Steve MacIsaac: The New Gay Interview
TNG reader Paul Morton brings us an interview with homo comic artist Steve MacIssac.
Steve MacIsaac’s Shirtlifter series is a lovely, unorthodox marriage of form and content. He has the eye of a melancholic sitcom writer. The second issue of the series dealt with MacIsaac’s closeted life in Canada, his difficulty connecting with his family, and the acrobatics he performed in order to enter the US to live with his American boyfriend. The third issue moves away from autobiography. It’s an anti-romance between two middle-aged bears, one a married man who considers himself straight, the other an out gay man just getting out of a relationship. And yet the style of MacIsaac’s work is more sharply-colored neo-noir than sitcom chic. Michael Mann could have set up MacIsaac’s cityscapes of Vancouver or Los Angeles.
MacIsaac, 39, was raised in a small conservative Catholic town in Nova Scotia. He found himself working for some years at a progressive radio station in Halifax, and eventually made his way west to Victoria. He spent some years in Japan, teaching English. Now, he lives in Long Beach, California with his boyfriend, a law professor. We spoke by phone on July 21. The following are excerpts from our conversation.
The New Gay: The kind of guys who are depicted in your books aren’t really my type. But they are other people’s types. When you look at a sex scene in a graphic novel, sometimes it can turn you on and sometimes it does nothing for you. If you can’t be turned on by a sex scene, not just in your comic book but in any erotic comic book, do you feel that it’s harder to understand the work?
Steve MacIssac: No. Not necessarily…I wrestle with this question because I don’t really have an answer to it at all. Part of what I’m interested in is how sex reveals character and how you get to know people in a certain way after you’ve slept with them in a way you don’t when that connection doesn’t exist. And connection can be, as you say, really subjective and arbitrary…
I made a decision in [Shirtlifter 3] to be more explicit than I had been in the previous issues because I was dealing with the development of a relationship between two people where sex is really all they have. We have a guy who says he’s straight. We have another guy who doesn’t really want to be in a relationship at all. They don’t really interact outside the bedroom. So it’s really impossible to talk about how they interact without sort of showing sex. And I guess I could have done the Queer as Folk thing and not shown genitals and just had a simulation of sex.
And I kept dancing around the issue and I just decided, it was almost like, “Fuck it. Everyone sticks [Shirtlifter] in the porn section anyway. It almost doesn’t matter.” The first issue, all I had was some genitals and some full frontal nudity. It’s in the porn section. The second issue has some sex, but it’s so absolutely depressing and soul-searing that it’s really hard to categorize it as porn. You certainly don’t go to porn to get depressed. So it just winds up in the porn section. I was just put there anyway so I just said, “Fuck it, I might as well.” It’s not like self-censoring is going to improve my sales or make me any more marketable. So I’m just going to do what I want. It might not work. But let’s try it out and see…
In this stage in the relationship that’s really all [the two main characters in Shirtlifter 3] have. In the [next issue], which I’m working on now, there has been absolutely nothing explicit yet and I’m thinking I probably won’t go there because the relationship, for what it is, is developing in other areas. It’s not as necessary. But I guess my thoughts and feelings is that there’s no point in not putting it in. [F]or years and years and years [in gay literary fiction] you would have a fairly straightforward literary novel and then there was a fairly explicit description of a blowjob. Because it’s words, nobody thinks twice about it. But because it’s a comic book [when] I do the same thing suddenly it’s quite a bit off-putting. I recognize that images and words are different things and have different power. But part of me is just questioning that.
I guess I think what I’m doing is no different in terms of explicitness than a lot of underground comics in the 1960’s, like Robert Crumb or Spain [Rodriguez]. It’s just that sexual culture in the United States has gotten so fucking puritanical so that anything [explicit] is pushed to the margins. So a lot of comic book stores won’t carry anything that they consider porn now, which is a market change from the ’70s and ’80s. A lot of it is just me being obstinate and saying this is as valid a way to reveal character as anything else and I refuse to capitulate to people who say it is not legitimate.
