Steve MacIsaac's Shirtlifter explores the gay male relationships | Arts + Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Steve MacIsaac's Shirtlifter explores the gay male relationships

The artist reads from his queer comic series this Friday. Laura Kenins reads the body language.

Steve MacIsaac's Shirtlifter explores the gay male relationships
Me, myself and I: MacIsaac and friends.
Like all good comic artists, Steve MacIsaac got into the form through a period of introspection and too much time spent alone. The one-time Haligonian took a year off from a design degree at NSCAD in 2000 to teach English in Japan, where he started drawing comics seriously, and never looked back. "My job was pretty slack, so I sort of treated it as an art grant," he says.

MacIsaac's work looks at relationships between gay men, frequently verging on the explicit. His work has been published in anthologies like Best American Comics and Last Gasp Press's Best Erotic Comics. He's appearing in Halifax to support the launch of the fourth issue of Shirtlifter, a series more like a literary journal than a typical comic book. The series began as a 36-page comic; the latest issue runs 85 pages and includes short stories by guests.

MacIsaac notes the short-form pamphlet comic has been dying in the industry. He found most of his sales didn't come from comic stores anyway---his work sold better at gay and lesbian bookstores. The longer form allows him to develop stories more, and include work from other contributors, while still letting him script a story that unfolds over a few issues of the series.

"I haven't gotten into the graphic novel format...the process is relatively slow, I don't want to rush it," he says. "Unpacking," the story serialized in the latest two issues of Shirtlifter (to be concluded next issue) deals with a "'relationship' between a commitment-phobic gay man and a straight married guy," says MacIsaac. "It's a more common phenomenon than a lot of people realize. It touches on what it means to be gay in the modern world, what it means to be straight."

MacIsaac says some of his work is autobiographical, while most is fiction based on real life. Stories in the earlier Shirtlifter issues concern a relationship between two Americans living in Japan, where MacIsaac lived for three and a half years. He'd drawn while growing up in Antigonish, and after completing degrees elsewhere, enrolled at NSCAD to study design, where he became interested in drawing again, or, as he puts it, "seduced by the fine arts department." It was in Japan where he finally focused on comics. His first major work, Sticky, was a porn series collaborating with a writer. "Erotica taught me a lot about the male body, how body language works," he says. "I wanted to do comics porn different that most of the comics porn we'd seen---where it looked like people were actually having fun, where it was made by people who had actually had sex, more sex-positive."

The Sticky series was marketed towards women, and MacIsaac says the series was reviewed by female-friendly outlets like Bitch magazine and women-in-comics blog Sequential Tart.

"They were trying to plug into the yaoi phenomenon" in Japanese anime---"depictions of gay men for women that don't necessarily have anything to do with what gay men are like," he says. The majority of his readership is male, as far as he can tell through online mail orders, though he's looking at expanding his focus and has a story about a lesbian couple in the works.

MacIsaac doesn't consider the Shirtlifter series to be porn, but says, "I don't shy away from sexual depiction when I feel the situation calls for it." He admits his characters are a bit idealized. "They're the kind of guys people tend to gravitate towards---they get what they want but don't necessarily know what they want."

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