After a four-year gap since the last installment, Shirtlifter #5 sees the conclusion of ‘Unpacking’, Steve MacIsaac’s compelling story of a commitment-averse gay man.
Punctuated by interesting short strips from Eric Kostiuk Williams and John Macy, Book Three of ‘Unpacking’ takes up 88 pages of this 96-page issue, and wraps up the story of Matt, a Vancouver graphic designer in his late 30s whose life is in a state of stasis following the break-up of a long-term relationship.
While the opportunity to dip back into the sexual sweetshop provides some diversion, his inability to move on is given metaphorical form in the boxes that remain unpacked in his new apartment.
However, his life become complicated again when he starts to hook up with the married, straight-presenting Connor. By the start of this final episode, the two men have reached a Rubicon that the commitment-shy Matt must decide whether or not to cross.
Even if you haven’t already read the first two ‘books’ of Unpacking, it’s fairly easy to pick up the characters, their situation and their relationships, thanks in no small part to the clarity of MacIsaac’s confident style.
I first came across his work in the QU33R anthology, and found his low-key naturalistic approach very appealing. There are few narrative pyrotechnics in his pages, but the no-nonsense style is a perfect match for the phlegmatic, undemonstrative character of Matt at the story’s centre.
Although this phase of Matt’s story lacks the muscular eroticism of the earlier episodes, MacIsaac’s eye for body language and ear for dialogue give the pages strong narrative energy, even when they consist of static ‘camera angles’. He also has a solid grasp of page design and confidence in his material that give the work a very comfortable pace, from one-on-one dialogue scenes to the lengthy elliptical sequence where Matt’s pinging out text messages but getting nothing back.
Meanwhile, the strength of the characterisation produces people we feel we know, rather than easy stereotypes. There are no saints in MacIsaac’s world – just human beings as difficult, flawed and complicated as the people reading the work.
Steve MacIsaac has a mature and accessible comics voice – and the fact that he achieved more than double his Kickstarter goal for this book (triggering a couple of stretch rewards) highlights the following he has built up. Going from the deeply personal to the universal, ‘Unpacking’ has an emotional relevance that deserves to be read outside a limited ‘gay comics’ audience.
Steve MacIsaac, Eric Kostiuk Williams, John Macy (W/A) • Self-published, $15.00 (print), $6.99 (digital)