By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2006
Eric Orner's comic-strip creation, a hapless, perpetual dater who can't find the right boyfriend, is making his movie debut in "The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green," which opens Friday. Orner says he thought Green might never make it to the big screen. (See review on Page 32.)
"The filmmakers came to me originally and asked if they could do this," Orner says. "I didn't really take them seriously, because I'd had this kind of thing pitched to me before, and not a lot of people have the wherewithal to take an indie film from conception to completion." In fact, that process took four years, and Orner had his doubts up until the movie's premiere: "I think I started taking it seriously once I took my seat at the  Tribeca Film Fest . . . after I had invited everyone I knew."
Orner worked on the film as a consultant. "I didn't want to write the thing because I don't write screenplays," he says, "but I wanted to make sure that my characters sounded like my characters and that they wouldn't do something that they wouldn't do on the page."
Not that there's a lot they wouldn't do on the page. When Orner's strip of the same name as the film first appeared in gay newspapers in 1989, it was one of the first comics to portray gay men everywhere from the bedroom to the family dining room. "The word that's always defined Ethan to me is 'subversive.' . . . It's dealing with your basic taboos: sex and drugs," Orner says.
Some of the characters from the strip, like Ethan's best friend, Bucky, didn't make it into the film because, Orner says, "we [were] trying to make a film that squeezes this big world into this tiny box of an hour and a half." Some strip regulars had to be cut for other reasons: "I would have liked to have had the cat in, but animal actors are expensive," he explains. (Watch for Ethan's cat, Lucy, in a brief cameo in an early scene.)
Orner describes Ethan as lonely but says, "He's not usually single. He's just usually on the verge of having another relationship fall apart." So he calls it "a dumb irony" that he himself has been with the same man since before he started the strip. Still, Orner says, memory is powerful, and he draws on his single days as inspiration for Ethan's adventures.
Orner, 41, says that when he first got out of college, he kept sketchbooks detailing his life as a newly out man. "I was so wide-eyed, so deer-in-the-headlights about being gay. I was like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole, except my rabbit hole had seedy backrooms and smelled like poppers."
Orner stopped writing the strip for newspapers when he moved to California and started working as an animator for Disney's "Tinker Bell," but he has since been laid off. (He jokes, "It turned out I was much better at drawing the kind of fairies with muscles and biceps than the ones with magic wands and pixie dust.") Now he's developing an animated "Ethan Green" for TV. Though he hasn't abandoned cartooning altogether -- he pens an occasional "Ethan" feature for magazines -- "the venue for telling my stories has shifted a little bit," he says. (His Web site, http://www.ethangreen.com , has a collection of classic and recent comics, plus Orner's blog.)
"When I started it was 1989, and it was a real boom era in the gay press," Orner says. "It was the height of HIV, and along with that came a heightened era of gay expression. I don't know if they have anything to do with each other, but in my mind they do."
Times have changed, though. "Now there's nothing like that. The Internet, the mainstreaming of the gay lifestyle is changing things. A good example is look around at gay bookstores; they're all closing," Orner says. Now most mainstream bookstores have gay and lesbian sections.
Similarly, he points out that 15 years ago there were no gay television networks. Now there are several, and Orner hopes one will pick up his animated series.
In the meantime, Orner says he's happy with the live-action movie: "It's really cool. It's like seeing the panels come alive."