyond “pray away the gay” and it’s down to torment, torture, and death. They are just notoriously awful. I’m not trying to make sympathy for Sebastian’s idiot parents who are far more concerned with surface things than anything else. But at the same time, you know, when you have a kid you just don’t understand, you are not…your life has just not given you what it takes to have true compassion and an ability to step away from the dumb things that you value.
I didn’t want to try to portray the parents in a sensitive light because they’re not. They’re awful people. But some people are just born into the wrong family, and in a different family his life would have been a different thing. And there’s no telling his parents that. But he will have his day. He’s had some of it, but he will have his day when they see what they’ve given up.
One interesting thing you did in that issue was that you had the suicide scene, and then you paused with the list of real-life people who died, and what was interesting is that would have been a perfect ending point for the story. But then you continued on with the flashback to how the whole thing got started. What went into that artistic decision to do that?
That was Alex’s artistic decision. When Alex was waffling about including that scene because the story was going into extra pages and everything, I said: oh no, no, no, no. You have to have that in there, because otherwise, it might just seem sensational. It might just seem like a thing people were putting in to just kind of be grinding and depressing, without bringing it home. These are the lost. Like that list of names on every ship that has gone down with all hands. Lost at sea and never found. It never fails to give me a chill. And those kids were lost, if not in fact thrown away.
Did you have to just go wash your brain after working on that issue?
No, no, because I didn’t want to. I wanted to think about it, I wanted to let it sink in, because there are always stories that are never told, and those kids’ stories were tragically cut off for no reason, and the world has to be a big enough place to let people be who they are.
[At this point, our interview was cut short due to Baltimore Comic-Con experiencing a fire alarm. We thank Carla Speed McNeil, and recommend that our readers check out Finder from Dark Horse Comics and No Mercy from Image.]