Posted by Don MacPherson on February 3rd, 2009
Shirtlifter #s 2 & 3
Writer/artists: Steve MacIsaac, Fuzzbelly & Justin Hall
Cover artist: Steve MacIsaac
Publisher: Drawn. Out Press
Price: $8.95 US (#2)/$10.95 (#3)
Self-publisher Steve MacIsaac was kind enough to send a couple of review copies of his work in the mail. He and I went to the same university and both participated in student media; if memory serves, we were both cast members in a play one year at the campus theatre. When I learned that he was living in the United States and crafting highly praised comics, I was definitely interested in seeing what he was up to. There’s just one problem: Diamond Comic Distributors won’t send erotic comics north of the 49th parallel, so I’ve not seen it shops in my neck of the woods. MacIsaac informs me Diamond didn’t carry his first issue, but these two subsequent comics were available through the distributor. Still, whether it’ll do so for future editions is uncertain, and MacIsaac says it’s difficult to get shops to carry gay material. Of course, there are other ways to get one’s hands on MacIsaac’s comics (ordering through his website, for example), and after reading these two anthology comics, I highly recommend that those with an interest in well-crafted slice-of-life comics do just that. MacIsaac’s comics have been described as gay erotica/porn, and sexuality definitely plays a vital role in his storytelling. Personally, I can’t view material such as this as pornography, given the incredibly strong characterization, genuine dialogue and compelling inner conflicts that MacIsaac pours into his work.
The second issue features a series of autobiographical vignettes spotlighting different points in the writer/artist’s life, from the days when he was just coming to terms with his sexuality to later on when he’s out but still struggling with thoughts of what others are thinking about his lifestyle. The third issue shifts away from the author to a character named Matt, a successful small businessman who has to relearn who he is after eight years of thinking of himself as half of a popular gay couple in Vancouver. Now he’s single again, trying to ignore his sense of loss by immersing himself in casual sexual encounters with strangers.
The second issue of Shirtlifter is presented in full color while with the third, MacIsaac takes uses only grey and blue tones to add texture and depth to the visuals. Honestly, I preferred the latter, as the colors in the previous edition, while muted, seemed a bit too bright for the introspective and melancholy tone that so often sprouts up in MacIsaac’s writing. His figures are slightly awkward on occasion, but overall, his eye for anatomy is pretty good and he achieves a somewhat realistic tone despite the simpler leanings in his style. Of the two books, the earlier one boasts the stronger cover. MacIsaac’s spotlights different incarnations of his own, ever-changing identity in a cute, campy Brady Bunch homage. The cover for the third issue fails to capture the real conflicts that drive the story forward.
The third issue also features two short stories from creators other than MacIsaac. Fuzzbelly’s juxtaposition of real-world fuck-buddy sex and thoughts about the ludicrous nature of professional porn is amusing. The premise is limited, but fortunately, it’s employed properly here as the foundation for a short story. Justin Hall’s story of a young gay man and his penchant for manipulating others is more in keeping with MacIsaac’s somewhat dark, character-driven storytelling. The strength of Hall’s plot and script leaves the reader wanting to know what happens to the central figure, and the serviceable nature of the art doesn’t interfere.
The real appeal of these books, though, is the power of MacIsaac’s incredibly personal and compelling writing. His characters are astonishingly well realized; of course, that’s not so surprising with the material in the second issue, given its autobiographical nature. Like other strong autobio and slice-of-life comics, what allows MacIsaac’s work here to stand out is his brutal honesty. He presents his characters, warts and all. Their shortcomings and insecurities are what makes them interesting. One mustn’t overlook the characters’ struggles as they embark on personal quests to find, establish and embrace their sexual identities.
MacIsaac’s work has been billed as gay porn, and there’s definitely plenty of explicit homosexual sex depicted in these pages. That prospect may make some uncomfortable, but MacIsaac’s main purpose isn’t to arouse or shock his audience. The sexual components of his storytelling are there because they speak to what drives the characters, what frightens them and what helps them to find themselves. Ultimately, the gay sex is simply part of their lives, just part of what they do that makes them human — now what makes them different. 10/10
Note: For more information about this title and its creator, visit his official website.