Review by Joe Palmer
For You O Democracy
Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.
I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America,
and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.
For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs.
Approximately 150 years ago Walt Whitman strove to envision an America radically different from the oppressive society of his times. Whitman dreamt of a radically different nation in which his sex positive manifesto, of lover after lover, is a reality “in every city of these States, inland and seaboard/…The institution of the dear love of comrades.” A little over a hundred years later Whitman’s dream perhaps came closest to actualization with regard to the unbound sex and love in the period following Stonewall. What the poet, with his particular ideal of manhood, would think of contemporary gay society and the greater queer community, our social status shifting over time and geography, and larger goals such as marriage equality is fodder for much speculation though I am certain he would be alternatively amazed and confused by gay society and angered by the doggedness of fear and persecution.
Steve MacIsaac may not be Walt Whitman (those would indeed be big shoes to fill) but a flair for delving into the gay male psyche makes MacIsaac one of the more exceptional creators in gay comics today. Why bring Whitman into my review at all? For contrast I suppose. Whitman dreamt of what could be the ideal place for gay men in America while MacIsaac deals charts the everyday realities of gay identity. My first reading of “Unpacking” was a few weeks ago, and the characters and topics greatly impressed themselves on my mind. The juxtaposition of MacIsaac and Whitman and his ideas felt natural to me when accounts of the poet appeared in a book I’m reading on identity in the American West.
“This is not an instruction manual” is the inscription Steve MacIsaac wrote on the inside front cover to the copy of Shirtlifter #3 that I ordered along with #4 in anticipation of its publication. MacIsaac’s story, spanning these two issues and into the next, is definitely not instructional. “Unpacking” follows Matt after a cross country move from Toronto to Vancouver in the wake of a disintegrated eight year relationship with Michel. He has a job that he likes, a circle of friends dating back a number of years, and the looks that guarantee him the attention of men he wants and some he doesn’t. For all intents and purposes Matt appears to have begun settling nicely into his new life, but only just so on the surface. Beyond this, and to the chagrin of his closest friends, the partnered Kris and Chris, who take great pride in recounting highlights of their semi-domesticated life via an 8 month long home rehab (“Homo Depot is so sending us flowers on our anniversary!”), Matt has done anything but unpack boxes of personal belongings because “it’s all crap [he's] not using.” Anyone can tell you the process of moving is quite revelatory when one starts to examine sundry items. The boxed up items may be useless, yet he’s drug them along rather than let go. So they remain full while Matt seeks distractions outside of work and socializing with friends. In Matt’s case, these distractions are hookups with men. Big, stocky, bear men and the sex scenes are MacIsaac-style incendiary. Well, save a single instance, with which a fair few readers will likely be able to relate. Heaven knows one just surfaced in my head that I’d rather hadn’t. The metaphor of unpacked moving boxes may be an obvious one, and in the hands of a less skillful writer this would be an otherwise dull story punctuated double exclamantion mark style with steamy sex where reader focus would understandably gravitate.
Where Whitman delighted in writing affirmations of his attraction to and encounters with men and envisioning a society in which the “love of comrades” is a celebrated part of its fabric, MacIsaac focuses on the nuances of his characters’ interior lives while their exterior world is in a state of flux. Matt is very determined to continue a series of NSA hookups rather than to look for a relationship until he meets Connor, who’s in Vancouver on an extended business trip. Both men find the sex so intense their first time together that they decide to continue to play together; this despite, for Matt, Connor’s shocking confession of being straight and happily married to a woman. As the two men try to bond in other ways things get messy. Assumptions and attitudes are exposed and tempers flare as the men attempt negotiating their unconventional relationship. The tension spills over to Matt’s friendship with the two Chrises. These emotionally dynamic clashes is where MacIsaac is having the most fun examining the notions of how we identify ourselves. If being gay is defined simply as having sex with a person of the same sex then Connor must be gay and in denial, or is he bisexual? Yet he refuses to be labeled. And is it wrong to be defined by a sex act? Heterosexuals certainly define themselves by co-opting procreation. On the macro level how is the driving force toward marriage equality changing gays and lesbians individually and culturally? Is the the best route for full civil rights when gays have been denied any positive social roles at all in our society? And implicitly, how do changes (and our desire for them) affect bisexuals and the trans community? MacIsaac prefers to play the provocateur in his storytelling by avoiding answers.
