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Gay comic strip tumbles onto the big screen

Over the last couple of decades, Hollywood has been pillaging comics for content—“Superman,” “Batman,” “X-men.” Heck, they even made “Dick Tracy,” “Popeye,” and “Dennis the Menace.” So it’s about time they tapped the world’s most prolific gay comic strip, “The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green.”

The saucy, syndicated strip, which has run in countless alternative publications for nearly 15 years and has spawned a spate of books, is hardly standard popcorn fare. It features an anti-hero, often stripped to his briefs, who’s not only incapable of saving the planet—he has a tough time saving himself.

From what, you might ask? Loser hookups, irksome exes, gym bunnies, crystal tweaks, and really dark backrooms, for starters. While looking for love in all the wrong places, Ethan isn’t afraid to get down and dirty, going where no superhero has gone before.

But did Hollywood, as with most page-to-screen efforts, de-kink the quirks to make it palatable for mainstream filmgoers?

I recently spoke to Eric Orner, creator of “Ethan Green,” who took time out from his day job at Disney Studios to discuss his take on the film.

“When I first got involved with the project I was flattered, but wary,” admitted Orner, who had never envisioned his creation screen-worthy. “Any time you translate an art form it can be fraught with peril. The chances of an indie movie treatment actually becoming an indie movie are pretty slim. There’s a lot of cajoling required.”

It took six long years for the project, directed by first-timer George Bamber, who previously assisted on films like “Ishtar” and “Dodgeball,” to become a reality.

The edgy comedy chronicles the misadventures of 26-year old Ethan Green (Daniel Letterle) on the verge of eviction from his ex-boyfriend’s house. After he starts dating Kyle, a former pro baseball player (Diego Serrano), he’s seduced by a voracious, text-messaging cutie named Punch (Dean Shelton).

Other goons who conspire to make his life miserable include the gay Republican, the hairy pair of hat-obsessed trannies, the psychotic lesbian realtor, the M4M junkie, and his ultra-liberal Mom (Meredith Baxter, from “Family Ties”).

The live-action film, which features an animated sequence by Orner, premiered at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival and has enjoyed a glorious run on film fest circuits—gay and straight. Just last week, the big-hearted indie was a sensation at NewFest here in New York.

According to the comic creator, it wasn’t easy to relinquish control of his alter ego to complete strangers. But screenwriter David Vernon consulted him regularly to ensure the film’s authenticity.

“Over the years, I created hundreds of plotlines—some I held on to, some I abandoned, some I forgot about,” explained Orner. “My biggest concern was staying true to the characterizations, not the plotline. I wanted them to get the dialogue right and they did. In some cases they used lines I had written.”

Fans of the comic strip know that the relationship-challenged Ethan is flawed yet adorable, annoying yet endearing. According to Orner, it’s this duality that’s kept him interesting for so many years. “You cheer him on, but sometimes you just wanna slap him,” joked Orner.

Casting was crucial, and the goateed Letterle (the “straight” heartthrob in “Camp”) proved a masterful choice, once you get over his light hair (it’s black in the cartoon).

“I didn’t want them to smooth out all of Ethan’s rough edges, especially his physical appearance,” explained Orner. “I was fearful they’d cast someone too pretty. Daniel is very cute, but in an asymmetrical way, not typical Hollywood gorgeous.”

So, did the filmmakers nail it?

“Well,” said Orner, fumbling for the right words. “After the initial pleasure that someone is interested in making the movie, you become afraid they’re going to ruin it and that you’ll be horribly embarrassed. Much of the film works marvelously, some stuff I might have done differently, but they were constrained by budgets.”

Orner cited an example where the cat, shorthand for “my owner is a lonely neurotic,” appeared early in the film but vanished due to the vagaries of an indie shoestring budget. “I hope the producer doesn’t kill me for pointing that out!” laughed Orner.

The comic creator particularly likes the madcap man-on-man sex scenes, such as when Ethan, wearing a catcher’s mask and taking a pounding, bickers with his boyfriend about their housing dilemma.

“Most sex scenes in films idealize the wonders of lovemaking, but life isn’t always like that,” said Orner. “A lot of times you’re just trying to squeeze sex in between the other things you gotta do. Some people feel showing writhing nude bodies is enough, but if you add context there can be another dimension besides sensuality.”

Given the out-loud-and-proud conceit of the comic strip, it’s no surprise that Orner is openly gay, as is director, Bamber. But it’s hard to watch the film and not wonder—okay, hope—that the sexy actors are as gay as their characters.

“I don’t know the actors well enough to discuss that,” admitted Orner. “When I go to the next cast party, I’ll do some research and get back to you.”

As for closeted actors in Hollywood, the comic strip creator is not having it.

“I am amazed there is still fear about being gay,” he said. If you add up how many people you attract versus how many you turn off, why bother hiding?”

“Ethan Green” the movie, like its namesake character, is fun yet flawed, and revels in its frivolity. So if you’re one of those jaded film snobs who feels that “Brokeback Mountain” raised the bar for gay cinema and that anything less is crap, you might want to steer clear.

“It’s a cartoon, for gosh sakes,” said Orner. “It’s not trying to change the world.”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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