TNG: From what I could piece together [from your other interviews and from the autobiographical pieces in the second issue of Shirtlifter] it seems you came out a little later on in life.
SM: Yeah, when I was 26. And I’m 39 now. I came out as a cartoonist late in life too.
TNG: You came out at 28 as a cartoonist.
SM: Actually, later than that. Thirty-two or 33 is when I was published for the first time. But I started working on art again when I was 28 or 29.
TNG: The thing is I can’t say 26 is the best age to come out. But the way you tell the story [of your closeted existence] in the first part of Shirtlifter 2, it makes it sound like you wasted your life until you were 60. And there’s a completely different level of tragedy with someone who has truly let the years slip by him and someone who just let the college years go.
TNG: Did you fear that moderating that tragedy would have made the point of that piece less clear?
SM: Well, fair point. I think the piece [is] an overstatement, definitely. And it’s the character, which is me, but it’s me in character mode. I’m definitely exaggerating tragedy because my life is actually pretty cool now…
We sort of paint ourselves [in our coming-out stories] as these tragic figures. We all swap them when we’re talking. Even though the coming-out narrative is such a cornerstone of gay literature now that it’s a cliché. And I didn’t want to do a coming out story. So I guess my decision was I wanted to do a not-coming-out story. And I wanted to depict the self-hatred and the self-loathing that goes on in people’s minds and the [consequence] of that, which is when I actually made the decision to come out it went smoothly and was a relatively easy process…
I wanted it to be hyperbolic and a bit tragedy, just a bit of overstated tragedy. It isn’t that big a deal. And the guy’s life isn’t over. But try telling that to someone who is going through that. People are really really really subjective and solipsistic and they’re in their own little worlds.
I kind of wanted to depict the rage and the self-loathing because that’s sort of who I was in that. I was sort of feeling self-hatred and I didn’t get over it until I was about 30. So I guess I was trying to depict a state of mind. Just to depict the fact that I’m really hard on myself. Even after coming out. It’s like, “Well fucker you should have come out earlier. You wasted all this time.” It’s like the same voice that prevented you from coming out but now it’s switched sides and it can be just as debilitating and negative…
TNG: You grew up in Nova Scotia. My sense of Nova Scotia is that it is actually a particularly liberal place. Maybe I am completely missing the boat.
SM: It is and it isn’t. It is, but you also have to realize that this is the ’70s, and the thing is it depends on where you are in Nova Scotia. Because Halifax is a pretty good town. That’s where all the queers sort of wind up because it’s the biggest city within a four-province range. So I used to live there and work at a very progressive radio station there. But that’s like a bubble. And the south part of the island is really rural, it’s where there are a lot of farming collectives and that kind of thing. It tends to be fairly liberal and progressive. Where I grew up is known as the Little Vatican because it’s 98% Scottish Catholic and very much in thrall of the local bishop and the school there, which is a Catholic university. So it’s a very unusual place even within Nova Scotia…
Kids are kids. I grew up in the country rather than the town proper. Most of my peers were driving all-terrain vehicles and killing things with guns on the weekends. And I wanted to draw and read books. And I wasn’t particularly athletic. So I was the town faggot. I got called faggot everyday of my life from the time I was nine-years-old to the time I was about 16. Picked on, humiliated, completely isolated. Had almost no friends, was considered a real freak. And it wasn’t actually until I went to school in town where I met professor’s kids and people who were teaching at the university who were much more academically and artistically inclined that I kind of started developing social skills and a peer group. Before that I was just really really unpopular.
TNG: One of the constant themes in the Shirtlifter series is that the definition of what it means to live your life with integrity is never clear. In the third issue, you have a married man who claims that by cheating on his wife with a man he isn’t cheating. The openly gay man in the relationship is a little more together, but at the same time it’s not clear what he wants in this relationship. He’s not being honest with himself either.
SM: Right. Right.