The art is on equal par with the writing. The men MacIsaac draws are big, muscular, and hairy. The same type of man that Whitman described as “blood and brawn”. They may be idealized bears, but they look and act real and their settings are likewise beleivable. His ability to convey subtleties in facial expression and body language reinforces character and dialog credibility. Thought bubbles are part to good use in one scene to show Matt’s interior fantasies. Color in issue #3 is limited to cool greys. A suitably refined color palette provides finishing touches in issue #4.
In the latter issue MacIsaac discusses his creative process. Foregoing the option of working from a full script, MacIsaac creates drafts while keeping key visuals from the project’s inception in mind as touchstones for the characters. From there he’ll edit out panels or even full pages and sketching out any revisions. This loose method gives him the freedom to explore areas piquing his interest. This process is harder he says. No doubt, though my assessment of these chapters after back to back reading is one of a seamless and unflawed story. Artists are rarely entirely satisfied with their work. As proof that he shares this artistic temperament, MacIsaac quotes lesser known 20th century painter Arshile Gorky: “I never finish a painting – I just stop working on it for a while.” A pleasantly surprising reference for me since I’ve come across few people outside of the academic art world who know of the Armenian born painter. Not to worry. Staying true to his critical eye means we’re rewarded with a story that is anything but pretentious.
Three stories by other artists are included in the anthology format. Fuzzbelly offers a story in issue #3 and Ilya follows suit in the following. One chapter of Justin Hall’s “The Liar” appears in both. The addition of other cartoonists was my excuse for not ordering the third installment of Shirtlifter. It was a simple matter of me being selfish in wanting all MacIsaac. I still do, but circumstances dictated a different approach and I found myself being entertained by Fuzzbelly and Ilya, both whose work was unfamiliar to me. Both short stories provided very pleasant introductions to people whom I should’ve known.
Fuzzbelly’s “F Buds” relates his artistic block with a project. He decides a diversion with his stubby cocked f bud is just what he needs to get past the block. It’s a simply told story in which he conveys a sense of frustration with erotic stereotypes, intimacy, fun, and human vanity. The art style is loose and curvy. If you like your men big bellied and bearded you’ll enjoy the story even more. View some of Fuzzbelly’s work at his blog.
Ilya’s “Dick” is a strip that appeared in the British gay weekly Boyz ten years ago. A collection of seven strips titled “The Dinner Party” appear here. Mild mannered librarian Colin is having an intimate dinner party for friend Ivan, a hunky silver fox, and a hot young boy. It’s fun to watch Colin become increasingly exasperated as sparks fly between Ivan and the young stud. There is a happy ending though not quite the “happy ending” Ivan hoped. It’s better! MacIsaac writes that Ilya and he are discussing a collection of the strips tentatively for 2012 and based on this short piece it will be something to which I’ll look forward to reading.
A brief bio of Ilya may be read here.
The remaining contribution comes from Justin Hall. “The Liar” appears in both issues and I believe will conclude with the next issue. Barry, a hunsband and father of two, is driving alone on a trip to the Grand Canyon when he picks up a young hitchhiker named Ariel who’s headed for San Francisco. Ariel impresses Barry with his aura of freedom and stories while Ariel has his eyes on Barry’s big package. Barry’s life has become so settled and boring that a kiss and a blow job is all it takes for him to start lusting for the enigmatic stranger. Whatever Ariel symbolizes for Barry, it isn’t who and what he is. Hall clues us in that Ariel has used others, men and women, before. The reader can rightly assume the title refers to Ariel, but Hall doesn’t stop there with his examination. Barry confesses his secrets and lies to his wife to buy more time away as he allows himself to become undone. I’ve enjoyed Hall’s work since his “A Sacred Text” from 2001. Halls uses the serialized, longer format story to his advantage and had me wanting more with each chapter’s conclusion. It looks like I’ll have to patiently wait to find out what happens to Barry and Ariel. Visit Justin at All Thumbs Press.