When a ‘Smahtguy’ came to Washington

Barney Frank’s life is now a graphic novel

A new graphic novel explores the life and times of Barney Frank, shown here in 2004.  (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A new graphic novel explores the life and times of Barney Frank, shown here in 2004. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 26, 2022 at 6:45am

Eric Orner couldn’t just lug a sketchbook through the halls of Congress, since he was wary of what it would look like. But he always had a pen and paper.

The cartoonist would use free moments to note what was happening around him on little slips of paper and stuff them in his pocket. When he got home from his job as a congressional staffer, he would transfer them to sketchbooks.

As he embarked on a biography of Barney Frank, those scrawled drawings came in handy.

“I got a lot of these old notebooks that are crammed with the funny little details that sparked my imagination,” he said, describing one showing Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut dancing at an event.

“She was dancing with these sort of big joyous, sweeping motions,” he said. “It sat in a sketchbook for 10 years until there was a reason to revisit it.”

Orner made his graphic novel debut this month with “Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank,” a sometimes irreverent portrait of the lightning rod from Massachusetts with an acerbic wit. 

Eric Orner’s “Smahtguy” gives a nuanced picture of the iconic Massachusetts Democrat.

One of the first members of Congress to come out as gay, Frank was an outspoken progressive voice and civil rights champion during his more than three decades in office. He may be best known for leading the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul in the wake of the 2008 recession.

Orner’s book relies on color to give a sense of place. Shades of red evoke Boston’s bricked urban landscape, while ivory scenes in Washington nod to the city carved from marble and granite. 

Famous faces like Tip O’Neill and Nancy Pelosi litter the panels, and Orner even inserts himself into the narrative as a “slow-witted intern” driver who misses an exit in Frank’s district — it always aggravated Frank when drivers didn’t know the district as well as he did.  

Orner relied on both his memories and imagination to tell the story, which means you sometimes see Uncle Sam chewing some bubblegum or the sword of Damocles dangling over the Capitol dome. But along the way, he captures all the ironies of Washington. 

Excerpted from “Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank” by Eric Orner (Metropolitan Books, May 2022).

When the Ethics Committee ultimately decides Frank’s fate during a tabloid-fueled prostitution scandal, one lawmaker says, “Well, that’s a deadlock. Hey, it’s Thursday. Let’s go fundraise.”

There’s plenty of profanity and even some jabs at the Senate. He depicts the chamber as if it were filled with snooty ancient Romans. “Representatives from the Lesser House approacheth,” someone in a toga says. 

The real goal for Orner was to give a nuanced picture of Frank, and that includes intimate and vulnerable interactions. He shows a disastrous mid-1980s date with a man named Carl, who tells cartoon Frank, “Don’t call me unless you’re out,” after he avoids a kiss in public. 

His favorite scene is a moment of calm where Frank sits down at a coffee shop with Rep. John Lewis. “Those moments in D.C. always surprised me and pleased me, and that panel represents that,” he said.

Excerpted from “Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank” by Eric Orner (Metropolitan Books, May 2022).

Orner arrived in Boston for college and also attended law school there. He met Frank at an event, hitting it off discussing his cartoon that appeared in the alt-weekly Boston Phoenix. 

Frank told him to call if he ever needed something else to do.  

“And as it turned out, I did give him a call,” Orner said. “And he did put me to work on three different occasions over the next 20 years, including during the Great Recession, when I lost my job drawing at Disney.”

Orner continued to cartoon as a staffer, drawing “The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green.” It began in 1989 and became one of the longest-running gay comic strips, chronicling a young gay man trying to balance his professional career with a search for love. 

That other career was never a problem for Frank. “Barney’s attitude was as long as you do a good job, he didn’t care,” Orner said. 

Drawing was never just a hobby or a side hustle for Orner, though he sometimes felt the weight of expectations in Washington.

“I mostly wouldn’t talk to my lawyer staffer friends about being an artist because I assumed they would think I was a flake, and I wouldn’t talk to my artist friends about being a lawyer staffer, because they would think I was a suit,” he said. “It’s a little bit like being in the closet as an artist.”

Excerpted from “Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank” by Eric Orner (Metropolitan Books, May 2022).

“Smahtguy” came out of a conversation he had with Frank several years ago. Despite an autobiography and write-ups on his legislative achievements, something was missing — something a little more human. 

“He wondered whether I could write a more multifaceted biography of him,” Orner said. “I didn’t think I could write it — until I thought, ‘Well, I could draw it.’”

Frank wasn’t involved much in the drafting process. The former staffer relied on his knowledge working with Frank, plus some long discussions.

“I interviewed him a lot at the beginning, and then I went home and wrote for a year and drew for three years,” he said. “And then there was this scary day when I realized the last page was drawn and ‘Gee, it might have been a good idea to show him about midway through just to make sure he didn’t hate it.’”

Frank did get a preview of the final book before publishing and had 27 specific corrections, mostly dealing with factual issues about events, Orner said. But the subject appears to like the book just fine. The two have appeared together as part of its release. 

Orner said he wanted to show that Frank’s contributions not only touched the financial world, but the civil rights and LGBTQ community, too.

“He wasn’t pretty. His personality wasn’t always winning. He hadn’t died young … but he’d triumphed,” Orner writes in the final pages of the book. “He’d turned what could have been a life defined by sadness or fear or revulsion into one that was the opposite of those things.”