The melancholy, yet taut and engaging world of Steve MacIsaac’s Unpacking brings to mind the paralysis of heartache described so beautifully in one of my favorite Sondheim tunes:
All afternoon, doing every little chore
The thought of you stays bright.
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor
Not going left, not going right.
“Losing My Mind,” Follies
Unpacking (Northwest Press), the beautiful new collection of MacIsaac’s Shirtlifter series, finds its hero, Matt, in a similar state of paralysis. He is 38, gay and suddenly single again after his boyfriend of eight years, Michel, runs off to Toronto with a younger man. Matt’s world is torn apart, and while he has collected some of the pieces, putting them back together is an exercise he’s not particularly interested in at the moment. This is exemplified most obviously and effectively by the mountain of boxes in his new apartment, just waiting to be unpacked, sorted, emptied and organized. Matt, however, is currently “not going left, not going right,” so the boxes remain as they are, a physical and psychological reminder that his life is on hold.
If Matt is depressed, he’s found ways to be functional, to carry on with the routines of his life. He goes to work. He has dinner with friends. He hits the bars. (And the apps.) He meets men, goes to their hotels and apartments for varying degrees of sexual satisfaction, then brushes them off once they start to show too much interest. He’s doing everything a single, gay man just out of a long-term relationship might be expected to do, but it’s performative, at best. He’s going through the motions. His married friends Chris and Kris—collectively known as the Chrises—worry he’s not opening himself up to the possibility of a new relationship. Matt is more interested in finding someone, anyone so unavailable that any hope of a relationship is impossible.
Enter Connor, a straight, married family man working in Vancouver for a few months. He doesn’t like labels, but he does like having sex with men. He’s the perfect kind of unavailable for Matt, who likes the idea of a short-term, no strings- or feelings-attached arrangement. Likewise, Matt is the perfect hyper-masculine “bull” that Connor requires to maintain his “no homo” illusion that it’s not gay as long as the men are muscular and manly. Problems arise almost immediately, as Matt bristles at Connor’s homophobic perceptions of gay men, and Connor oversteps Matt’s no-strings boundaries.
Matt’s friends are appalled at the seemingly self-destructive relationship, and Connor finds himself in the ironic position of defending gay relationships to a “straight” man, while not quite believing in them himself. All the while his volatile relationship with Connor isn’t helping him get any closer to unpacking his life or moving on in a healthy way, threatening to bring his untenable coping mechanisms crashing down around him, immobilizing him even further.
If this all sounds pretty heavy for a gay comics series, it is, and wonderfully so. Unpacking is a deep dive into layers and layers of human nature, human sexuality and human fear, and it’s at once both intellectually engaging and emotionally fulfilling. MacIsaac carefully imbues his characters with flaws, pathos, humor and longing. Even minor characters who pop in and out of Matt’s life are specific and memorable, and you believe they live real lives, make real choices and experience real consequences. Matt’s story is a specific look into one Canadian muscle bear’s life and the culture and expectations that entails, and yet it’s universal to anyone who has experienced heartbreak and faced the difficult process of moving on, even if that means facing and accepting your own responsibility for the pain and loss in your life.
Of course, this story wouldn’t be as gripping as it is without MacIsaac’s moody and evocative artwork. The muted colors, dark bedrooms and shadowy bars of Matt’s world mirror his emotional state perfectly. MacIsaac has a knack for elevating even mundane tasks, like cooking, shopping or texting, and making them feel vital, tense or euphoric. Across panels, characters move ever slightly closer to each other on a sofa, as the sexual tension builds. Matt and Connor embrace in a dark alley, separate, then embrace again, in imminent danger of discovery. Matt tosses and turns in bed across a two-page spread, each panel specific and relatable, all building towards the desperate and disappointing check for a text message. With each panel, there’s no doubt that this artwork was absolutely necessary to tell this story, a meaningful and gratifying achievement.
With Shirtlifter and Unpacking, MacIsaac taps into the inner life of a conflicted and emotionally paralyzed gay man and explores the truths and lies we all tell ourselves just to survive and keep moving, keep loving and keep unpacking. In a heartbreaking and pivotal moment, Matt asks Connor (and himself), “What’s wrong with me?” It’s a question MacIsaac uses to propel Matt’s next steps in his life and his choices, and it’s a question that stays with you, long after the final page. Or, to bring it back to Sondheim:
You said you loved me, or were you just being kind?
Or am I losing my mind?