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Feb 22

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Finder: Talisman (A graphic novel so good, I didn’t want to read it…)

Last fall (between some military schooling) I was lucky enough to attend the Baltimore Comic Con.

Thinking back on it now, it seems a bit…I don’t know, preordained?

You see, I picked up a graphic novel there. And it had a rather profound effect on my life.

I was in a far corner of the comic convention.

A part of the fish tank that was far less trafficked. Even so, hundreds of convention goers still milled around me like colorfully costumed carp.

Here was the shanty town of the independent presses, web comics, and the self-published. This was where the artists who couldn’t afford tables in the center ring–and those few who didn’t want them–set up their tables.

Much like a large medieval village, the kings and queens held lavish banquets behind me in the center of the convention hall. Their prefab castle walls covered in colorful tapestries of iconic comic book characters.

Large banners were hung from the high ceiling above. They waved slightly in the breeze stirred up by the thronging crowds below.

They were emblazoned with loud, large, and gaudy logos. These were the standards of Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image and Top Cow.  Silently, they battled each other, fighting to be seen by the crowd below.

Comic shops, card collectors, and bootleg anime creators sent scantily clad Super Girls, Harley Quinns, and White Queens into the large schools of nerds, geeks and collectors.

Like sirens, they tried to entice them to swim into their master’s mazes of tables. Trapped in tiny comic kingdoms, they would wile away the hours reading and shopping…spending all their money before they could wander into rival kingdoms.

I didn’t like being told what I was supposed to like, what I was supposed to buy. I’m not a standard-bearer; I don’t have time to argue about who would win in a fight between Superman and the Hulk.

I don’t like the bright neon lights, and manufactured hype of the comic industry. I hang out in the shadows and back alleys. And I’m not the only one there.

Yeah, a few people are always swimming in the boondocks.

People like me.

Those less concerned with packaging, and more interested in content. Those impervious to cheap merchandising, and the distractions of young women in spandex (err, mostly impervious).

I call them the Comic Book Ronin.

They don’t have a master; in a battle between DC and Marvel they don’t choose sides. They don’t even give a damn. They only care about the new, the strange, and the undiscovered.

A lot of it doesn’t come from this country. And a lot of it isn’t in English.

They are on a lonely and continual quest to find new creators of comics, art, and fiction before they become corrupted by the corrosive influence of popularity, wealth, and the status quo.

They know when a comic gets popular and goes mainstream. They can tell you the issue number that the creator sells out. They don’t have one favorite artist, character, or comic.

Before I even talked to its creator though, the illustration on the cover had already caught my eye…

In bold, yet simple lines and colors, a girl stood basking in the warm glowing light that emanated from the pages of a rather plain-looking book (except for the fact that it was floating in mid-air and glowing, of course).

 

“That’s Marcy,” The red-headed woman on the other side of the table cheerfully offered.

And then she promptly turned away, and pulled out a stack of colorful graphic novels from a large brown box beside her. Quietly, she started to refill the stacks of books that were set out neatly on the table before me.

As I picked up the book that had brought me over to the table, and flipped through its pages…I knew with a subtle certainty she wasn’t ignoring me.

She was just letting what she sold do the talking for her.

It was unlike almost every other table I had walked by: she didn’t shove flyers, bookmarks, comics, posters, or action figures in my face; insisting that her creation was the next ‘big thing.’

Her quiet confidence told me she was either very skilled at peddling her wares (a seasoned and experienced fisherman capturing her customers with a net of creativity, rather than herding them with the loud squawks of a seagull)–or even less likely: an artisan far more concerned with creating her work, than actually selling it.

Either one was a welcomed relief.

I shook my head, and smiled.

After all, this was an unexpected turn of events. I had discovered something that was of far more interest to me than just comics…

An interesting person.

I collect those too.

Or at least their stories.

And there are many people in the world.

And yes, while it’s true and every life has a story, I’m a very discriminating collector.

I’m not interesting in listening to all of them–only the good ones.

Some of them are boring. Some of them are incomplete. And some don’t make any sense at all.

I don’t really care about spies, soldiers, forgotten royalty, or real life true-love.

That’s the difference between spoken stories and cardboard Hollywood blockbusters–you don’t need eye candy, archetypes, or a happy ending to give them life.

Somebody already lived them.

They happened.

And the truth of them is self-evident: you can see it in their eyes and face.

When truth is stranger than fiction, plot becomes irrelevant. What a life-story is about then, quickly becomes inconsequential.

