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Shirtlifter by Steve MacIsaac

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I am not always mindful of how pages work across from each other; my primary concern is usually the page as a unit rather than whether it’s left facing or right facing. A lot of this is a response to my process—I revise a LOT, so there’s no guarantee that a page will be left or right facing when I draw it. However, I occasionally design pages specifically to sit across from each other, as I did here. For this spread, I wanted a lot of small, uniform panels with a static POV, each side facing into the center of the book. I tend to do a lot of static POV sequences—you can see the same approach in the telephone spread from Shirtlifter #3 that was posted a couple weeks ago—mostly because I think that the lack of “camera movement” places a greater emphasis on body language, meaning that you can have the characters “act” through nuances and subtle changes that would be unnoticed if the angle was always changing.

I went further here and allowed only one character from each spread: Matt is the focus of the left side; and Connor the focus of the right side. By removing the other character from the frame, the reaction of the character that IS represented is emphasized much more, even when they don’t have to be speaking.

-Steve MacIsaac
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Another page from Shirtlifter #4. I like to set my comics in specific locations, and to use landmarks that are recognizable to the people who live there. I set the first scene of this chapter on Granville Island in Vancouver, because I love it there, and since they’re shopping for pastries, it gives me an opportunity to draw food, which I’d never really done before. We’re living in an age of gastro-porn, via the Food Network , cookbooks, social networking, what have you. Food’s important to almost everyone I know in some way or another, and people’s attitude towards it is another way to reveal character. So, going to the market is both a way to give me something new to draw while using the setting to move the plot forward.

-Steve MacIsaac
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This is a two-page spread from “Unpacking: Book One,” which appeared in Shirtlifter #3. I have a lot of dialogue in my comics, so I'm always on the lookout for ways to make two people talking to each other visually interesting. Usually that involves giving them something to do other than sitting around talking. I think this is the first time I’d ever tried to draw a phone conversation, so I thought I’d split the page and put the dialogue in between them, rather than cut back and forth on a panel by panel basis. A lot of the time when I place the balloons between characters, it is as a visual signifier of conflict, their words literally coming between them. In this case, it’s a way of connecting characters that are otherwise physically isolated from each other.

-Steve MacIsaac
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This is from the brand-new Shirtlifter #4. As I said when talking about #3, my comics can be very chatty, so I am always changing the setting or having the characters do something that I think is visually interesting. This is the first time we see the Chrisses in this book, and I am aware that many readers will not have read #3, so I needed to reestablish the relationship between Matt and the Chrisses as something close to family. While most of the intimacy stems from the type of conversation they are having, in general most people don’t ask someone to shave their back or trim their flattop, unless they’re pretty good friends. I thought the scene worked as a way to both reinforce the relationship AND keep things from becoming too visually static.

-Steve MacIsaac
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This is a page from “In Plain Sight,” which appeared in Shirtlifter #2. It is a revised version of the first comic I wrote and drew when I started getting interested in comics again at the age of 29.

It’s a short autobiographical piece, and like a lot of my autobiographical work, is written with a “voiceover” narration in captions. Again, it’s about taking a relatively small and trivial question (“So why do you shave your head, Steve?”) and trying to connect it to a larger, cultural conversation (“What does our appearance say about us?”).

I’ve always resisted being labeled as an “autobiographical” cartoonist, even though I’ve done a lot of work that fits that description, mostly because I’m not particularly interested in documenting the daily details of my life, or in constructing the consistent persona that fuels so much autobiographical work. I don’t think my life is particularly interesting, and I’m not interested in the kind of navel-gazing solipsism that often passes for “narrative” in memoir. At the same time, I have lived through events I think have a bearing on some aspect of modern gay identity. When that happens, I’d rather be honest about it and put myself as a character into the story. It helps give a clearer distinction to my fictional work, which people often take as thinly veiled autobiography: it isn’t. When I write about my experiences, I put myself as a character in the story. When I don’t, I don’t.

-Steve MacIsaac
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This is a page from “You Do The Math” from Shirtlifter #2. The story takes a structural approach that is a little unusual for me: it is an eight-page story that consists of four humorous single page vignettes interspersed between segments of a four-page conversation that links the ideas together. Humor runs throughout my work pretty consistently, but mostly it takes the form of wry asides or turns of phrases that the characters work into conversation. It’s rare that I have a page with this kind of “joke” structure, where there’s a funny payoff at the end. Even though I love humor comics and am generally pretty funny in conversation, it’s never been my primary concern—maybe because I don’t really have the “funny” drawing style necessary to really sell that approach. I liked this indirect method of structuring the story, however, and may do more work like this in the future.

-Steve MacIsaac
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This is a page from “Unmade Beds,” from Shirtlifter #1, which was the inaugural recipient of Prism Comics’ Queer Press Grant. This page is emblematic of many of the tropes that run throughout all my work: heavy use of black; two characters interacting in a confined space; a limited color palette; a conflict where the tension comes as much from what is unsaid as it is from what is said; silence used to emphasize emotional beats.

The story is about an expatriate couple living in Japan, and how this temporary arrangement has a permanent impact on their relationship. I tend to be drawn to small, specific situations that I think reflect on the wider culture at large. Globalization tends to be thought of primarily in economic terms, but I think it has also affected people’s relationship and work choices. Expatriates are frequently alienated from the cultures in which they are stationed, just as gay men are frequently alienated from hetero-normative culture; adding the two together makes for a double layer of alienation, which I thought was an interesting avenue to explore.

-Steve MacIsaac