Carla Speed McNeil Interview
Originally published in May of 2003. The Toronto Comics Arts Festival may have been the first ‘convention’ I ever attended. I had been reading online that Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder was a great series, so I checked out her books at her table and liked what I saw. I bought the 4 Finder TPBs she was selling and have remained a fan of Carla since. I believe this is the first of many interviews I did after meeting the creator at a convention.
Carla Speed McNeil
Carla Speed McNeil has been self-publishing Finder since 1996. Over the years she has gained critical and commercial acclaim. The dramatic book takes place in a future world that is uniquely Carla’s making. I met Carla at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in March of 2003. We agreed to do an interview via e-mail.
Jamie: Where did your middle name Speed come from?
Carla Speed McNeil: Bestowed upon the family by James II, for services to the Crown. The first James Speed was a surveyor. Back then the word ‘speed’ denoted ‘success’, as in “Good luck and godspeed.”
In other words, it’s my maiden name.
Jamie: I understand you went to University prior to doing comic books. Where did you go and what did you take?
Carla Speed McNeil: I attended my state university, LSU, majored in Fine Art/Painting, and obtained my BFA in 1991.
College was well worth pursuing; I got a lot of figure drawing and composition out of it, aside from the basic get-off-your-butt-and-work college stuff. But my degree didn’t give me even half of the skills I needed to do what I do now. I never touched an ink bottle until years after school was over.
Jamie: Did you grow up reading comic books?
Carla Speed McNeil: Sort of. There was no comic shop in my town, and I didn’t care for the stuff on the newsstand.
Jamie: If so, which ones?
Carla Speed McNeil: What I DID have was a huge box of tattered old EC horror comics that were given to me by a cousin. Scared the poo out of me. I loved them.
When I was about fourteen I went through my brief fling with X-MEN. That was when Paul Smith was drawing the book, and after he left, I just wasn’t interested anymore. Right about then I dug CEREBUS #53 and ELFQUEST #13 out of a waterlogged box at a flea market, and just couldn’t believe how absorbing they were… when I went back, I found a Pacific Comics catalogue, and from there, there was no turning back. I ordered black-and-whites by the pound. Best of all was Bill Messner-Loebs’ JOURNEY, with CEREBUS a close second.
Jamie: In Finder, your main character is named Jaeger Ayers. Is he based on anybody real?
Carla Speed McNeil: He’s based on quite a lot of real people. Not the least of these is an uncle of mine who, at the age of seventy-six, caught a live hummingbird in his bare hand, and let it go unharmed. You can’t not write about people like these.
Jamie: I can’t help but notice that Jeager heals quicker than ‘normal’ people and is a loner/rebel. While I feel like a geek for asking this, would Wolverine be one of the influences behind him?
Carla Speed McNeil: Can’t help but be in there, can he? That poor blown-out sock-puppet character does cast a long shadow.
It’s not really hard to understand his continued popularity. For many a long year, he was really the only GUY in comics. Plenty of males, some good, some bad, but only one GUY. Strange.
Jamie: Where did you get the last name Ayers from?
Carla Speed McNeil: Sort of randomly. One of my instructors had that name, and I liked the sound of it. A very minor character in a book had that name, spelled differently. When I remembered that Uluru, that enormous sacred rock in Australia is called Ayers Rock by the non-natives, it really seemed to fit.
Names, for a guy raised the way Jaeger was, are fairly fluid. He barely HAS a last name, and knows nothing about his family.
Jamie: With Finder you won some awards, particularly in 1998 from the Ignatz and Friends of Lulu organizations. Did these awards help your sales?
Carla Speed McNeil: They certainly help with visibility, which boosts sales to an amazing degree.
Jamie: By the way, Congrats on your recent Eisner nomination for Best Writer/Artist.
Carla Speed McNeil: Thank you.
Jamie: When did you get interested in making comic books?
Carla Speed McNeil: All through college, once I realized I didn’t really want to be an animator.
Jamie: Was there one particular book that made you say “I want to do comics too.”
Carla Speed McNeil: No. It was the obvious course of action. I wanted to draw and I wanted to write. One of my art instructors described his gallery show as being ‘narrative art’. ‘Narrative’? He took the class downstairs to have a look at it. His show consisted of many large canvases full of (to my eye) extremely murky abstract imagery with titles drawn from world mythology. He stood over each painting and explained in detail the myth figure he meant to depict.
Botticelli it wasn’t. I’ve seen many, many single images that did indeed tell a story for anybody to see if they put two and two together. Whatever this artist’s intention, those images did not. I wanted to tell stories in a visual medium, and that afternoon cemented for me the fact that a single image can’t do that, even with the perfect title/caption. It can evoke a complex story, sum it up in a brilliantly clever way, but not really tell one.
Jamie: How did you learn the details of self-publishing?
Carla Speed McNeil: First and foremost, from Dave Sim’s rants in the inside front cover of CEREBUS.