Being a straight ‘A’ student and getting your first ‘B;’ canning salmon in Alaska; getting shot at for jay walking; or surviving the holocaust–these are all stories.

None of them are any better, or worse, than the other. None of them are any more or less, interesting.

Oh, you might think they are. But you really won’t know till you hear them.

What really matters is the skill in which they’re told…

As an anthropologist, I’m a pretty good (and quick) judge of character. And I’ve got a knack for spotting people with a good story in em’.

And I had just found one.

I knew she was a pro at whatever it was she was doing. But was she a mercenary merchant of stories, hired-on to sell more books? Or was she the storyteller? The artist who had created them?

Whether it was selling, or creating…I was now determined to find out.

As the woman quietly continued tidying up her table, I continued to page through her graphic novel, watching, waiting.

A few would walk by us, and notice the books I was looking at, and glance at them for themselves…but they would just continue on their manic comic shopping pilgrimage.

Granted, while we weren’t alone, the situation offered a chance at more than a few moments of idle conversation.

I cursed myself that I didn’t bring my recording equipment and lav mikes. There was way too much background noise for an iPhone recording.

Even then…even before I had spoken a single word to her…I knew there was something different about her.

Something…special.

“Are these yours?” I asked, trying to feign a meager interest, brushing my hand over the graphic novels on her table.

She nodded, and pretended (rather well I might add), to continue to mind her wares.

But by this point, all the stacks were seven or eight books high, and in very neat and orderly stacks. And I didn’t take her for the neurotic type.

She was just waiting for a fish to bite.

She had an earthy aura, wise, and yet, not pretentious.

“So, what’s it about?” I asked, tugging the invisible line, glancing up from the graphic novel.

I tried my best to mimic the ‘what-the-heck-is-this,’ the “go-on-and-sell-it-to-me-if-you-can” attitude that all the comic geeks in attendance seemed to wear proudly like a badge. I don’t know how well I pulled it off.

I’d bite.

But I wasn’t going to be an easy catch.

It must have been a passable job though, because her smile soured, and her eyebrows lowered with irritation.

“Books,” she said, reluctantly. “Or, rather, a very specific book.”

I nodded.

She was baiting me.

I waited.

She waited longer.

For what, I don’t know.

For me to put the book down, and walk away? For another stupid question?

I’m glad I didn’t say anything at all.

Eventually, another comic-book samurai sprang that bear trap.

“All books that tell a good story are magical,” I told him.

He snorted, rolled his eyes, and brushed past me; disappearing into the crowd.

I watched him go.

And when I finally glanced back at Mrs. McNeil, I thought for sure she was wearing the same sad look that I must have had on my face.

Our eyes met briefly. And that was when I knew.

I like to talk. And write. after all, I’m the Epic Narrative Otaku for a reason.

She didn’t need to bother with a net, a hook, or even bait anymore.

I know I may not be her biggest fan, but I know I at least deserve a go at the scale, and maybe a photo.

I only had one more question for her:

“Which one do you recommend?” I asked.

I don’t think she gets asked that question a lot.

It seemed to throw her a bit.

You see, I only had enough money left to buy just one of her books.

As a fellow creative type, I wanted to give her a chance to put her best foot forward. I wanted it to be the one she was the most proud of.

And then it was her turn to throw me a curve ball:

“What kind of story do you like?” she asked.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

That would be the sound you would have heard…if I had a baseball bat at that moment.

Although, I’ve never heard someone getting hit on the head with a piece of wood. Maybe it would sound more like a ‘thunk.’

Their may have been a half-dozen times I wished I had a time machine in my life.

This was one of them.

If I could have, I would have run back to every vender, receipt in hand, and happily return every book in the heavy bag I was carrying.

That moment, I knew it really didn’t matter which one of her books I picked up.

I knew I would like them all.

And I knew, eventually I would buy them all.

As she patiently and expertly explained a little about each one–just enough to give you a scent, but not a taste of the plot–I already knew which one I would get.

I always had.

Fish are attracted to bright shiny things. And so are fans, I guess. As a writer, books are very important to me. It really wasn’t a hard choice.

Below you’ll find the e-mail I sent to Carla Speed McNeil, only hours after I got home.

I sent it after flipping through just a few pages of her graphic novel, Finder: Talisman.

You know that old cliché, “it was so good, I couldn’t put it down…?”

Well, this graphic novel was so good, I couldn’t pick it up.

Yeah, you read right.

After I bought it, I didn’t want to read it.

