“My basic premise is that the world is a weird place,” says Carla Speed McNeil, talking on the phone about her epic, sci-fi comics series Finder, “and that that’s completely ordinary.” Dark Horse recently published the first volume of The Finder Library, which brings together four story arcs, along with copious notes about the world of McNeil’s domed city of Anvard, its many competing tribes, its outdated futuristic technology, and the outlaw hero Jaeger and the Grosvenor family, the series’ main characters. A second volume, collecting another four story arcs, will be released in September.

Until recently, McNeil published her own work, first in regular periodical issues beginning in 1996, and then, after issue #39, online. She did quite well on her own, winning Lulu and Ignatz awards, as well as an Eisner Award for best Web comic in 2009. The shift to working with a publisher came unexpectedly, and it wasn’t a relationship she sought out. “I was giving a talk in Portland, and someone asked me how many times I’d been courted by publishers in the ten years I’d been doing the comic. I said, ‘I haven’t been, actually,’ and then Katie Moody from Dark Horse, who was sitting in the back of the room, raised her hand and said, ‘Would you like to be?’”

Back when it all started, of course, McNeil wasn’t surrounded by fans and eager publishers. She was on her own and she was, she says, in a state of distress. “I had a twenty-year backlog of ideas that I hadn’t written or drawn. Finally I said, ‘When’s it gonna happen if I don’t do it?’ So I sat down and spent a year writing and drawing every idea I’d had since I was twelve.” At the end of that year she found herself with a stack of pages filled with characters, settings, ideas, and odd moments of plot, none of which, she says, tied together in any clear way. “It had been fun to produce but it wasn’t something anyone else would want to read,” she says.

McNeil says that Jaeger became her protagonist by default: when she went back and looked at her stack of ideas and thoughts and characters, he was the one link between them all. “I picked out the word ‘finder’ to describe him,” says McNeil, “and then I just started pulling the stories together. It was kind of like skydiving into the world, filling in details as I went.”

Thus began the adventures of Jaeger, a magnetic half-breed in a world defined by its various tribes. The world of Finder has grown exponentially since, with stories branching off in many directions. After issue 39, McNeil switched from the every-six-weeks issue format to an online format and she has no regrets about the change, saying that putting out an issue with such frequency gave her no time to plan the story at a broader level. “It was just, bang! a new issue, bang! what am I gonna do now?! It was like driving from San Francisco to New York without a map.” Though she says she misses doing the lush issue covers so coveted by collectors, the online format has other benefits. “Getting off the issue treadmill gave me a lot more freedom,” she says, “and that freedom has allowed my writing to take a lot of leaps forward.”

She also has strong—and positive—feelings about publishing her work online. “I’ve never been sorry,” she says. “The internet lets a lot of people who are bored and idle follow my thread. And I’ve definitely found that free content leads to book sales, lots of sales.” It’s not surprising since, for fans of Finder, of which there are many, these new collected volumes bring together disparate parts of a sprawling opus. For newcomers, they offer multiple entry-points to the futuristic world of Anvard.

As for the themes McNeil tackles in her work, she sums it all up this way: “I just think it’s interesting that no matter how odd something might seem to me, it’s perfectly normal to someone else. That’s what I keep coming back to, and I think it’s wonderful.”