Steve’s work is moody and clever, with bold, clean lines and color I find particularly striking. I’ve enjoyed reading his work recently and the resulting conversations. I am delighted to be able to share this interview with you and hope you enjoy reading Steve’s replies as much as I did…
Q: Would you like to share a little bit about yourself, likes, favorite place, time or country?
Well, I’m a 39 year old Canadian teaching ESL in California after several years in Japan, so I think that you could take from that that I’m interested in cross-cultural experience. I don’t know if I have a favorite place – I like to say that it’s any place I haven’t been – but I have a particular fondness for Kyoto in Japan, Buenos Aires in Argentina, and Rome in Italy. Add London to the list as well, but more in a “I could see myself living here” kind of way than in a “beautifully magical” kind of way.
You’ve lived in Japan, is there anything you miss about being there?
Easily, the subway. Living in LA, I can’t believe I used to take for granted being able to navigate such a large metropolitan area without a car so easily. I also miss the food as well. There are lots of good Japanese places in Los Angeles, it’s true, but none close to where i live, and even then it’s not quite the same. There was this great tabeseki restaurant that used to serve a drink made of Shochu (a Korean grain alcohol), soda, and Yuzu (a kind of Japanese citrus) sorbet. I miss that drink all the time.
Q: What made you pick up comics when you were younger? What were your favorites then and do you follow any now?
I’m not sure – they were sort of around my house because of my older siblings and I never really looked at them when I was really young, because they seemed very, I dunno, adult to my six-year-old self. I had been given some Peanuts paperbacks and I liked looking at them, i think i learned to read off of them, but I didn’t really know what they were saying. Then I discovered the newspaper funnies, and it was 1978 I think. The local paper had started running a Justice League strip, and I got hooked by it, and then I made the connection that those funny magazines I’d seen around had longer versions of these stories, and I was hooked. From 8 – 14 I was a little DC comics junkie. And about the time I started outgrowing those comics, starting to find them sort of juvenile and unstatisying, I discovered the newly-emerging alternative comics like Love and Rockets, Cerebus, American Flagg. Those sort of kept me interested in the form, and kept me reading.
Q: You stopped drawing for a while and then came back to it when you were a little older. What made you start again?
I think the fact that I had spent about 6 years working in adminstration at a community, non-profit radio station, where my job was basically to help other people be creative, but getting so involved with it that I got burned out, I had no time left for my own stuff. And I realized that I was dying inside, that I had things i wanted to say, and that I wasn’t going to be happy unless I cultivated that in some way. I had been learning some digital illustration programs for my work, and as I was learning them i thought ” hey, this could actually be a great tool for making comics”. So I started messing around, wound up going back to school, and never stopped.
Q: What was it like making your first foray into publishing?
It was sort of a natural progression, at least from a production standpoint I mean, for STICKY I had basically set up the files for publication anyway, I just hadn’t done all the final assembly myself. And though there were glitches, and having other designers around was helpful, doing that aspect myself has been relatively painless. Less painless has been doing things like sales and publicity myself, at which i really suck, just because it’s hard for me not resent every minute I spend trying to get stores to carry the book or writers to cover me, since that’s time I could be using to get the next issue out. But I’m getting better at it though, and in the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure I have much choice – I honestly don’t know who WOULD be interested in publishing me. I’m too gay for straight comics presses, and in terms of gay publishers, there’s too much sex in my work to fit comfortably into the gay mainstream, but too little to be actually classified as porn. So I figure, if I’m going to be marginal and make no money doing this, I should at least be able to maintain control over my work and have it come out the way that I intend.
Q: Do you find yourself coming back to particular themes in your work?
Well, I seem to have a fondness for the prefix “Un”, but that’s not exactly a theme.
Someone who interviewed me for a local newspaper article last month remarked that most of my characters struggle with isolation. He observed that my characters are basically lonely, uncertain people feeling their way in the dark. Sometimes that isolation is self-imposed, as is the case with Derek from “Unmade Beds”, who’s made a decision to wall himself off from his partner, and the tension in the story comes from what is going to happen as a result of that walling up. Matt in “Unpacking” is also isolated but it’s the result of an acrimonious breakup that’s left him suspicious, cynical, untrusting; he’s cut off from people because he’s afraid of what might happen. And certainly isolation is very specifically addressed in my autobiographical work. So I thought that was a pretty astute observation; I hadn’t thought about it so much as a recurring motif before, but I do tend to write about people who feel they are on the outside, even though that might not be immediately apparent on first glance. I’m interested in moments where they are at crossroads, where have to make a choice about staying isolated or reaching out beyond themselves, and the repercussions of the choice they make. I really don’t care that much about “why” they’re isolated: the past is important to me only in relation to the future, about whether or not they can reach escape velocity.
