Orner chronicles the life of openly gay congressman Barney Frank in Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank (Metropolitan, May).
You were Barney Frank’s congressional aide. How much was he involved in the process of creating the book?
I’d never had such a close working relationship with a subject before. We did many interview sessions, hours of asking him questions, going over all sorts of details: “Wait a minute, what did Tip O’Neill have you do?” and “Why were the clubs in the Back Bay area run by the mob?” When that was done, I went away for almost three years and drew and drew. And when I suddenly looked up, I thought, “Uh oh, I really should have showed him what I had at least half-way into drawing....” I didn’t have any idea what his reaction would be—especially since there’s a lot of personal material.
Were you nervous to show Rep. Frank the final product?
I was standing at a FedEx sending Barney this huge bundle, sick with worry. Then, in very Barney fashion, he called me two days later and said, “I have twenty corrections for you to do.” Barney is an accomplished, complicated person, but every indication I have is that he’s proud of the book. I wanted to present a biography of a civil rights hero and political leader, but my favorite thing is the color, the storytelling of politics. Politics all boil down to human interaction. Politics are lying and sex and commitment—all of our behaviors rolled into one, and in situations where the stakes are high. That makes for great stories. It was also important to me to burnish Barney’s place as an LGBTQ pioneer.
Did you have any nostalgic or anti-nostalgic feelings while writing and drawing about the politics of the 1980s, ’90s, and aughts?
I was not nostalgic for certain social issues. But, I was nostalgic for a time when the Supreme Court protected a woman’s right to choose control of her own body. One of Barney’s most famous quotes is when he’s reacting to the common behavior among the right wing being very violently pro-life while, at the same time, never agreeing to spend money on early childhood education programs, or nutrition, or healthcare. And he famously said, “They seem to believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth.”
What legacy do you want to represent in the book?”
Barney did work that made this a better society. It’s not glamorous, going to all those committee hearings and bashing your head against a wall of ignorance, but that’s what he did for 40 years. But he’s at heart an ordinary Jewish guy from Jersey who ended up in Boston running this storied political world.