How easy it could be to slip into a pretentious and proselytizing rant about the complicated factions within the LGBT community, but thankfully, none of material produced by writer and illustrator Steve MacIsaac is easy. While some creators venture forth with a clear message they’re hell-bent on communicating, whether it be intelligent or garbled, MacIsaac graciously allows his stories to simply be; they exist as personal expressions open to whatever readers are fortunate enough to stumble upon his books.
MacIsaac’s Shirtlifter miniseries is one of the finest microcosms of gay life I’ve ever encountered in the comics medium, a point made abundantly clear in my original review of the first three issues. Whether fair or not, MacIsaac tells most of his stories from the perspective of proxies from the “bear” community within the greater gay society. Bears are beefy, muscular, rugged (in appearance, anyway) and have an easier time fitting into the societal norms of “masculinity.” Bears cut their hair short, sport goatees and beards, and don’t fret about their wardrobes. But while most of the active characters in MacIsaac’s stories fit into this role based on appearance, it’s the age-old lesson of not judging books by their covers and people on the outside are oftentimes different on the inside.
The fourth installment of Shirtlifter continues the story from issue three, “Unpacking,” detailing the life of a Vancouver ad designer named Matt. A long-term relationship of many years went sour at the story’s opening, showing Matt’s new apartment away from his partner. Nothing is unpacked: he’s living out of cardboard boxes as a college freshman might. The only thing in his apartment that gets regular use is a drawer where he stashes the forgotten numbers of all his one-night stands; the guys want to see him again, but he has no real interest in pursuing them further. Matt’s not a player as much as he’s avoiding the potential of future heartache.
One of Matt’s flings is an international businessman named Connor who splits most of his time between Australia and California, but his travels have been bringing him to Vancouver more and more. He and Matt form a strong sexual relationship: it’s the first man that Matt visits on a frequent basis, but he strives to keep it all bottled up in the bedroom. The complication? Connor isn’t exactly gay, he only enjoys having sex with other men, but aside from that he enjoys a relatively happy family life with his wife and children.
This is the center of the “Unpacking” story as it returns in the fourth issue. Matt and Connor are now pals who hang out aside from sleeping together, and it introduces new complications as Connor reconciles being attracted to Matt physically and enjoying his company socially, all the while avoiding the complicated and painful process of figuring out how that does not manifest as more than just a friend with benefits.
Walking with Matt on his own confusing journey of figuring out his life and what he wants and needs to fill the void inside himself is the Chrises — a married gay couple named Kris and Chris who saw him through the tumultuous breakup with his ex-boyfriend. It’s always a carnival act of playing with fire when getting involved with a married man who sneers at the idea of gay marriage and effeminate men (as Connor does), Kris reminds Matt. He knows, but just can’t help himself. There’s something there.
Matt and Connor visit the movies, shop at a market, attend a dinner party, and go clubbing with each other, and each outing results in arguments over sex and gender roles, and the meaning of sex and relationships — all without pretentious lectures or tired complaints over social equality. What a feat. As all of this is happening, MacIsaac’s illustrations continue to be photorealistic in their depictions of men and the world around them. MacIssac’s characters are everyday exhibitionists, and we are the voyeurs, not watching out of perversion but genuine curiosity. As a writer and artist alike, he constructs scenes that express both complications and commonality of what it means to live life.
Shirtlifter continues to be one of the best independent LGBT comic books I’ve read. I cannot recommend it enough.
This comic book review originally appeared on Broken Frontier.