There is one thing that is unfortunate smahtguy, the new graphic novel by Eric Orner about the life of former mass representative Barney Frank. That’s it: smahtguyThe subject matter of is so powerful, its story told so engagingly, that critics will likely focus on its success as a narrative.
They’ll talk about things like pacing, characterization, and historical significance rather than art. And it will be a shame. smahtguy isn’t just a great story, it’s an enveloping visual experience crafted by a terrific artist with an amazing line. Even if you were to flip through this book without looking at any of the words, it would still be a great read.
Like the once overlooked and now famous Alison Bechdel, Orner has long been overlooked by critics. Although his comic Ethan Green’s near-fabulous social life ran for around 15 years, even becoming a movie in 2005, it never garnered much attention outside of the gay press. This can be attributed to Ethan Green‘s form (a comic rather than the artier graphic novel) and the fact that it ran in gay newspapers (where comics are often stuck in the classifieds section, a place rarely explored by straight readers) . Hopefully Orner’s debut graphic novel will impact his career the same way Bechdel’s did. fun house did his. His subject certainly deserves attention: the life of a famous liberal arsonist and gay hero, told by his former lawyer and publicist.
Like many other comedic performers who have tackled political topics in recent years, Orner seems uneasy in the reporter’s perch. He’s not sure how objective he tries to be. Although he announces in a writer’s note that he condensed story points and characters and made his “best guess” at some dialogue, his tone remains documentary. He would have done better to proclaim his bias more definitively, with the arrogance bordering on hysteria that Rutu Modan adopted in Tunnels and Ben Passmore did it in sport is hell. Many of its characters are more expressive than ever, especially its chubby protagonist and a wonderful array of fierce older women with hairstyles as stiff as their resolve. (“They don’t call it helmet hair for nothing.”) But his line isn’t as smooth as it was in Ethan Green. He feels locked in, a little blocked, as if he had decided that a documentary filmmaker should be more constrained.
The story, too, is constrained – this time by a sense of what it owes about it. Orner is as sentimental as a Simon & Garfunkel song, crooning about Frank’s Kennedy-era idealism and the purity of his lifelong ethics. Frank is incredibly eloquent in his commitment to the latter. Here’s what he had to say at a late-night congressional meeting in 2008 about the AIG bailout: “All week, the Bush administration and its allies in Congress have refused to bail out the banks, because that would constitute a sacrilegious intervention in the functioning of the free market. But tonight, you’re advocating an $85 billion bailout for an insurance company? If Frank really gave a speech like that impromptu, 3 a.m., maybe he deserves the hagiographic tone. But that seems unlikely.
However, Orner’s excessive (and understandable) devotion only slightly spoils his story. These sentimental passages about what it was like to get involved in politics in the early 60s – convinced that the world could be saved, and that you and your friends could save it – are both nostalgic and galvanizing. This book – like the life of Frank – is so epic that people will no doubt find new aspects to enjoy in the years to come. One of Orner’s most appealing tactics is to highlight the various ironies attached to Frank’s homosexuality at different stages of his career. In the 1960s, young Barney was brimming with political vigor, yet he could not work (or even speak) on the one issue that touched him most intimately. Twenty years later, as he fights for his life in the face of a witch hunt over his sexuality, some of his main adversaries are either locked up or hiding some form of sexual misconduct themselves.
If Orner’s attention to irony is among the most striking aspects of his story, his use of color is among the most striking aspects of his art. Fearlessly he fills his panels with intense, dramatic colors (even the backgrounds!) without worrying that they’ll overshadow his line art. Her vibrant yellows, salmon pinks, and electric blues blaze across the page, setting her book apart (and hopefully setting a new standard for) graphic novels today.
Orner may have chosen his colors to illustrate what Frank means to him and to the world. They announce that it is a big book, an important document of an important life.
Etelka Lehoczky wrote about books for The Atlantic, the Los Angeles book review and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.