Artist Spotlight: Steve MacIsaac
A Canadian expat living in Los Angeles after several years in Japan, Steve MacIsaac creates comics that explore contemporary gay culture, identity, and sexuality. He is perhaps best known for Sticky, his erotic collaboration with writer Dale Lazarov, published by Bruno Gmuender in 2006. Since the completion of Sticky, MacIsaac has been writing, drawing, and publishing the series Shirtlifter, the fourth issue of which has just been released. The current issue continues MacIsaac’s serialization of “Unpacking”, which concerns the relationship between a graphic designer and a straight, married businessman. His work has appeared in a number of in anthologies, including Best American Comics 2010 (Houghton Mifflin), Big Love and Stripped (Bruno Gmuender), I Like It Like That (Arsenal Pulp), and several volumes of Boy Trouble.
Why are you a cartoonist?
Because I can’t not be. I have been obsessed with drawing comics since the time I was able to hold a pencil; I stopped drawing or thinking about comics for about 5 years in my 20s and was absolutely miserable. For better or for worse, doing comics is something deeply embedded in me. I’m not particularly good at coming up with single, individual images; I’m much better at combining words and pictures together in an interesting way than I am at either one separately.
Tell us about your process or techniques.
The process varies depending on the length of the piece, but I generally think in terms of sequences or scenes. I will rough out what is happening for a three to four page stretch using thumbnail sketches and provisional dialogue/captions. I’ll then gather the reference I need — mostly photos that I’ll take myself, fleshed out with images from Google Image Search if I need to draw a specific car or other object that I don’t have easy access to. I’ll make a preliminary drawing for each panel on the page separately. I work digitally, drawing directly on the screen of my Cintiq monitor using Adobe Illustrator. When the preliminary drawings are done, I composite them together onto my master page, using the page layout determined by the thumbnail sketch. At this point I will also add the dialogue and captions, rewriting as necessary to fit into the available space.
Once all of that has been finalized, I export the page over to a different drawing program. Adobe Illustrator drawings have very thin and mechanical lines; while they are fine for determining where everything should go on the page, they are rather dead on the printed page. So I “ink” the page using a (now orphaned) program called Creature House Expression. It’s the best drawing program I’ve ever used for line variation — the brushes look and feel right. When I press harder I get a thick line, when I ease up I get a thin one. So all the areas of black that appear on the page are done with this program.
When I am finished adding the black, I export the drawing back to Illustrator for coloring and final tweaks. Then the process gets repeated for every other page in the story.
How do you choose your subjects?
My stories are either drawn from my own experience, as in the case of my autobiographical work, or they are based on people and situations I have encountered in my own observations of gay culture. I am interested in exploring issues relevant to how gay men live, which means exploring dating, marriage, child-rearing, assimilation, masculinity. If I think something in my own experience says something about modern gay life, then I’ll choose to work in memoir; otherwise, my stories are fictional.
How do you describe your work?
I describe my comics as exploring the intersection of culture, identity, and sexuality. Some people call me a bear artist, which is not completely true, though there are lots of bear-ish guys in my work. I am interested in masculinity, however, especially the tension between how masculinity is constructed and perceived in the gay community and in the straight one. You could get 100 gay guys in a room and I don’t think you could get two of them to agree about what the term “masculine” actually means. Gay men are not truly seen by the larger culture, and they are increasingly not truly seen by each other, either. So my comics are my way of trying to navigate what the hell “gay” actually means for contemporary men.
What makes good comics for you?
Work that is not only visually interesting or beautiful, but which at the same time uses the language of comics to say something honest or important about modern life.
What catches your eye?
Use of color, usually. Followed by technique- the artist’s particular line or style of paint application. Composition — especially their use of negative space.
What comics artists do you take inspiration from and why?
On a purely visual level, the ones who most specifically inform my work would be Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, who not only provided me with my first exposure to positive depictions of queer characters, but who did so in cleverly written, beautifully drawn, and formally dazzling stories in which being queer simply was — no explanations of defenses necessary; Fabrice Neaud, who attempts a level of narrative complexity and visual metaphor uniquely suited to the exploration of gay identity; and Alison Bechdel and Eddie Campbell who, while quite different artists, I respect for their ability to use autobiography in a way that transcends solipsism.