'Smahtguy' - Eric Orner's new book about Barney Frank

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday June 28, 2022
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'Smahtguy' author Eric Orner. photo: Stella Johnson
'Smahtguy' author Eric Orner. photo: Stella Johnson

Fans of Eric Orner' popular syndicated comic, "The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green" will be happy to know that after several years of work, Orner's new book is out, a graphic novel based on the life of his former boss, Barney Frank.

In a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Orner discussed the years-long process of developing his new more serious book about the gay congressman. Orner will be the guest at a discussion and book-signing event on July 8 at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Cited as "an enveloping visual experience crafted by a terrific artist with an amazing line" by NPR, "Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank" tells the story of one of America's first out members of Congress and a gay and civil rights crusader.

But more than a biography of an indispensable LGBTQ pioneer, this funny, beautifully rendered, warts-and-all graphic account reveals the inner workings of Boston and Washington, D.C. politics, all told through Orner's signature illustrations and energetic storytelling.

As Frank's longtime staff counsel and press secretary, Orner, 58, lends his first-hand perspective to this extraordinary work of history, paying tribute to the work of committed liberals to defend ordinary Americans from rightwing attacks on our liberties.

Orner created one of the country's first and longest-running gay comic strips. A cute feature film adaptation of the Ethan Green story appeared in 2005, the same year that Orner retired his comic strip.

Before discussing his new work, we recalled the old days of pre-internet hand-drawn cartooning with Duotones, X-acto knives, and mailing photostats to multiple publications.

"I began drawing Ethan Green, just before personal computers launched a graphics revolution," said Orner, a Chicago native who lived in Boston for two decades. He and his partner Blake Maher live in Tarrytown, New York.

"I often used a reprographics shop when I needed text manipulated, like white text on a black background. I used to have to do that photographically, and at the end of the process, I mailed out high-quality copies. It was a lot of work."

Orner's run with the "Ethan Green" series coincided with his off and on tenure working for Barney Frank in Boston and D.C.

His new work has gained much praise, including from his colleague, Alison Bechtel. "'Smahtguy' restored my battered faith in the American political process," she wrote in pre-publication praise. "Barney Frank's relish for the thankless work of governance is deeply inspiring, all the more so because it came at the expense of his personal life. Orner's masterful visual storytelling, inexhaustible graphic detail, and witty vignettes makes all the procedural nitty gritty read like a thriller."

Cartooning as art

Does Orner think cartoonists have been given their due as an art form, particularly in LGBTQ themes?

Eric Orner with Barney Frank at a Harvard University panel in May  

"I think there's been a lot of interest in our stories across many art forms for a generation. Queer cartooning certainly wasn't at the vanguard at first. But cartooning is more esteemed among the arts than it was when I began in the 1990s. But we're living in a much more visual age now, so visual storytelling is more popular.

Author Alexander Chee concurs, citing "Smahtguy" as "the story of Barney Frank but also the story of the transformation of America. Eric Orner's cartooning captures both the frenetic energy of Frank's times and the person he was: a young man willing to work for civil rights that didn't include him, who grew to fight not just for others but for himself, too. Unforgettable, complicated, and powerful, like the man himself."

Orner says his cartooning roots are in newspapers and journalism, having been published in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New Republic, rather than comics books.

"I came out of a format of opinionated, subversive and politically focused work that found its home in alternative weekly newspapers," including his first appearance in the Boston Phoenix. Orner offered a nod to the Village Voice cartoonists of the 1960s and '70s as an inspiration (Jules Feiffer, Lynda Barry, Mimi Pond, Stan Mack). "I wanted to follow in their footsteps."

Excerpted from 'Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank' by Eric Orner, Published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2022 by Eric Orner. All rights reserved  

What's fascinating is that Orner's political career wasn't an inspiration for his art until years after his work with Frank, who suggested the project, and that most "Ethan Green" fans were unaware of his political work, what he calls "my weird bifurcated career trajectory. But despite having a day job that required a coat and tie (rather than, y'know a waiter's apron or whatever). Cartooning was all I have ever wanted to do."

Drawing politics
And yet, having been raised by a politically focused family, Orner grew skills in political communication, and Frank knew that.

"Four years ago, Barney said to me, 'You're a writer,' but actually I've worked as a speech writer, not a biographer. He was dissatisfied with some coverage about him. He wanted something that understood his struggle a little better; having a public life but also a shambolic personal life. For a gay man in the early '60s to have political ambitions was a recipe for trouble."

When Frank suggested that Orner draw a story, "it had a lot of appeal," said Orner. "I'm familiar with the landscapes of Barney's life. I was a Bostonian for nearly 30 years, and I'm a gay Jewish American."

After a storyboarding job in LA for Disney ended, for his second job with Frank, Orner became the congressman's press secretary.

Eric Orner at a book event at Solid State bookstore in Washington, DC.  

"When I'm familiar with something, the way I was with the dating scene for Ethan Green, it sticks with me," said Orner. "So, the idea of drawing Barney's life went from zero to sixty, with the only caveat on my part was that 'Smahtguy' wouldn't be an authorized biography. I started to interview him for places where there were gaps in my knowledge. Then I took three years to research and draw it. He understood that to make it interesting, it would have to be warts and all. He would see it before it was published, but had no rights of refusal."

In the book, Orner cleverly compacts what could be tedious moments into a variety of composed panels that summarize the process of, say, pushing through policy legislation. Also included is the controversy of Frank's 1989 male escort scandal, and how he atypically confronted the media with his account.

"In creating a biography, some things have to be shortened, otherwise it could go on forever." Orner also said the focus is "a very editorialized take. If you want the full story, read his autobiography."

Orner also mentioned a frequently asked question, why he isn't in the book, and how, similarly, fans remain curious about how much of his "Ethan Green" series is based on his own life. "It's not about me. I wasn't writing 'My Travels With Barney.'"

Orner's current process is a hybrid hand-drawn and computer illustrated creation. "I start with a story, like a screenplay, then I do sketches on paper and with storyboards (many on Post-Its); very rough, and then home and heighten them on the computer. It's not all digital. But the drawing is where my creativity starts."

Some pages imbue a sense of reality visualized as comedy, such as then-closeted Pete Williams, during the gays in the military hearings, seen in cheerleader drag with pom-poms.

"The point is to make politics as interesting, colorful and circus-like as I experienced it."

'Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank' by Eric Orner, Metropolitan Books; $25.99; paperback us.macmillan.com

'The Completely Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green,' by Eric Orner, $24.99, Northwest Press. www.northwestpress.com

Eric Orner will discuss and sign copies of 'Smahtguy' July 8, 7pm at SF's California College of the Arts, Timken Hall, 1111 8th St. www.cca.edu

Eric Orner will also be in conversation at an in-person discussion with Carlo Quispe on June 30, 7 p.m. at the Bureau of General Services Queer Division in New York City, 208 West 13th St. Visit the website for live-streaming/archived information. www.bgsqd.com

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