Review: Shirtlifter #4

Artist(s): Ilya, Justin Hall, Steve MacIsaac.

It has been about two years and a half since the third issue of Steve MacIsaac’s Shirtlifter, but after reading this new, fourth issue, I can say without exaggeration that it was absolutely worth the wait: MacIsaac’s writing, which I already appreciated, has become a thing of beauty and subtlety.

But let me remind you what this is about: Matt is a muscle bear (like a lot of MacIsaac’s characters) whose tough exterior barely hides his raw emotions after having been left by his lover of 8 years. Not wanting to dive into another relationship, he hooks up with lots of guys, before meeting Connor, a great lay who unfortunately claims to be straight but interested in “just sex” with men. And he’s married.
The previous issue ended with Matt and Connor finding an uneasy truce between their obvious and mutual attraction, their opposite views on male relationships, and the fact that both categorically stated that they didn’t want a relationship. These new 60 pages follow them as their non-relationship develop and they talk through various arguments regarding whether they should sit close in a theater (Connor doesn’t want to look too gay), kiss in public/open places (or more than kiss…), and what makes a couple, gay or straight. Connor also get to meet a gay, married couple, which rather blows his mind.

Connor and Matt

On one hand, the whole story feels like it’s a gay bildungsroman for the benefit of Connor, who, for the first time in his life, begins to face the fact that liking guys (or at least, some guys) that much means he can’t honestly label himself as “straight”. On the other hand, MacIsaac is never preachy, and doesn’t present modern gay life as some kind of Promised Land that you can enter by opening your closet. That is achieved by not leaving the last word to Matt in each conversation, and by letting some hard questions stay unanswered. Which is why I wrote that MacIsaac’s writing is subtle. Those characters are fully rendered, they’re human beings and not walking slogans.
I don’t think I should leave unmentioned the fact that MacIsaac also manages to integrate some very hot sex scenes, without which Matt and Connor’s friendship would look incomplete, since it is explicitly based on sexual attraction.

The issue is rounded off with two short contributions by other artists: Justin Hall gives us another chapter of his work-in-progress The Liar, and Ilya, a British artist, shows some of his Dick strips.
Hall’s story of a hitchhiker who meets, and hooks up with, a guy who picks him up has a lot of potential, but the dozen pages he shows here are more frustrating than anything. I do think this story will look very good when it’s finished though, since Hall presents characters which are intriguing and complex, and does so in a non-linear way.
Ilya’s presence in this issue was a very nice surprise: it had been years since I’d seen anything gay-inclusive by him (a couple of years ago, he did a very good adaptation King Lear), in fact, it was back in his two The End of The Century Club graphic novels, titled Countdown and Time Warp, which I recommend heartily. Here, we get a few strips from a series he did in 2000-2001, about a group of gay friends. It’s fun, witty, and full of guys of various shapes and sizes. I want to see more, and fortunately, Steve MacIsaac announces in this very issue that he’ll publish a collection of Dick next year.

Shirtlifter might not be published very often, but when we get an 80-page book full of comic goodness like this, we can be happy that Steve MacIsaac shows such perseverance.
You can see a preview of MacIsaac’s story at the Modern Tales website, and you can buy the book either from the author or from Amazon.

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