More From the Qualms of Men

Shirtlifter #3

This is a an 88-page perfect bound comic from creator Steve MacIssac, published by his Drawn, Out Press. It's the $10.95 latest in a one-man anthology series started in 2007, although there's now more than one man involved, in that bonus strips are included, so I guess it's more one man in charge of a small anthology. I noticed it got the fearsome 'A' designation on Diamond's shipping list the week it hit stores, so you mght have to look for it on your favorite shelf of smut (or, you know, order it online from the artist).

And there is indeed a good deal of explicit sex in this comic, all of it between men, and presented in such a way that I get the feeling that the work is at least partially intended as erotica. I'll cop to not responding to that aspect of the work much, but MacIssac isn't interested in sex for sex's sake anyway even if some of his characters are. The artist is more taken with the oscillation of sex between an activity of sheer pleasure and an aspect of identity: something that carries as much force when contemplated as when it's experienced, although the two powers don't always play together nicely.

As such, this issue features chapters 1-3 of MacIssac's Unpacking, a serial (originally a webcomic) that will continue through issue #5. The plot concerns Matt, a Vancouver graphic designer who's been sleeping among moving boxes even since a longterm relationship went to pieces. He attends a housewarming party and accepts the concerns of friends, but most of the passion in his life is facilitated by Studhunter.com - lots of hotel rooms, lots of business cards to toss in a drawer in his unfinished apartment. The metaphor, as you can tell, is already quite unpacked.

But then Matt hooks up with 'Aussie Muscle,' a middle-aged fellow in town for a while on business, and an almost preternaturally talented lover, considering that he's married to a woman and resists all homosexual labeling, and claims to have never had sex with a man before the age of 40. Matt sticks around -- the guy is the best fuck he's had in a good while -- but it soon becomes apparent that his nominally straight lover views the gay encounters he (gleefully) takes part in through a distinctly heterosexist gaze, unwilling to accept that gay relationships can amount to anything that cannot be summarized and effectively contained by Studhunter.com.

The trick is, the man's cluelessness leads him unwittingly into wanting 'relationship' things -- going to hockey games, having a cookout, etc. -- which causes Matt to bristle, in that he's also trying to avoid having a relationship, in his own way, though his desires seem to reinforce a lot of suddenly vocalized stereotypes.

MacIsaac reserves a lot of space for conversation in this book; long chains of word balloons often run parallel down or across the page, tit for tat in a somewhat stylized, 'writerly' manner. The storytelling is at its best when kept close to the stuff of sex - the slow awkwardness of post-coital chit-chat rubbing on exposed nerves, or the mixed signals given off when one partner is getting a lot more out of it than the other. The work even delves into a little graphic flair via the latter scenario, as one partner's dirty talk becomes covered by transparent images of other people, as the second partner tries to work through suitable fantasies on the way to a feasible climax.

Mostly, though, MacIssac's visuals are just adequate. His style is subdied, with layouts of squares and rectangles, and scenes heavy on shadows for environmental or emotional effect. Nearly every male character sports a similarly muscular he-man build, unless the plot mandates some emphasis on his youth. I suspect this is either personal preference or an aspect of the comic as erotica, but it causes trouble when MacIssac's grip on the character art wavers; slightly shifting hairstyles might leave the same guy looking like two people.

That's a problem, given that observation seems to be the visual posture, an appropriate enough choice for a pretty studied look at sexual identity. Cool greens cover the whole book, combining with digital effects for a clinical tone. Yet even the sexual act seems a little distanced by MacIssac's art, distinguished from the rest of the story mainly by lots of close-ups and less dialogue. Sure, it gets the point across -- sex complicates a lot of things, though it's so wonderfully simple when it's happening -- but I'd enjoy seeing the act made even more vivid, in defiance of the angst it's merrily causing as the hot core of the story.

Still, the artist's directness has a way of disarming you with its game confrontation of slippery subject matter, and you do her involved you in how his inquiry might develop as it goes on, even if it isn't always effective right now. Certainly MacIssac is willing to present a broad perspective of things; this issue's supplementary strips seem positioned to lightly clash thematically, with Fuzzbelly presenting an easygoing ode to vanilla sexual encounters, while Justin Hall offers an excerpt from a longer work involving a mysterious hitchhiker unlocking a straight married guy's desires, complete with a near-threesome at a rest stop.

Shirtlifter's creator isn't so much in between those two approaches to sex as adamant that they both exist in life, and that life must continue once its most exciting parts are through, definition added and priorities duly arranged from the occasion.