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Through art, 'Smahtguy' tells life story of former Rep. Barney Frank

A page from Smahtguy.
Metropolitan Books

There's one thing that's unfortunate about Smahtguy, Eric Orner's sweeping new graphic novel about the life of former Mass. Rep. Barney Frank. It's this: Smahtguy's subject is so powerful, its story so engagingly told, that reviewers will probably concentrate on its success as a narrative.

They'll talk about things like pacing, characterization and historical significance rather than about art. And that 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 page through this book without looking at any of the words, it would still be a great read.

Like the once-overlooked, now-celebrated Alison Bechdel, Orner has long gotten short shrift from straight critics. Though his comic strip The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green ran for about 15 years, even becoming a movie in 2005, he's never gotten a lot of attention outside the gay press. That can be attributed to Ethan Green's form (a comic strip rather than the artier graphic novel) and the fact that it ran in gay newspapers (where the comics are often squeezed into the classifieds section, a location seldom explored by straight readers). Hopefully Orner's first graphic novel will impact his career the same way Bechdel's Fun Home did hers. Its subject certainly demands attention: The life of a famous liberal firebrand and gay hero, as told by his former staff counsel and press secretary.

Like a lot of other comic artists who've taken on political subjects in recent years, Orner seems uneasy in the journalist's perch. He's not quite sure how objective he's trying to be. Though he announces in an author's note that he condensed story points and characters and took his "best guess" at some dialogue, his tone remains documentary. He would have done better to proclaim his bias more definitively, with the cocksureness-verging-on-hysteria that Rutu Modan adopted in Tunnels and Ben Passmore did in Sports is Hell. Many of his figures are as expressive as ever, especially his pudgy protagonist and a wonderful array of ferocious older females with hairdos as stiff as their resolve. ("They don't call it helmet hair for nothin'.") But his line isn't as fluid as it was in Ethan Green. It feels locked down, a bit blocky, as if he's decided that a documentarian needs to be more constrained.

A page from Smahtguy.
/ Metropolitan Books
/
Metropolitan Books

The story, too, is constrained — this time by a sense of what he owes his subject. Orner is as sentimental as a Simon & Garfunkel song, crooning over Frank's Kennedy-era idealism and the purity of his ethics throughout his life. Frank is improbably eloquent in his commitment to the latter. Here's what he has to say at a late-night 2008 congressional meeting about the AIG bailout: "All week, the Bush administration and its allies in Congress have refused to bail out banks, because doing so would constitute a sacrilegious intervention in the functioning of the free market. But tonight, you're championing an $85 billion bailout for some insurance company?" If Frank really did make a speech like that impromptu, at 3:00 a.m., maybe he deserves the hagiographic tone. But it seems unlikely.

Orner's excessive (and understandable) devotion only mars his story slightly, though. Those sentimental passages about what it was like to get involved in politics in the early '60s — convinced the world could be saved, and you and your friends could save it — are both nostalgic and galvanizing. This book — like Frank's life — is so epic, people will doubtless be finding new aspects to appreciate for years to come. One of Orner's most appealing tactics is highlighting the different ironies attached to Frank's homosexuality at different stages of his career. In the '60s young Barney overflows with political vigor, and yet he can't work for (or even speak about) the one issue that affects him the most intimately. Twenty years later, he'll fight for his life in the face of a witch hunt over his sexuality. Some of Frank's top opponents later end up embroiled in sexual misconduct scandals (Larry Craig, Dennis Hastert, Newt Gingrich).

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 fear that they'll overshadow his linework. His glowing yellows, salmon pinks and electric blues blaze off the page, setting his book apart from (and hopefully setting a new standard for) today's graphic novels.

Orner may have chosen his colors to illustrate what Frank means to him, and to the world. They announce that this is a big book, an important document of an important life. But those bold colors also proclaim a confident, even cocky sense of debut. This author isn't going to be dwelling in the margins anymore.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

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