Getting Eric Orner's The Completely Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green published in one volume is an important step to building continuity in the history of gay comics. Once a widely-distributed strip in gay-oriented publications, the comic became popular and significant enough to inspire a film adaptation. As noted in the foreword, the strip ran from 1989 to 2005, produced more than 300 strips, and appeared in more than eighty publications at its height. This volume collects all of those strips and adds some new material as well, giving the hero of the strip something of a happy ending (or perhaps more accurately, a happy beginning).
Visually, the strip is highly uneven. Orner's drawing style changes a couple of years in and becomes denser, filled with zip-a-tone effects, cross-hatching and a greater dependence on spotting blacks to add atmosphere. The most recent strips looked like they were drawn and colored on a computer, which was jarring to say the least. These strips didn't look nearly as polished as the earlier strips, and the garishness of the color detracted from some of the content. The use of color also seemed arbitrary at times. It's obvious that Ethan Green was Orner's laboratory for becoming a cartoonist, and not every experiment was a success.
In terms of format, Ethan Green draws heavily from Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For strip. The four-panel structure, the large cast of characters, the slice-of-life nature of the strip and the overall tone are all derivative of Bechdel's work. However, from the very start, Orner marked out his own territory in a number of ways. If he initially cribbed Bechdel's formal approach, his storytelling interests differed. For example, Bechdel never exactly had a single lead character around which the entire strip revolved, whereas Orner's strip specifically deals with the ups and downs of its title character. Bechdel's strip was overtly political (sometimes almost to the point of hectoring its readers), while Orner's occasionally included political content amidst its slice-of-life and romantic concerns.
Orner was adamant that he tell a story about a gay man in a manner that avoided gay stereotypes usually found in such depictions. At the same time, he wanted to clearly portray gay culture exactly as it was in the 1990s. On top of all this, Orner's whimsical sense of humor leads to quasi-fantastic events like Ethan spending time on Mars and other bits of funny mythology. The best confluence of whimsy and gay culture are Ethan's "aunts," the Hat Sisters. Based on real people in the Boston area, this couple wears hats as part of their drag everywhere and act as genuinely caring elder statesmen. Their relationship to Ethan is perhaps my favorite in the entire book, as they genuinely look out for him, give him advice, and bail him out of tough situations. Queer folks often refer to each other as "family," and I've seen no better portrayal of how literal this felt than in Orner's book.
Speaking of family, the strips about Ethan's supportive but slightly neurotic mother are fantastic. This strip began at a time that organizations like PFLAG were born and a different generation of parents were often more supportive in their kids coming out than previous ones. Depicting the occasionally halting but loving and good-natured relationship between the two of them was a source of constant humor, as was the frequently painful and awkward holiday dinners with extended family.
Ethan's friends are also carefully fleshed out, from the supermodel-gorgeous airhead Bucky to his arch-enemy Todd. Todd is one of the strip's best characters, as he represents the sort of person we despise whom nonetheless runs in one's same circles, knows the same people and attends the same parties. The sheer bitchiness exchanged between the two of them represents Orner at his funniest, especially when Bucky and Todd wind up together.
Structurally, the strips alternate between an extended narrative that follows Ethan's romances (or lack thereof) over the years and one-off, observational and/or silly strips. "How We Dance" was one that got extended treatment, as Orner listed the kinds of people you might meet at a club. What's interesting about the strip is that Orner intended it as a sort of mirror of gay culture, reporting what he said, saw and felt out in the community, even if Ethan was not an autobiographical stand-in. At the same time, Orner wasn't afraid to throw in quirky side characters, like a fortune teller who gave him advice. Orner is also quite frank about sex, although titillation was not on his agenda. He simply wanted to portray sex and affection in equal servings, both as a mirror to what he saw and perhaps as something to aspire to. It's a record of a culture that is now very different.
Politics did enter the strip from time to time. Most important was Orner addressing AIDS and the reality of a generation of gay men (and women, to a lesser degree) being wiped out. Some of the references to particular politicians are pretty dated now, though Orner was usually able to turn things like Newt Gingrich's "Contract for America" into something funny. Other topical subjects, like the Y2K virus, also seem impossibly dated. Fortunately, such references are relatively few and far between.
The real focus of the strip was on a series of relationships that Ethan was in. There's Leo, with whom Ethan had a passionate relationship but couldn't get him to commit. There's Doug, an ex-boss and older man who's HIV-positive; in many ways, he's the mature love of Ethan's life but it doesn't quite work out either time they're together. There's Etienne, the insane chef from Montreal who hides drugs in Ethan's apartment. Finally, there's Peter, whom Ethan meets in a near-death experience on an airplane. Every one of them is funny in its own way, but also poignant and meaningful as well. Orner doesn't just want to milk laughs from the embarrassing parts of Ethan's life, nor does he want to generate soap opera entertainment from those same ups and downs and betrayals. Both humor and soap opera are certainly aspects of the strip, but Orner is most concerned with Ethan's essential humanity.
Part of that humanity is that Ethan is a fairly unexceptional everyman. He makes mistakes, acts petty and jealous and frequently doesn't know what he really wants. He's a proud and out gay man but is in no way a gay stereotype. Orner wanted to create a gay character that made sense to him and his experiences as a gay man, and while Ethan's life and Orner's life had little to do with one another, it's clear that Orner created not a stand-in for himself, but rather someone he could have been friends with, warts and all. As a reader, I found myself most drawn in by the strips that focused on Ethan's life, both in terms of relationship and the culture around him. Orner's humane approach to his creations filled them with life, hope and humor, with the strength and intensity of his art giving them depth, weight and substance. The Completely Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green is important not only as a historical artifact but also as the rare strip that follows its characters over time and makes the reader care about their evolution.