- Posted by Johanna on January 24, 2007 at 8:21 am
- Category: Graphic Novel Reviews
- CREDITS: by Carla Speed McNeil
- PUBLISHER: Lightspeed Press; $15.95/$19.95 US
Jaeger has returned to the city of Anvard after six months in the desert. He ends up staying with Emma and her three children as he recovers from a beating. Her husband, Brigham, was a former army officer of Jaeger’s and a control freak who abused his family mentally. Although he’s in military prison, they’re still living with their fear of him.
Jaeger is a scout, a tracker, a Finder, part of a secret society. He’s also a Sin-Eater, a scapegoat responsible for taking on the guilt of others. This combination is unusual and a result of his halfbreed upbringing. Clans and tribes are the defining factor of most people’s lives in this society. Your family determines your genes, your looks, your body, your abilities, where you live, and what you do.
Like Jaeger, Emma’s children are also the result of a mixed marriage. They don’t fit in either clan fully, and that additional stress doesn’t help them in surviving and growing beyond their father’s abuse. She gave up a lot to marry outside her clan, so it’s even more painful to have the relationship go wrong. Her kids are going to bear the burden (physically, as half breeds, and mentally, due to the abuse) the rest of their lives. Without their knowledge, Jaeger has been hired by their father to bring him pictures of them, spying on them by proxy.
Jaeger, Emma, and the kids have more in common, as their backgrounds pop out at unexpected times. Even when trying to get on with their lives, unexpected events can cause panic reactions. In Jaeger’s case, civilization makes him crazy. He’s without a past of his own, except what he’s made and the stories told about him. He’s got a compulsion to disrupt complacency and stability, trying to lose himself in fighting or dancing or noise. When he starts suffering, he has to hurt himself — shock himself physically — to make himself better. His accelerated healing factor, not yet explained, allows him to become almost bestial at times, sleeping with herd animals and living like a wild thing.
Jaeger’s the ultimate outsider, a true individual. His role is to protect society and bring its citizens the absolution they need, but he can’t be part of it on any long-term basis. He inspires the kids to dream, and even to love, but he’s got be moving on. In this way, he’s reminiscent of the lone gunfighter in the old Westerns.
He’s anti-social, comfortable with being alone and depending only on himself, yet charming. He’s also gorgeous, a roguish type with unruly dark hair, light eyes, and an unconscious physicality. He loves love and making love, which gives the series a mature take on sexuality. For example, this book has a very realistic presentation of a teenage girl exploring the boundaries of her burgeoning body. She teases the outsider, but deep down they both know that for all his uniqueness, he’s safe, since he’s her mother’s lover. (There’s some nudity in the books as a result.)
I feel for the oldest girl, having to be a mother before she’s ready because Mom isn’t always quite there. She’s learning responsibility, but she’s also learning to worry before she should have to. Everyone in this story is living in a fantasy world in one way or another. The characters, on one level, dwell in this imaginative place McNeil has dreamed up. The mother escapes into her psyche to avoid memories of trauma. The father creates fantasies of a family who still loves him and who didn’t escape from him.
The setting is that of a tribal society that’s taken over someone else’s technology. There are some amazing inventions used, but few people know how or why they work. The books are full of imaginative concepts, like Painwright, a museum of pain and fear, or old credit cards as collectibles. Emma has an artificially intelligent assistant dressed as a French maid; when conflicted between choices, instead of little angels and devils appearing over her shoulders, she has 0’s and 1’s, a tweak that made me laugh.
This is best described as aboriginal science fiction, extrapolative stories that concentrate on people and cultures. There are signs of typical SF tropes — Anvard is a domed city, for instance, although the dome is degenerating and the technology that built it has been lost — as well as more fantastic elements, like human/animal hybrid beings.
The bookstore cat, for instance, is a talking lion-like creature, part of the Nyima tribe. They have a unique family and clan structure, where the women are humanoid and the males beasts. One panel, showing them both running together, reminds me of a visual pun on a classic scene from the Animalympics animated movie. Generally, McNeil draws a variety of character types in fully imagined environments. There’s a whole world here that’s released through hints and stories. She also considers more senses than just the visual, with an almost-poem to smells at the end and songs included earlier in the book.
I appreciated the way that the characters demonstrate a wide range of acceptable ways to deal with events and a variety of psychological definitions of health. The diverse can cope more easily with whatever happens, and those closer to nature are healthier, since cities make you crazy.
In Volume 2, Dad’s sneaking into what he thinks is his family’s house while they’re out in order to fix things for them. He wants to be helpful, but how helpful is it to alter someone’s home behind their back? We learn more of the family history through flashbacks to earlier encounters, especially between Jaeger and Brigham. Then Lynne tries to kill his father.
While this is going on, it’s carnival time in town. Festivals, as examples of “liminal time”, mark changes, time to become something else, temporarily or permanently. They serve as a release or as marker of change. Emma, as an artist (a landscaper), is herself a creative force, which leads into an exploration of the nature of art.
This story also deals with the human need for privacy. The reader and characters are both coping with ever-encroaching crowds, too much consumerism, and whether technology is serving us or vice versa. These are the defining issues of our times. Although privacy is necessary for mental health, too many secrets can be just as bad, especially among the ones you love. Adding to the confusion are changing gender identifications and roles.
The notes at the back of each volume detail the work’s influences from all over — art, history, entertainment — and tell fascinating stories behind the stories. Aside from insight into the artistic process, they also help spell out subtle plot points and implications and give the reader more information on the amazing setting McNeil has created. There’s much more story than just what is seen on the page, a full complex world.
The books suck you in. There’s psychological depth to the stories and characters. It feels right and real, even with the bizarre settings. All the oddities don’t matter because everyone’s so well thought-out and fully realized. Moody interludes are beautiful and atmospheric even if I don’t understand their message. I never want to hurry through to get back to the “real” story — it’s all equally real and unreal. And stunning.
Read sample issues and get more information at the Lightspeed Press website. This interview with MacNeil talks about the collected Sin-Eater hardcover as well as her reasons for choosing web serialization. The hardcover reprints the two paperbacks along with an expanded short story (originally published as issue #22, “Fight Scene”).