I’m basically interested in patterns and cycles and how they influence our lives. I’m not much of a spiritual person, but one of the interesting aspects of Buddhism is the concept of enlightenment, that life is the process of working your way through these stages, life and rebirth being a measure of your ability to see and break patterns, to move onto the next stage you need to see what is around you. I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I do think that we spend most of our lives navigating these kinds of patterns. I think gay characters particularly exemplify this; patterns abound in gay culture, some of it our own making and many forced upon us. So my stories basically establish a character, present a situation and see how they react.
Oh, and sex. Sex seems to be a reoccurring theme in my work. Most people tend to notice that.
Q: How much of your work is autobiographical? What is it like putting so much of yourself out there?
The stories in issue #2 are all autobiographical, although some of them would be more accurately labeled “autobiographical fiction”, since I will deviate from strict truth in service of the point being made. But anything where I put myself into the story as a character is emotionally autobiographical; it’s true to how I feel if not always true to fact. I included work in #2 which is not specifically autobiographical because it DID cleave close enough to my experience. “Crush” is an example; its kind of an amalgam of some of the experiences I had on the subway filtered through an experience my ex-boyfriend had. Which isn’t strictly autobiographical, and brings me to another point: someone once commented that I was probably the least revealing autobiographical cartoonist they’d read; after reading #2, they still really didn’t feel that they knew a lot about me, not in the sense that you would get from, say Joe Matt’s Peepshow. They said my stories didn’t really seem to be about me so much, which makes me happy, because that’s always been my intent. I think that the veneer of “autobiography”, that these events really did happen, lends the work a validity that would be otherwise absent if they were written as straight up fiction; people do get invested in you as a creator. I think that’s one of the reason the stories work better collected together than they did being published separately in the various anthologies. which is why I use them. But I’m really not out to establish some kind of cult of personality; I use myself in a story the way I would use any character; I identify a goal, a purpose, and then I use myself as a means of getting to that goal. I wouldn’t go so far to say I reinvent myself in every story; I don’t put myself in if my own experience isn’t strongly relevant to what I want to say. But what I choose to reveal of myself is related to the narrative rather than by any pressing need that I have to let people know that I had a shitty familty reunion, for example. I really don’t care if the world knows I had a shitty family reunion or not, that information has no value in and of itself. It’s only interesting in relation to the point I was trying to make about how immigration laws circumscribe the ability of gays and lesbians to form families. The fact that the events I’m writing about are true makes the problem less theoretical and abstract.
So, autobiography is a mode I’m very comfortable with. On the other hand, the longer works I’ve done, “Unmade Beds” and “Unpacking”, are both fiction. Obviously, elements of my own experience and observations creep into the mix in a variety of ways, but those stories are invented, and not thinly-veiled roman a clefs about my life. It is true that I lived in Japan, but Derek in “Unmade Beds” is not me. The details of our lives are different, the relationships we have with others are different. He’s a composite of people I knew in Japan, mixed together and then filtered through hypothesis and conjecture. That may sound obvious; it’s how most writers work, I think. But I think one of the reason I started doing explicitly autobiographical work is because I wanted to clearly distinguish between fact and fiction: if your experience is at all similar to one of your characters, everyone assumes that everything you write is based on your life. It’s natural; I’m guilty of the same tendency. So I think my decision to create stories that deal with MY life front and center, as I did in #2, was to show that I’m not afraid to talk about my own life, that I don’t need to disguise it; if something interesting happens to me directly, I’ll write about it and let people know. For the pieces where I don’t insert myself, assume it’s fiction.
Q: What process do you go through when you’re working?
It really varies from piece to piece. “Unpacking” is the first time I’ve worked with a structured outline. The story has been organized into three books, and I’ve worked out the general through line, the sequence and most of the major plot elements in each one, though not every single detail. I drew the first draft of Book 1 completely in sequence, which I’ve never done before – from the beginning I’ve worked on all of the pages simultaneously, adding and subtracting panels, reorganizing pages, rewriting dialogue. Sometimes I would have no idea what the piece would even be like until I finished it. Which was fine when I was doing 2 – 6 page stories, but as my work gets longer it’s become unworkable. Serializing “Unpacking” week by week online forced me to get past blocks and just do the work, and I must say that kind of structure was really helpful. I’m currently finishing up a piece for an anthology that I’m working on in my former way and I must say it’s driving me crazy; After working on something so structured for so long I was craving a return to that element of uncertainty, but I must say that I’ve found it more frustrating than I used to. So I think the “Unpacking” model is going to be how I predominantly work from here on out.
Q: Do you have someone who critiques before publishing?