Just the little bits that I had glanced at in passing here and there resonated so strongly with me, that I was terrified of reading the thing–that coming to the end, would lessen it.

I never heard back from her. Which is fine. As a writer myself, I understand the separation of art and artist. And, reading over what I sent…well, I do sound a little, err, well…intense.

Sometimes I wonder what I’ll do if I receive similar e-mails from potential future fans about my writing.

I think Ms. McNeil taught me a far more valuable lesson by not replying, than she could have responding with anything at all.

But it’s very rare to travel the world and meet a kindred spirit. And that’s the main reason I’ve felt compelled to write about this.

No, I’m not implying that we’re friends, or even colleagues.

No, she doesn’t know me. And in fact, I kind of like it that way.

Just as one hunter my pass another in a vast and barren desert; and exchange not more than a nod…the very fact that another hunter is in that desert, and can survive, is enough to give the other one hope–even if they’re both starving.

After all, good story is hard to find.

But a good storyteller?

Priceless.

 

Dear Mrs. McNeil,

 

I know you may have already forgotten me–I was probably just one of hundreds of people who stopped by your table.

But I can say with confidence, that I will never forget you.

In fact, I owe you a profound debt of gratitude.

And I just wanted to let you know that I truly wish I had come across your table sooner (when I still had a little more money).

I would have picked up all of your books.

I’d really like to tell you that Finder: Talisman is one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read–more than likely, THE best.

But in good conscience, I can’t really do that . . .

You see, I still haven’t finished reading it.

And I don’t know if I ever will . . .

I’m afraid I find myself in a similar predicament to Marcella. I don’t want Talisman to end. Every time I pick it up, and crack it open at a random page, I read something new.

I’ve tried several times now, to read it from the beginning . . . but I always end up putting it down.

There is so much depth and meaning in every page, and every illustration; I find that I just have to put it aside.

Almost like it would burn my fingers, if I held on to it too long.

Of all the books on your table, I don’t know why I picked up this volume.

And I really don’t know if the rest of your books will have a similar effect.

But God, I hope so…

In an age of TV, video games, and declining readers . . . you’ve given me hope that perhaps not all is lost; and not everything will be forgotten.

That perhaps storytelling–real storytelling–while it may be a dying art, hasn’t yet become extinct.

Sometimes I feel like today’s children are raised on meaningless violence and Pez dispenser morality.

Over stimulated by technology and special effects, and sorely lacking in the ability to critically analyze the “fast-food-for-thought” fiction they are force-fed by profit hungry, and immoral entertainment empires–I feel they often find themselves wandering through our underfunded, and underperforming school systems; like starving zombies hungering for an education.

Time and again, I hear people praise Star Wars as a modern-day fairytale. That Joseph Campbell, was George Lucas’s “Yoda.”

But history is written by the victors, isn’t it?

And Lucas isn’t Luke Skywalker.

The toy tie-in’s, and merchandising, reveal the true wolf behind our modern, manufactured culture.

Lucas may not be wearing a black mask, but I know a Sith Lord when I see one.

I only wish other people could as well.

I fear the lights have gone out in young people’s minds.

That stories are no longer told to teach, heal, and instruct. That they are only being told to make money.

They are being created to suck the last bit of life from our children’s fading imaginations.

 To help turn them into meek and homogeneous little corporate cattle; trained from birth to toil for a meager salary, and then waste it all on brand name things they have been brainwashed into thinking will make them happy.

We are living in very dark times, Ms. McNeil. And people no longer curse that darkness. They curse the light. They hide from it. Fear it.

I may never end up reading all of Talisman. But I don’t think that will ever bother me.

As long as I can look at the cover . . . see a girl warming herself from the pages of a book that sparked her creativity, and forever changed her . . . I know there may yet, still be hope.

Even if it is, just a fictional one.

Yes, I know your book isn’t really all about that; or . . . maybe it is.

Perhaps I’m just happy to find another person who is as drawn to the written word as I am. Perhaps I’m just happy that to know that I’m not alone; in my love for the mystery of books.

Thank you for introducing me to Marcy.

Thank you for tipping your hand, and showing me that there are still people who can make modern fairy tales a reality.

And now I’m afraid, I have a favor to ask of you…

If ever our children needed a champion: that time is now.

If ever there was someone worthy of taking up that sword to protect them . . . it is you.

Our children need to hear the story of The Iron Tarn, Ms. McNeil. And there is a reason I’m not the only one who has asked you to tell it:

“Remember only this thing,” said Badger. “The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.”

