The Footnoted Universe of Cartoonist Carla Speed McNeil


Carla Speed McNeil has an astoundingly detailed imaginary world inside her head, and so does her scrawny, wireless-antenna-haired character Magri White. McNeil is a cartoonists’ cartoonist, nominated for Eisner Awards (comics’ Oscars) for the last three years, but still little-known outside her cult. The fifth collection of her self-published science fiction series Finder concerns Magri’s dilemma: He’s a place, rather than a person. His brain is a lucrative virtual- reality environment, “Elsewhere,” but a monster from his subconscious has been attacking its VR visitors. They’re starting to sustain neurological damage, and Magri’s stunted private identity is losing its grip on his public fantasy. The story pits simulation and reification against each other—it’s a blunt metaphor for the agonies of creating (or re-creating) culture, but it also suggests how immersion in a fiction can blur the lines between creator and consumer. Plus it’s got shape-changing demons and robot secretaries in it.

The real delight of Dream Sequence is McNeil’s encyclopedic command of the civilization she’s invented—a glorious, catholic pileup of high-tech SF, fannish fantasy and street-level culture clash that incorporates every clever notion she’s ever picked up from a comic book or anime video, and throws in so many more that 14 pages of footnotes point out the allusions and concepts that there’s no room to explain in the story itself. In the world of Finder, rival clans coexist uneasily in domed cities, media junkies labor to afford fancier neural-interface jacks for their skulls, and animal-headed genetic hybrids hang out with humans (and are legally forbidden to have the same arrangement of fingers). McNeil’s drawing incorporates the visual shorthand of animation, augmented with exuberant detail and bold, often extravagant page design. She’s got so many neat ideas that they can crowd each other out, but as demons go, this one’s pretty tame.