Yeah, I’ve always shown things to someone to make sure the story reads correctly, or that there aren’t any typos, or to check for drawing mistakes. For the last few years my partner Todd has been invaluable in that department. He’s got a good eye for design and anatomy, so he can tell when things look wrong, and he’s my canary in a coalmine for plot incoherence: if something doesn’t make sense to him that’s always a danger signal. I don’t always agree with what he comes up with, since we have somewhat different approaches to narrative, but I always pay attention to what he says, since he’s bang on about 90% of the time.
Q: Do you listen to anything in particular when you’re working?
If I’m writing I either don’t listen to anything or it’s something fairly non-descript, like ambient music, soundscapes or soundtrack work – instrumentals, basically. If I’m drawing, inking or coloring I will usually listen to music or occasionally the radio or podcasts. I used to listen to the radio a lot more than I do not but kind of lost the habit when I was living in Japan. Been in a bit of a retro phase for the last little while, rediscovering a lot of older stuff that I haven’t listened to in years or hadn’t paid so much attention to: Anna Domino, Tuxedomoon, DAF, Joy Division, X, The Wedding Present, The Pop Group, Revolting Cocks, Ministry, early Simple Minds. Also some more contemporary stuff: Antony and the Johnsons, LCD Soundsystem, The Mountain Goats, Decemberists, The Magnetic Fields, Four Tet. I’ve always had a soft spot for Moody Goth stuff like Current 93 or Nick Cave. Rediscovering how good those old Palace records are. There’s tons more but this would just turn into a playlist.
Q: Do you read a lot of books? Any particular favorites?
Books as in books with words and only words? Not as much as I’d like. I read a lot when I was younger and a lot in Tokyo because I took the train everywhere. I still take the train in LA but now its mostly taken up with day-job related stuff like grading papers and lesson planning. I read a fair amount over the Christmas break, and if I have a lot of free time the habit kicks in again. Favorite and/or recently read authors include: Zadie Smith, Nick Hornby, Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, Barbara Gowdy, Bill Gaston, Flannery O’Conner, David Sedaris, Doris Lessing, Edmund White.
I also read lots of comics but I tend to go in binges. I’ll read a lot and then nothing for a long time. Basically because I mostly buy things at conventions, which I go to maybe 2 or 3 times a year.
Q: Comics you’re into?
In terms of my approach to the form I’m really influenced by grab bag of cartoonists: Eddie Campbell, Dan Clowes, Michael Dougan, Debbie Dreschler, Julie Doucet, Gipi, Howard Chaykin, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Dylan Horrocks, Joe Matt, Joe Munoz and Carlos Sampayo John Porcellino, Joe Sacco, Seth, Dave Sim, Chris Ware.
Content wise there’s a lot of LGBT cartoonists doing amazing work: Howard Cruse and Alison Bechdel loom large, obviously. Fabrice Neaud and Ralf Konig are two international cartoonists who have yet to recieve their due in North America; same goes with Tom Bouden. In terms of pure drawing skillz I would have to say Logan and HVH are knocking it out of the park right now. My peeps Justin Hall, Dave Davenport, Brad Rader and Ed Luce always do great stuff. And the Boy Trouble crew, Robert Kirby, David Kelly, Craig Bostick are always worth reading. There’s lots more – we actually are in a really, really good period for gay comics right now. I don’t think there;s ever been so many talented people putting out comics with such radically different approaches.
Q: Shirtlifter #3 is out now, what else is coming out soon?
I’m currently finishing up a piece for an anthology coming out from Arsenal Pulp Press called I Like It Like That which is due out in the fall. It’s mostly queer prose writers doing essays about what turns them on, I think I’m the only cartoonist in there. After that I start working on the rough draft of what will eventually become SHIRTLIFTER #4 – Book 2 of Unpacking – but that won’t be out anytime soon – 2010 at the earliest. This might be the first year since 2004 that I won’t have something out with my name on the cover – I’ve been pretty good at getting at least one thing our per calendar year. But I’ve kind of gone through the reservoir of material I’d built up. Comics unfortunately are not something I make a living at, so I work on them when I can. I alternate between phases of being very productive and being not at all productive. Hopefully I’m reentering a productive phase.
Steve, thanks so much for answering my myriad questions! I just love your work and am so looking forward to seeing where you go next with Unpacking which started in Shirtlifter #3. Like the idea of a continuing story much.
To see more of Steve’s work check out his website and blog. He has links on his sidebar to reviews of his work, which are well worth reading, as well as links to buy the comics. There are also some previews at Modern Tales and many of the images above are available for purchase via Steve’s site, you simply must check out this last image and its origins. Finally, there is another interview with Katherine Keller over at Sequential Tart that was seriously good reading. Thanks Steve. 🙂
Images posted with permission. (c) Steve MacIsaac 2001-2009.