In a sense, this is an odd book to introduce me to the work of writer and illustrator Carla Speed McNeil, but it's a perfect one from another angle. Sure, it's the fourth book in her Eisner Award-winning 'Finder' series, but it's a standalone that follows a particular story for a character who doesn't seem to be a particular focus of the wider series. In fact, 'Finder' has meaning to the series, I believe, but it has no meaning here at all. I found myself able to dive straight in, without knowing anything about 'Finder' or its characters and understand what I needed to.
That's because this is clearly a side story that McNeil felt that she needed to tell and realised that she could do that within a world she'd already built. I got the impression that this is a very personal story for her and it may have almost written itself. There's a real urgency to what happens that applies fine to the central character but also seems to apply to the process of writing it, as if the story just fell out of McNeil onto the page, continuing to do so until it was told.
It's about a girl and a book. The girl is Marcie (short for Marcella), who is, according to Wikipedia, the daughter of Emma Lockhart, one of the core characters in the city of Anvard. None of that matters. Marcie is only seven when this book begins and, as far as she's aware, Emma makes "her living off of getting lost in her own world" and that's all we need to know. We're following Marcie here, not her mother. The only thing that matters about Emma is that her husband Brigham is fundamentally broken in some way and so she entertains a visitor. Maybe he's just a friend, maybe he's something more, but he comes and goes and when he comes he brings a book with him to read to Marcie.
That book is everything to Marcie, who can't read but adores the idea that there's a story in a book, an antique because nobody has dead tree products any more in this particular future, and that story transports her. There are wonderful spreads where we get glimpses into what's going on in this story and it's all over the map, but it's magnetic to Marcie in the way that most readers probably remember, even if they don't remember which book captivated them so when they first encountered literature. What's more, this one seems to be about her, which enchants her all the more.
And when this particular visitor stops coming round, Marcie champs at the bit, wanting to know what was still to come in this magical book that she could lose herself in, through someone else's voice. Eventually, she's able to persuade Emma to read it to her, but it isn't the same. The story's not right. She thinks her mum is reading it wrong. And, calamity of calamities, by the time she learns to read herself in order to immerse herself back into the world of the book, her mother has got rid of it.
So begins a search, as Marcie grows up a little, for a very particular book in a world that has so few of them, but on a wider scale for a story that can't ever be found. Of course, as I'm sure you've probably figured out already, that's because this book works on two levels. Sure, we can take it as read, and ache for Marcie to find the story of her childhood, but we know too that it's a metaphor for growing up. Our memories will change as we grow up and learn and become who we're supposed to be and even the most precious of them will fade. They may remain in emotional form, as we remember what they meant to us at an age when things meant everything, but not in detail. We can't relive them, even as we yearn to.
And, of course, it's also a story about the power of stories, which resonated with me and I'm sure must resonate with any reader. Never mind the 'Finder' series and whatever that's about, this is universal, almost as universal as universal gets. It may be phrased as a book within a book, but it's really just a story, told by one human being to another and, at the heart of it everything, that's all that culture is: stories.
This isn't a particularly large graphic novel, just nudging past a hundred pages, even with copious notes to wrap it up if you're that invested in the series. However, it's a real book for book lovers. It looks great, the art simple but highly effective. But what matters most is that it captures the wonder of reading, of hearing stories. Really it transcends its medium to remind us of how we got here as readers, as cultural explorers and I can't imagine a reader who won't feel that deep down in their core. It's a beautiful book.
The catch is that, now that I've read it and fully expect to re-read it again and again, I'm not sure that I have any need to explore the series that it's nominally part of. It's as standalone as it gets. I don't want to diffuse its firm impact by learning more about Marcie or Emma or anyone else here. Maybe that visitor has meaning in the wider series and maybe that'll spoil what he brings to this one as a fleeting presence who made the right impact to the right person at the right time. Maybe I should keep it a standalone. ~~ Hal C F Astell