Artist's subversive side comes out

Former East High student is a finalist for the GLAAD outstanding comic book award

Posted: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 3:09 pm | Updated: 12:58 pm, Thu May 5, 2011.

By Scott Christiansen, Anchorage Press

Illustrator Brad Rader makes his living in cartoons and comic books, media known for bringing elements of the American underground to the surface. Since leaving Alaska in the early 1980s he's worked on projects led by lauded cartoon makers known for navigating those razor-sharp lines, people such as Ralph Bakshi, Mike Judge and Todd McFarlane. If you can discern Bakshi's Mighty Mouse revival from other interpretations of the tiny super hero, or know which version of Spawn was more true to McFarlane's comic book, or if you spotted right away that Judge was the person who dreamed up and drew the residents of Arlen, Texas for King of the Hill, then you've seen some of Rader's work.

Rader, who grew up in Anchorage but lives in California, also has an underground career. It's an alter-ego job. It includes illustrating work for gay male readers and creating comics for adults who enjoy gross humor. He keeps two blogs, one called "Rader of the Lost Art" with superhero, TV cartoon and other mainstream work. The other is called "Faming Artist" and is more personal and uses a screening page at the front end to warn viewers of mature content.

Sometimes the two Raders collide, which isn't a bad thing. Last month the graphic novel Fogtown (arguably a product of that collision) was recognized by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation as a finalist for GLAAD's outstanding comic book award. The work is a gritty, noir-ish tale written by Andersen Gabrych. It's set in San Francisco during the summer of 1953 and although publisher Vertigo Crime calls it "sexually honest" in a press release, the gay and lesbian characters in the book are also caught up in a gritty crime novel plot. They act accordingly-getting mixed up in prostitution, rape, smuggling, kidnapping and murder.

In contrast, the award winner was DC Comics' Batwoman, whose lead character, Kate Kane, has been out and about while fighting crime for a few years.

"One of the themes of [Fogtown] is that everybody is trying to put up a false front," Rader says. "I'm kind of surprised [by GLAAD's recognition] because it's not exactly gay-positive."

The GLAAD website says its awards recognize "outstanding representations" of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. In fact, 2010 was a big year for queers in comics. Archie Comics introduced Kevin Keller in the pages of Veronica. Kevin is the first openly gay student to attend Riverdale High School, and his story seemed like a shoe-in for the award, especially during a year in which CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 won an outstanding TV journalism award for a series of stories about gay teen suicide.

Gabrych and Rader's Fogtown revolves around an anti-hero named Frank Grissel, who Gabrych describes in the text as "a womanizing private dick who has seen it all and done it all-twice." Grissel struggles with his identity, drinks way too much, and keeps his homosexuality closeted through much of the story. (It is 1953.) He is also naturally masculine and seems to despise effeminate gay men as much as women. But certain women and gay femmes are attracted to Grissel, who's built like a linebacker. He's rugged and when he's sober, he carries himself with dignity.

Rader says he was attracted to the story because Gabrych wrote characters who seem to be hiding something and whose full identities are unmasked slowly as the book unfolds. "Even the city itself is trying to pretend it's something that it's not," he says.

Rader has lived in California since attending art school in early 1980s. His mom still lives in Alaska, and Rader says he travels here to visit. (He's a graduate of East High School-go T-Birds.) An editor at Vertigo Crime teamed Rader with Gabrych for the book, after seeing Rader's self-published comic, Harry and Dickless Tom, at a convention. Harry and Tom are a comic duo of sort. "They're homophobic assholes," Rader says, adding the main plot point is that one morning Tom, a straight-male homophobe, wakes up to find his penis as been replaced with a vagina.

The bread-and-butter of Rader's career has been more mainstream and visible, but, being comic books and animation, the work also slightly veers into the subversive side of American life. His early credits include storyboards for TV fare produced by Hanna-Barbera. By 1987 he was on the critically acclaimed series Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, a revival of the superhero mouse produced by Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi's program was criticized for perceived drug references, in-jokes aimed at users of psychedelics and marijuana.

In 1999, Rader won an Emmy as director of Todd McFarlane's Spawn, which ran on HBO from 1997 to 1999. That's the hipper of two animated versions of Spawn. Rader is currently drawing storyboards at Allen Gregory, a cartoon created by comedian Jonah Hill scheduled to debut on Fox in 2011. Also this fall, Vertigo Crime will release a second run of Fogtown in paperback.

Rader says his current favorite series to watch is Bob's Burgers, and says ever since drawing for Mike Judge's King of the Hill he's grown more attached to cartoons that include character driven humor, rather than lean mostly on gags or action. Rader also says Hank Hill's family and his Arlen, Texas neighbors on King of the Hill (an unabashed flag-waving, football-watching gang) were not characters he related to easily at first, but he grew fond of them while working on the show. Unsurprisingly, Rader's San Francisco as portrayed in Fogtown is a long way from Arlen, Texas.

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