Eric Orner’s The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green was a comic strip with a significant cult following through its 15-year run in dozens of LGBT and alt-weeklies, beginning in Boston’s Bay Windows, as well as the Washington Blade, The Boston Phoenix, and the San Francisco Bay Times.
Beginning in 1999, cartoonist Orner turned a wry—as well as riotous and sometimes raunchy—eye toward gay rights, homophobia, and AIDS, by capturing moments that mirrored the lives of gay men at a particular time in history. Now, a recently published compilation, The Completely Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green, will readers to rekindle their friendship with the quirky characters of the zeitgeisty strip. Here’s a strip from 2002 entitled “Hate Her At the Seder”:
But what most devotees don’t know is that for most of the time Orner was drawing his comic strip about gay, Jewish everyman Ethan Green, his day job was at the Washington and Boston congressional offices of Barney Frank, the iconic gay and Jewish congressman.
“[Barney] put up with having somebody on his staff for over a decade who he knew really wanted to just go home and draw,” Orner told me. “For that I’m very grateful.”
The former congressman said the cartoon was a not-insignificant factor in keeping chins up during the seriously down days of the AIDS epidemic and some pivotal turning points in the gay rights movement.
Frank is noted for pithy quips—Republicans’ concern for children “begins at conception and ends at birth,” for instance—but while Orner may be a master of snappy lines, he didn’t influence his boss’s rhetoric.
“I was who I was before we met,” Frank says. “I was pretty set in my ways before we met.”
Orner is also who he is. Ethan Green, he says, is not Eric Orner.
“Am I a short, culturally, non-practicing Jew who can be a wise-ass or sort of churlish? asked Orner. In that way we’re similar. [He is] somebody who had characteristics like me but it wasn’t about my life.”
After The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green was adapted into a film in 2005, Orner turned his attentions to other things. Following a dream to draw full-time, he moved to California and got a job at Disney, which proved to be more rote than creative. And when his boss became head of a project in Jerusalem, Orner was effectively forced to move to Israel.
A series of cartoons he created about his time there, from 2007 to 2010, is in turns serious and seriously funny. One of his strips, entitled “Right Wing Left Wing Standoff” from his upcoming graphic novel Avi & Jihad is especially affecting given the recent attack at the Jerusalem Pride parade, and other violent events in Israel in recent memory.
Orner’s complex views are critical of many of Israel’s policies and also of American Jews who he says can be afraid to openly discuss the issues.
“If it’s fair game to be critical of the Likud in Tel Aviv, then it should be fair game to be critical of it in Washington D.C.,” he says.
“I’m a Zionist,” he said. “I love [Israel] and I want it to go on forever.” But he said some people who promote settlement activity do so “particularly because it is counter-productive to peace.”
Orner is now a speechwriter at a New York City agency. As far as cartooning goes, he’s working on “something that goes down little easier than the violence in Israel—a memoir of his time as an animation drone at Disney where, he says, his Tinkerbell was accused of moving across the screen “a little bit like a Black Hawk helicopter.”
Here are two details from Avi & Jihad: