Graphic novel ‘Smahtguy’ connection to Fall River and New Bedford

Sep 23, 2022 | Arts & Culture, Press

Graphic novel ‘Smahtguy’ features life and work of Barney Frank, and the SouthCoast
Kristina Fontes — The Herald News

Most of the time, graphic novels are about superheroes who fight against astronomical odds or evil beings in order to save the people or places they care about.

Lots of times these heroes are engaging in some form of vigilante justice, working outside of a system that they feel is either corrupt or ineffective. Sure, Batman works with Commissioner Gordon, but he doesn’t exactly answer to the Gotham PD. It’s not often that you get a graphic novel whose protagonist is someone working within a system, chipping away at systemic inequality while attempting to do the work of changing things.

Unless of course your former aide decides you’re “wicked smaht” and wants to tell that kind of story.

That’s exactly what artist and comic creator Eric Orner did with his graphic novel, “Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank.”

Orner is also the author of the acclaimed comic strip “The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green,” which was adapted into a film in 2005.

When he began writing and drawing “Smahtguy,” Orner was thinking that he wanted to tell the story of someone attempting to change things from within the system.

“I think Americans are accustomed to admiring outsiders — activists who agitate successfully for social change: think Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk,” Orner said. “The thought I had was, I wanted to tell a story of someone from inside the system, someone doing the unglamorous, often demeaned work of legislating to advance American society in positive ways that included LGBTQ rights, voting rights for African Americans, elder rights, affordable housing, the home heating program, etc.

“I’m a bit of a contrarian — the challenge of trying to interest readers who might be reluctant to immerse themselves in a story about political machinery, and the good it’s capable of, appealed to me.”

The places that Frank represented during his political career also have a role to play in this story including the SouthCoast, where Orner has some family roots.

Connection to Fall River and New Bedford
“About a hundred years ago my great grandfather, Max Kaplan and his brothers founded Kaplan Brother’s furniture, with stores in [Fall River and New Bedford]. The Fall River store went out of business in the 1960s when the state built a highway extension near what became Fall River’s Government Center. My mom Rhoda Kaplan Pierce was (and in a sense still is) a BMC Durfee cheerleader,” Orner told The Herald News.

Orner said his mother was born in Taunton. Because of his family’s history on the SouthCoast, Orner describes his time working as an aide for Frank as “a pleasure.”

Orner worked as an aide for Frank in his 20s, during the 1990s, enjoying what he called “a split working life.”

Mills in Fall River, along the Taunton Riverfront, in “Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank,” by Eric Orner.
“I went to law school, passed the Massachusetts Bar and found my way to a job on Barney’s staff, all while publishing widely as a cartoonist,” he said.

At first, his early work for Frank focused on helping constituents who were involved in disputes with different federal agencies:

“Cranberry farmers in Carver or Dighton who’d defaulted on small business administration loans. Commercial boat owners in New Bedford tangling with the National Marine Fisheries Service because they’d exceeded the catch limits. Helping city agencies in Fall River navigate the rules for federal grant programs,” Orner said.

After a 10-year stint drawing for Disney in Hollywood ended with the Great Recession, Orner returned to Frank’s staff in Washington as press secretary for the Financial Services Committee that Frank chaired.

Whether it was in the Bay State or in Washington, Orner remembered, and depicts in his book, Frank as “the most hands-on of bosses.”

“If he found out a constituent or reporter hadn’t been responded to in a substantial way within a week, there was hell to pay. However, he was very tolerant of the fact that I had artistic ambitions. All he asked was that I work hard at my day job.”

Though he is the first to admit his bias in favor of his former boss, Orner approaches the book in a fair-minded way, not shying away from Frank’s struggles with his sexuality, and even the scandal that Frank weathered. Orner strives to maintain a “warts and all” approach to the stories he shares in this book.

His art is not only expressive, delightfully capturing the New England accent throughout in a way that so many other art forms fail to do — what is worse than cinema’s idea of a Boston accent? — it is bold. The coloring of these pages dares you to look for the little details, and to keep looking.

Its panels are as engaging as its prose.

‘Smahtguy’ event at UMass Dartmouth
Anyone who wants to pick up a copy as well as meet the artist/author and former Congressman, will have a chance to do just that this fall.

On Thursday, Oct. 6, from 4 to 6 p.m., both Orner and Frank will be present for a “Smahtguy” event in the Grand Reading Room of the UMass Dartmouth Library.

This event is being sponsored by the Center for Women, Gender & Sexuality, as part of the keynote for LGBTQ+ History Month.

Orner will do a presentation and read a few selections from the book. Orner’s readings are usually animated. Frank will be present and on stage, and after the reading there will be a Q&A session.

Copies of “Smahtguy” will also be available for purchase.

Orner said he’s looking forward to sharing the work with a SouthCoast audience. “‘Smahtguy’ includes a lot about Fall River and New Bedford — I’m so excited at the chance to share it with folks from Southeastern Mass. Barney and I both look forward to seeing many old friends and making some new ones.”

Herald News/Taunton Daily Gazette copy editor and digital producer Kristina Fontes can be reached at Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News and Taunton Daily Gazette today.