On his way to a party, musclebear Matt walks through a Vancouver business district and stops to look through a vacant store window. A sign tells us that a restaurant will be opening here in the foreseeable future, but for now it’s mostly a large, bare room. There are signs of change—some sawhorses with scaffolding, a table saw, power cords crisscrossing the floor—but it’s too soon to tell what the place will look like, or whether or not it will succeed. No doubt this scene has caught Matt’s attention because his own life, now that he has separated from his husband of eight years, has become a work-in-progress with not much to show so far. In fact, the renovation site is reminiscent of Matt’s bachelor pad, which is barren except for unpacked boxes; and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that his unwillingness to commit to a space has a corollary in his inability to consider the possibility of a new relationship. It’s not just his physical belongings that need unpacking, but also his damaged soul.
This brief, wordless scene, which contains so little yet says so much, might be from a film that you could catch at your local art house, but it’s not. Would you believe it is actually from a comic book?
Anyone who doubts the power of the illustrated story need only turn to the recent news about Apple’s heavy-handed censorship of two graphic novels on iBook, Ulysses by James Joyce and The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde. These works have been part of the literary establishment for so long that you would think they’d lost any claim to controversy; but adding a graphic representation of a bare breast or gay kiss was enough to rankle the Apple corps.
Steve MacIsaac is a talented artist who knows the power of the illustrated word and has wielded it well in many anthologies. You may also have seen Sticky, the Bruno Gmunder volume on which he collaborated with Dale Lazarov. MacIsaac’s Shirtlifter is a quality magazine that highlights his work along with a few guest artists; now that Shirtlifter #1 has been brought back into print, all three issues are available. Here’s the rundown:
Shirtlifter #1 is devoted to a short story called “Unmade Beds,” about an American male couple who have relocated to Tokyo on what is supposed to be a short-term basis. The move was occasioned by Michael’s job,but the story is told from the point of view of his husbear Derek, who spends his time teaching, tricking, going to the gym—and complaining. A lot. Therein lies the only problem I have with the story. MacIsaac’s storytelling skills are in evidence, and we understand that Derek’s dissatisfaction with his locale is a symptom of his unhappiness with a relationship that’s gone stale; but it would be a richer,better tale if we could see more of Derek than his petulance. Certainly the subject matter—a realistic look at a gay mid-relationship crisis—is worthy of an artist who wants to delve into the gay male psyche.
Shirtlifter #2 is a further demonstration of MacIsaac’s urge to tackle thorny subjects. These short, mostly autobiographical pieces deal with coming out, to oneself and to others; being the lone queer in a large family; hunting for sex in bars and online; the anomie of urban life; and the role that geography plays in life events and relationships. Here MacIsaac is in full control of his storytelling techniques, and every story packs a punch.
Shirtlifter #3 contains the first three chapters of Unpacking,including the brief scene I described at the beginning of this review. Unpacking shows every sign of being a terrific graphic novel. (Just to give some context, by ‘terrific’ I mean a work that compares with Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse, Beg the Question by Bob Fingerman, or Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson). MacIsaac keeps refining his ability to tell stories graphically, and the results are stunning. Matt is a three-dimensional character, and the narrative deftly covers every area of his life, capturing the feel of upheaval and transition,the itch to see what will happen next. I can’t wait to see more of Matt.
Shirtlifter #3 also contains stories by Justin Hall, and an artist who goes by the name Fuzzbelly. Justin Hall’s story, “The Liar,” is a dark, unsettling tale of a sociopath on the road; Fuzzbelly’s story, “FBuds,”is a funny personal essay about a queer cartoonist’s search for authentic eroticism. Fuzzbelly, as his name implies, favors the kind of big men who don’t fit into the “musclebear” category, but have an appeal that’s all their own.
Not that there’s anything wrong with muscle bears. MacIsaac really knows his way around brawny, hairy men: his characters are breathtaking and mouthwatering. If you’re only looking for eye candy, Shirtlifter doesn’t disappoint. It’s our good fortune that MacIsaac’s work satisfies on many other levels, too.
Reviewed by Wayne Courtois