Jamie: Did you have any help in getting started? People you talked with that walked you through the steps?
Carla Speed McNeil: My first friend in the business was Michael Cohen, who wrote/drew/published STRANGE ATTRACTORS, MYTHOGRAPHY, and THE FORBIDDEN BOOK. I met him at my first SPX back in… yee. Must have been ’93, ’94. I had half the boards for my first ashcan to wave around. At San Diego the following year, he introduced me to a lot of the distribution folks.
I talked their ears off. I apologized in advance for the frighteningly long list of questions I had to ask.
Jamie: I understand your family has a strong entrepreneurial background. What did you pick up from them that is not found in most ‘how to self publish’ texts?
Carla Speed McNeil: Hm… I haven’t read most ‘hts-p’ texts. Sim’s was great for clearing out mental wool. That two-week page-a-day boot camp idea was and remains an eye-opener.
My folks were there to give me more of the same practical, hardheaded it’s-a-job save-the-artistic-meandering-for-the-story stuff, and a lot of advice on taxes, pricing, and keeping receipts. They helped me learn to look ahead two years, three years, five. I might’ve tripped over a lot of dollars trying to pick up pennies if they hadn’t intervened from time to time.
Tax returns financed the first three TPBs. Sound advice.
Jamie: One of the more financially dangerous things about self publishing are returns on bookstore sales. How have they been?
Carla Speed McNeil: I’m still working on getting into the returnable market. I can’t say the returns process has cut into my sales thus far.
Jamie: I understand, even ardent self publishers like Dave Sim have a Gerhard helping him, allowing for a monthly schedule. Does doing Finder bi-monthly allow you to do everything without burning out?
Carla Speed McNeil: More or less. Putting a little extra pressure on– as I’m doing with the Oni project now– forces me to streamline. Every work method acquires craft over time. A little blind panic over deadlines scrapes off unnecessary steps and laziness admirably.
Jamie: If you could afford to publish Finder in color would you?
Carla Speed McNeil: Would all my readers be happy with getting half the number of issues per year? It’d slow down production quite a lot.
Jamie: With all the comic book stuff in the theaters these days have you had any Hollywood types sniffing around for the rights to do Finder?
Carla Speed McNeil: Not so far.
Well, not Hollywood, anyway. Cinar did come calling. At the time, they were working on a cartoon version of AKIKO ON THE PLANET SMOO. I’ve no idea what’s going on with that one. At any rate, they asked for samples of FINDER to look at. I was bemused– this is a company that makes shows aimed at rather young children, after all. RICHARD SCARRY and things like that. AKIKO itself would have been aimed at an audience older than their usual, but nowhere near as old as the audience for FINDER. The more I talked with them about the possibilities, the less interested I was.
FINDER’s not a kid’s show. Sure, it could be made into one; you could make THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE into a kid’s show if you really wanted it to be one. Just take out all the chainsaws.
I’m picturing THE TEXAS CHAINSAW JAMBOREE.
Jamie: Would you want some sort of creative control over other media versions of Finder?
Carla Speed McNeil: Depends on who’s doing them. If Peter Weir came to me and said he wanted to do a FINDER film, I’d kiss his feet and let him do whatever he liked.
Jamie: Regarding your trip to Canada, did you have any problem getting back to the states without a passport?
Carla Speed McNeil: Actually, no, thanks to the miracle of the fax machine. I had my mother send me a copy of my birth certificate, and breezed on through.
Anybody who had a Chinese passport was in for it, though.
Jamie: How did you make out at the convention? Hopefully our low Canadian Dollar didn’t hurt too much.
Carla Speed McNeil: Pretty well, for a one-day show, I think. Can’t say for sure, ’cause I still haven’t gotten it all converted. Everybody told me not to do it on the Canadian side or in the airport, and frankly, I haven’t figured out what bank to try first. Dope-de-doe…
Jamie: Do you like our multi colored monopoly money and funky coins? 🙂
Carla Speed McNeil: LOVE the coins. I heard some people complaining about how heavy their pockets/purses can get, but I loved having change in my pocket that was actually worth something– reaching for a coin FIRST instead of a bill was great!
I’d far rather have a roll of two-dollar coins in my briefcase than that huge jersey-roll of ones I’m sadly resigned to carrying.
As for the multi-colored monopoly money, I can tell you, you’ve got nothing on Argentina. Blinding bills they have. The Powerpuff Girls aren’t as brightly colored.
Jamie: You said you used a Canadian Cartoon called Sawing For Teens in your note in the back of Finder: Sin Eater Vol. 1. While in Canada, did you get a chance to check out more Canadian Cartoons?
Carla Speed McNeil: No, but I did get a lead on where to find a copy of another Richard Condie film, called THE PIG BIRD. Been looking for that one for years. Condie’s the KING.
Carla’s website is http://www.LightSpeedPress.com, where she has several issues of Finder online to read for free.