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 U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 to 2013. Both are gay, Jewish men with a sharp sense of humor who moved to Boston to attend college—albeit more than 20 years apart—and stayed because it’s where their careers took off. But that’s where the similarities end, says Orner, best known as the creator of the long-running comic strip The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green, which he started writing in his early 20s when he was coming out.
“I didn’t really identify with Barney on an emotional level, and I think a lot of that has to do with, we’re a generation removed,” Orner said. “He came of age pre-Stonewall, and I came of age very definitely post-Stonewall and also during AIDS. His personal struggles were different than mine.”
Orner met Frank at an event in Boston’s South End more than 30 years ago. When the congressman learned Orner was the cartoonist at Bay Windows, the local paper that was the first to run Ethan Green, he offered a compliment—and employment.
“Barney remembered a cartoon I’d done that week, sort of lambasting [now disgraced] Cardinal Bernard Law for his awful attitude about AIDS,” Orner said. “Barney said something like, ‘Good cartoon. Liked the message. 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 took him up on the offer. Frank gave him a paid summer internship. Mostly, Orner drove the congressman to and from events, which he depicts with self-deprecating wit in Smahtguy.
About three-quarters of the way through the book, there’s a scene where Frank, his assistant, “and a slow-witted intern” drive to New Bedford to set up a new district office. Orner makes multiple references in the book to Frank’s irritating habit of backseat driving, including in this particular scene. At the bottom of a panel where Frank admonishes the intern for missing the exit, there’s an arrow pointing toward the driver. Orner’s text reads: “Actually I was the intern. That’s how I began to learn the stories in this book.”
Becoming his boss’s biographer was the last thing on Orner’s mind when he called Frank that summer. He’d been laid off from his job at a business magazine in Boston, and even though Ethan Green was becoming popular, it seemed like a good idea to take a part-time job to cover expenses in case editors soured on his cartoons.
“Drawing is my business—illustration, animating, that’s what I do,” Orner said. “Politics, law, government have been my family’s business for three or four generations. They’re all in politics. They’re all in law. If I am good at drawing by choice, I’m good at the family business by osmosis. I grew up in the kind of family where you just knew how to write a press release or file petitions to get on the ballot or make a legalistic argument to some government agency—parking, code enforcement, whatever—that you’re tussling with. And when I first met Barney, he recognized that.”
Over the next 20 years, Orner worked two more stints for Frank, as staff counsel after earning a law degree at Suffolk University, and as press secretary for the House Financial Services Committee after the recession in 2009. In between, he left politics and Frank’s staff, enrolled in film school at UCLA, worked in animation at Walt Disney Studios, and spent two years in Israel after his boss at Disney was asked to build an animation studio in Jerusalem. To qualify for tax breaks, the Disney producer had to bring along a Jewish story artist. Orner didn’t want to go. He was neither observant nor particularly interested in Israel. He told his boss this, repeatedly. The man wouldn’t take no for an answer. “He was getting that tax break,” Orner said wryly.
Orner figured he’d stay in Israel for three months, but he felt more at home there than he expected, and he stayed until the recession hit and the studio closed: “It’s sort of a cliché to say ‘I’m culturally Jewish’ but the fact is, I am. I do feel like a member of a very distinct tribe, and there are connections and sensibilities that Jewish people share, and that’s pleasing, to me, anyway.”
Before going to Israel, Orner thought of his strongest connection to Judaism as coming from art. Cartooning came naturally; he’d always loved drawing. Early on, in middle school, he’d begun using his talent to skewer officialdom (assistant principals, mean gym teachers, the food served in the school lunchroom)—something he considers a distinctly Jewish quality—and mask it with humor.
“As a people, Jews just aren’t cowed by authority, instead, we question it,” he said. “Roman emperors, American politicians, our own rabbis—we aren’t impressed. That’s different from a lot of people in the world. The artists I grew up admiring definitely shared this quality.”
Those artists include Ben Shahn, Edward Sorel, Jules Feiffer, Rube Goldberg, Roz Chast, and Harvey Kurtzman. “All Jews and all my heroes,” said Orner. “Not as good as knowing the prayerbook backward and forward, but to me, that’s my Jewishness.”
In Smahtguy, Orner skewers authority with gleeful abandon. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the book “a witty, empathic portrait of a brilliant but lonely and conflicted politician” and praised Orner for achieving “an exceptional balance of poignant biography, warts-and-all character study, and salty political satire.”
Orner conceived of the book five years ago, when Frank asked if he’d consider writing a biography that focused on more than just his legislative achievements. “I said, ‘I’m not a biographer,’” Orner recalled. But it occurred to him that he didn’t have to write a traditional biography. He could do what he did best: He could draw it.
Frank said he’s happy with the book and the way it’s being received, both for his former staffer and for himself. “I’ve known him for a long time,” Frank said of Orner. “I know that we share important values. I trust his judgment. I knew it would frankly be mostly complimentary and supportive, 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 one he’s hung up about, either. “Comic means funny, but comics have broadened enormously to encompass all sorts of emotional space, so in the same way we use comics more broadly, publishers use the term ‘graphic novels’ to encompass things that are not strictly fiction,” he said.
Orner included an author’s note clarifying that the story is a dramatization, but that he did his best not to take too many liberties; he recommends readers seek out Frank’s autobiography, Frank, for the congressman’s “story of record.”
Orner understands that the bifurcated aspect of his professional life—his waxing and waning between art and politics—is confusing to some. When he returned to work on Capitol Hill after the financial meltdown of 2009, the House’s chief committee clerk looked at “Disney Animation” on his resume, and, he says, “steam of confusion poured out of her ears.”
But toggling between two careers has worked for him. “To me, the exposure of being out in the world working has helped inform my storytelling,” Orner said. “It’s given me something to say.”
Debby Waldman is a writer and editor in Edmonton, Alberta.