Crow and Weasel, Barry Lopez

Today’s Facebook generation is starving for meaningful fiction; for contemporary, and healthy folklore.

Our mythology is now filled with the shiny tin gods and goddesses of the cinema. Actors and actresses who share the same vices and hubris of the gods of ancient times . . . but none of their heroic qualities.

Our youth looks to the mass-produced stories that fly out of the Hollywood assembly line, and the television pig stys, to give meaning to their lives.

They hammer, chisel, smash, and bite at the tropes of modern fiction; trying to get to the sweet treasure they think is hiding inside.

And after they collapse from exhaustion in middle age; teeth shattered, and dreams forgotten . . . only then do they realize that the wealth, fame, and material trappings they traded their childhood for . . . has turned to dross.

Can you blame them for their cynicism?

For their blind faith in science, and technology?

For their distaste for those fools that still believe in magic, faith, and spirituality?

The tin gods that they have struggled all their lives to crack open; have always been empty, hollow.

Why is it, thousands of years after their first telling, stories of the greek gods, Odysseus, and the Argonauts are still being read? Or watched, as the case may be.

Why does Hollywood keep going back, and perverting the old; instead of creating the new?

They’ve forgotten how to tell a story.

That’s why.

It gives me a profound sense of joy to know that there are still storytellers in our modern age.

People like you.

Wizards of words who can send our minds to distant lands, and times.

And even let us bring back a few souvenirs that we can tuck away, hidden in the deepest recesses of our psyche.

I think I understand why you only gave us pieces of The Iron Tarn.

And I know that’s why it was so powerful.

After all, the human mind likes to solve puzzles.

But unlike many of your other fans, I’m not asking you to write us a story from beginning to end.

I don’t need all the pieces; I just want more of them.

And I don’t even care if some of them are missing.

I can fill in the empty spots.

And I don’t think I’m the only one . . . like many tens of thousands of lost, and starving children; I still have a tiny ember of imagination burning inside my soul.

And I still know a few magic spells.

I’m no Gandolf, or Merlin–but like you, I also know the hidden power of words.

And like you, I know that it is far better to light a single candle, then to curse the darkness . . .

You’ve got a match in your pocket, Ms. McNeil . . . with it you can light a magical fire in the minds of thousands of children.

I’m actually not surprised you haven’t won an Isner yet.

Your fiction could do irreparable damage to decades of Corporate media mind control.

In the cold shadows of a growing darkness; the light of your fiction is one of the few torches keeping the McHollywood vampires at bay.

Please, don’t let that torch burn out.

Marcy’s book may be filled with blank pages. But the pages she’s scribbling on at her desk, they aren’t, are they?

When she’s done writing, would you please consider sharing the story she discovers?

There are many starving children in the world, Ms. McNeil . . .

Many of them are hungry for a contemporary fairy tale–and I’m sure they would be very happy if all you could give them . . . were crumbs.

Thanks for your time,

With most sincere respect and appreciation,

Peter Usagi

“The Writing Rabbit”

Well, OK.  Eventually I did finish reading Talisman.

But it did take me two weeks.

At first, I managed only a page or two at random every few days. And then finally, I forced myself to sit down and read it from front to back.

I was miserable–still am in fact–when I got to the last page.

It’s was the very first time I’ve read something so good…I had to actually force myself to keep reading.

I drove a considerable distance to see Ms. McNeil once more–this time at the Small Press Expo (SPX) several weeks later.

Yes, she was the only reason I went.

I could mumble something about E-Book publishing, and multi-media books…but that was just window shopping–not the reason I drove to the mall.

The first time we met, she was just one of hundreds of comic artists with their own table at the Baltimore Comic Con.

Just one of a half-dozen I bought something from.

But she was the only one who made me truly appreciate my chosen profession.

The only one who told a story that fed my soul.

While it’s true, I did want to say thank you in person; I mostly went to get the rest of the finder series (which you can see in the photo below).

It would have been a couple hundred bucks…but she gave me (and anyone else who was visiting her table) a substantial discount off the cover price.

For which I’ll be ever thankful.  That was how I got the entire set…

Did I tell her who I was? Remind her of the e-mail I sent?

Nah.

I just told her I really liked Talisman, and Marcy was my favorite character in one of my favorite books.

I really don’t know why; maybe she remembered me from Comic Con?

You might assume it was because I had just purchased a huge stack of her books; but so had half the other folks crowding around her table.

(Even though SPX was about one-sixth the size of the Baltimore Comic Con, she was absolute swamped with fans and curious onlookers. I guess the folks who attend the SPX were a bit more familiar with her work.)

Either way, she looked up at me, and smiled.

Apparently, I wasn’t Marcy’s first fan.

In fact, Mrs. McNeil told me that all the original artwork of Marcy from the comics had been sold years ago (not long after it was first published).

I do remember that she asked me if I wanted her to sign the first volume (I did have every book she’d created), and I remember I said no.

And I don’t know why; my memory is cloudy about this part–did I have it in my hand?

Or did she ask for it?

I really don’t think I asked.

After all, there was quite a crowd clamoring for her attention. And I’m not a push and shove kind of guy.

Somehow she ended up with my SPX badge; which wasn’t much more than a rectangular piece of cardboard with two holes punched in it for stringing around your neck.

I do remember she was writing on it for a good while.

What she was writing, I didn’t have a clue.

I couldn’t see what she was doing behind all the Finder books on her table.

When she finally handed it back to me, I was a little flustered. Her other fans were a bit miffed she had spent so much time signing something for me, I guess. A few were giving me the stink eye.

Like I said, it was kinda crowded there (a LOT more people in a smaller space). So I left the large conference room, and found a nice quiet spot out in the hallway to read what she wrote.

I held up my badge, and slowly turned it around…

You’ve heard that old cliché about a girl’s knees going weak?

Well, it must have at least some basis in fact.

Physiologically, I mean, not hormonally of course…after all, I’m a guy: but I did just about collapse on the floor.

You see, she hadn’t written a single word.

Naturally I was surprised.

Stunned, even…

In fact, thinking back on it now, I wonder why no one really noticed me.

I must have been quite a sight.

(Or maybe they did see me, and just took a few steps back.)

Anyway, the badge had slipped out of my fingers, a lazily floated to the red carpet.

Staring up at me from the floor, through a small pair of glasses, Marcy gave me a wry, sad smile from the back of my badge.

My friends tell me it was a simple coincidence.

I really don’t care.

The SPX badge is just the right size, though.

It it all seemed Kismet. And I really do think she knew what she was doing. She meant to do what she did. And she was aware of all the subtle nuances in meaning.

Yeah, it might just be a bookmark.

But to me, it’s much more than that–it’s a talisman.

I’m not really going to go into details. This post is already too long.

Read the book. I think you’ll understand…

Eventually, I finished reading all the Finder series.

No, sadly, Marcy was never meant to be the main character.

But to my great amusement, Marcy does end up showing up again near the end of the series.

She’s all grown up. And yes, she’s still messing around with books. But in a strange, and wonderful new way…

Do I want more Marcy? Sure!

But I’m happy to have what I’m given. In fact, I’m happy just knowing that there is another storyteller like me, wandering around in the wasteland of popular fiction.

This is a book every child must read.

But only after they grow up…

After all, it’s only after you’ve had your heart-broken, your imagination snuffed out, and you’re drowning in a sea of the mundane…that you desperately look up at the sky, searching for a creative star to guide you out of your darkness.

I think that everyone, at some point in their lives, needs to find their way back to that forgotten sense of wonder.

Children really don’t need to be reminded that magic still exists: they’re too busy fighting to keep their imaginary friends, and their dreams for the future, intact.

Grown-ups on the other hand…sometimes they need a life-preserver.

Well, here it is.

Finder: Talisman

I dare you to try to keep treading water, stubbornly refusing the help you need…

Just because you think you’re too old to read a ‘comic book.’

Grow young already.

Sincerely,

Peter Usagi

“Comic Book Ronin, Wandering Story Hunter, He-Who-Blogs-Books…

  

P.S.

Carla’s Finder series has just been picked up by Dark Horse.  Now you can get the first three-story arcs (including Talisman) in one collection:  The Finder Library Vol. 1  (available for pre-order now)

Also, if you’ve read Talisman, or are a fan of Carla’s work, check out the facebook page I made.

Related posts:

Permanent link to this article: http://peterusagi.com/2011/02/22/finder-talisman/

3 comments

  1. Peter Usagi

    No problem. I'm glad you found it helpful. Thanks for the comment!

  2. kourtnie

    yeah nice

  3. Peter Usagi

    Well Cichodajki, I'm glad you liked them. I've got more than a dozen more posts I'm working on, and I'll try to post at least one a week. So make sure you check back or subscribe via RSS…

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