It would be easy to assume that cartoonist Eric Orner was drawn to the subject of his new book, Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank, because he identified strongly with Frank, his former boss, who represented Boston and the South Shore of Massachusetts in the United States House of Representatives from 1981 to 2013. Both are gay Jewish men with a sense of sharp humor who moved to Boston to attend college. – albeit more than 20 years apart – and stayed because that’s where their careers took off. But that’s where the similarities end, says Orner, best known as the longtime comic’s creator. The almost fabulous life of Ethan Green, which he started writing in his early twenties when he was dating.
“I didn’t really identify with Barney on an emotional level, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we’re a generation away,” Orner said. “He came of age before Stonewall, and I most certainly came of age after Stonewall and also during AIDS. His personal struggles were different from mine.
Orner met Frank at an event in Boston’s South End over 30 years ago. When the congressman learned that Orner was the designer of Windowsthe local newspaper that was the first to publish Ethan Green, he offered a compliment – and a job.
“Barney remembered a cartoon I had done that week, some kind of beating [now disgraced] Cardinal Bernard Law for his appalling attitude towards AIDS,” Orner said. “Barney said something like, ‘Good cartoon. Loved the post. When you need something else to do, call my office. Maybe I can put you to work.
A few years later, in the summer of 1990, Orner accepted the offer. Frank offered him a paid summer internship. For the most part, Orner drove the congressman to and from the events, which he portrays with a spirit of self-deprecation in Smahtguy.
About three quarters into the book, there is a scene where Frank, his assistant, “and a slow-witted intern” travel to New Bedford to set up a new district office. Orner makes several references in the book to Frank’s irritating habit of driving in the back, including in this particular scene. At the bottom of a sign where Frank berates the trainee for missing the exit, there is an arrow pointing to the driver. Orner’s text reads: “In fact I was the intern. That’s how I started to learn the stories in this book.
Becoming his boss’ biographer was the last thing on Orner’s mind when he called Frank that summer. He had been fired from his job at a business magazine in Boston, and even though Ethan Green became popular, it seemed like a good idea to take a part-time job to cover expenses in case the editors got angry over his cartoons.
“Drawing is my job – illustration, animation, that’s what I do,” Orner said. “Politics, law, government have been my family’s business for three or four generations. They are all in politics. They are all entitled. If I’m good at drawing by choice, I’m good at the family business by osmosis. I grew up in the kind of family where you knew just how to write a press release or file petitions to be on the ballot or make a legalistic argument to a government agency – parking lot, code enforcement, whatever – with which you are arguing. And when I first met Barney, he recognized him.
Over the next 20 years, Orner worked two more stints for Frank, as a staff lawyer after earning a law degree at Suffolk University, and as a press officer for House Financial Services. Committee after the 2009 recession. In the meantime, he left politics and Frank’s. The staff, enrolled in UCLA film school, worked in animation at Walt Disney Studios and spent two years in Israel after his Disney boss was asked to build an animation studio in Jerusalem . To qualify for tax breaks, the Disney producer had to bring in a Jewish storyteller. Orner didn’t want to go. He was neither observant nor particularly interested in Israel. He told his boss several times. The man wouldn’t take no for an answer. “It was obtain this tax relief,” Orner said wryly.
Orner figured he would stay in Israel for three months, but he felt more at home there than he expected, and he stayed there until the recession hit and the studio said: “It’s a bit cliché to say ‘I am culturally Jewish’ but the fact is that I am. I feel like a member of a very distinct tribe, and there are connections and sensibilities that the Jews share, and I like that anyway.
Before going to Israel, Orner thought his strongest connection to Judaism came from art. The caricature came naturally; he had always liked to draw. Early in middle school, he began using his talent to confuse the administration (vice principals, mean gym teachers, the food served in the school canteen) – something he considers a distinctly Jewish quality. – and hide it with humour.
“As a people, Jews are simply not intimidated by authority, instead we question it,” he said. “Roman emperors, American politicians, our own rabbis, we are not impressed. It’s different from a lot of people in the world. The artists I grew up admiring definitely shared that quality.
These artists include Ben Shahn, Edward Sorel, Jules Feiffer, Rube Goldberg, Roz Chast and Harvey Kurtzman. “All the Jews and all my heroes,” Orner said. “It’s not as good as knowing the prayer book upside down, but to me it’s my Jewishness.”
In Smahtguy, Orner breaks authority with cheerful abandon. In a star-studded review, Weekly editors called the book “a witty and empathetic portrait of a brilliant but lonely and confrontational politician” and praised Orner for achieving “an exceptional balance of poignant biography, character study, and salty political satire”.
Orner conceived the book five years ago when Frank asked him if he would consider writing a biography that focuses on more than his legislative accomplishments. “I said, ‘I’m not a biographer,'” Orner recalled. But it occurred to him that he didn’t need to write a traditional biography. He could do what he did best: he could draw it.
Frank said he was pleased with the book and the way it was received, both for his former collaborator and for himself. “I’ve known him for a long time,” Frank said of Orner. “I know we share important values. I trust his judgement. I knew it would be frankly complementary and encouraging, but equally important, it would be written by someone who understood what I had done.
The book is being marketed as a graphic novel — not Orner’s decision, but not the one he’s hung up on either. “Comic means funny, but comics have expanded tremendously to encompass all kinds of emotional spaces, so in the same way that we use comics more broadly, publishers use the term ‘graphic novels’ to encompass things that are not strictly fiction,” he said.
Orner included a note from the author stating that the story is a dramatization, but that he did his best not to take too many liberties; he recommends readers to seek out Frank’s autobiography, Franc, for the congressman’s “dossier history.”
Orner understands that the bifurcated aspect of his professional life – his growth and decline between art and politics – is confusing to some. When he returned to work on Capitol Hill after the 2009 financial crisis, the House committee’s chief clerk reviewed “Disney Animation” on his resume and, he said, “a vapor of confusion poured from his ears”.
But switching between two careers worked for him. “For me, the exposure of being in the world working helped inform my storytelling,” Orner said. “It gave me something to say.”