TNG: In Shirtlifter 2, there’s a flashback where you’re hero recalls being a teacher to people who are learning English as a second language. His students are homophobic and he behaves in an impeccably professional manner. But is his integrity to his profession compromising his integrity to his self-identity? What I like about the way you handle these issues is that none of them are ever fully resolved.
SM: Right. I don’t think it’s truly resolved at all. I don’t write this kind of stuff because I have the answers at all. I don’t have any answers and I guess part of why I do comics is it’s a way of working through the problem. One of the things about writing literary essays or short pieces is you tend to need to have all the answers. The structure of prose, especially…first person prose, is very different than comics. [In comics] I flip flop between trying to be absolutely objective, like having no sort of internal narration at all, and then having a lot of pieces that are internal narration [which] is clearly unreliable because [it’s] being undercut or contrasted with the visuals that are around it. I like that level of complexity and uncertainty.
I don’t know what the answers are. But I know that they’re important questions. And they’re issues that come up in my life and they do fascinate me. One of the reasons I threw in that idea, that ESL scene that you mentioned, is because that scene, by itself, didn’t happen word for word. It’s a composite of a million conversations like that that I’ve had. I teach academic debate all the time and gay issues always come up and there’s always a pro and con. And people come up with the most horribly asinine ideas about why gay marriage is bad or whatever. And I force myself to be objective about it because it’s just like doing gun control or any other issue where I don’t have as much invested in the topic. I try to have them analyze the topic on the merits of the logic being used. “Well this is a good argument because it has these elements.” “This is a bad argument because those elements are missing.” But part of me – the character who’s sort of walking around that piece saying, “Why are you living a lie? You shouldn’t have to live a lie. We should all be free.” I kind of get that and I was kind of that guy before. When I first came out I hid nothing, I declared loud and clear on any possible topic all the time. And I guess I’m not sure what my responsibilities are as a gay man. Am I self-loathing by not coming out 100 percent all the time. And a lot of these things were provoked by research that my partner does. He’s a law professor. He does a lot of writing about gay and lesbian issues. And [in] one of his articles he was doing at the same time I was doing this, he was sort of riffing on the notion that coming out is not a singular event. It is something that you always do all of the time. You are always coming out. It’s not just once and then it’s over with. And we choose who to come out to based on safety. And he was dealing with gays and lesbians in the courtroom and how people who are out and proud, suddenly when they are in the court of law they hide things more than they would in other aspects of their lives just because the stakes are higher. A lot of the stuff going into that short story is “Where is the line? Am I a coward or am I being professional?” And I don’t know what the answer to that question is.
TNG: Because you came to being a comic artist so late, it surprises me. Almost everyone I’ve met who is a comic writer or artist has dreamed of being a comic book writer or artist since they were eight.
SM: That’s true for me as well.
Again, it’s a courage thing. Not unrelated to coming out. I gave myself permission. I wanted to go to art school. I was a cartoonist since I was six. I drew and drew and drew and drew and drew and drew. But what happens when you become a teenager, you develop self-criticism, you develop critical faculties and all I could see was “I suck, I suck, I’m not doing this right.” And I didn’t really know how to go about getting better. I didn’t really know how to draw. And when you factor in hormones and suddenly I wasn’t completely isolated and unpopular when I turned 16, I started developing a social life and some friends. Suddenly drawing in a room by myself, which I’ve been doing all my life didn’t seem as attractive an option as it used to be. I developed more social activities and I kind of forgot how to draw a little bit because something else became more important. And it wasn’t until later in my ’20s when suddenly it all came rushing back and I really realized that I was missing visual representation, that I was really sort of craving it, that I sort of drew myself to learning how to draw properly. I had forgotten enough of the things I was doing wrong that I started from scratch and I started with a better place because I learned more about what to do. I started to thinking about it analytically, as opposed to just draw one thing, then draw another, then draw another, then draw another, and not thinking at all about what was going on. My comics used to suck because I wasn’t really thinking about them at all. I was just sort of doing them. And now I think about them more.TNG
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