by Benjamin Rogers
Once again the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo was a huge success. CAKE 2014 featured over 120 exhibitors and drew 2,200 attendees over the course of the weekend, a ten percent increase from last year’s show. Conference organizer Neil Brideau said that CAKE was excited to continue increasing its scope, noting that “this was the first year we’ve had a large international presence.” He highlighted some artists who travelled a long way to attend the show such as Inés Estrada of Mexico, and Philippa Rice and Luke Pearson of the UK.
Brideau also emphasized that a major part of CAKE’s mission is to support the local comics scene in Chicago. “We’re working to become a non-profit right now, and we’ve funded some scholarships. John Porcellino is doing a week-long workshop immediately following CAKE at the Chicago Publishing Resource Center. We did two half tuition scholarships for that workshop. Today, we’ve announced the Cupcake Award, which is a grant and a guaranteed half table at next year’s CAKE for someone’s who is working in minicomics and has not been published by a major publisher. Annie Koyama from Koyama Press is our special guest juror for that award this year.”
CAKE, now in its third year, has made its home at the Center on Halsted. After an especially crowded show last year, CAKE expanded from a single exhibition hall to a include a second space while simultaneously reducing the number of tables. The show was much easier to get around than in previous years, but still packed the house later in the afternoon on both days.
The goal of the CAKE organizers is to create a “balanced show, that brings a lot of different styles and experience levels together.” To achieve this, the CAKE organizers crowdsource feedback on CAKE applicants from the Chicago comics community but also retain curatorial oversight over the final list of exhibitors. It’s a hybrid approach that attempts to sidestep the gatekeeper problem of a fully curated show while also avoiding the free-for-all of a lottery show.
I asked many of the exhibitors what makes CAKE such a special show, and Chicago’s comics community such a strong one. Isabella Rotman and Amara Leipzig suggested that the city’s art colleges such as Columbia and School of the Art Institute are incubators for a lot of comics talent. Lucy Knisley noted that Chicago’s climate was ideal for cartoonists — having 7-8 months of cold weather forces folks inside and encourages the hermit-like conditions that are ideal for comics making, while the welcome arrival of summer allows time for self-promotion and energizing interaction with other artists during the convention season. Michael DeForge said that it is one of his favorite shows because there is a heavier emphasis on zines and minicomics than there is at other comparable shows. Many, many exhibitors mentioned the importance of Chicago book, zine, and comic superstore Quimby’s in promoting the work of emerging artist and providing a focal point for the local comics scene.
Now let’s hit the show floor!
Sophie McMahan had her latest issue of You Were Swell, her comic that combines loose dream-inspired narrative with 1950s and ’60s pop culture characters (such as the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Elvis). Sophie was one of many artists who was also showing off non-comics handmade objects — in this case, funky earrings made from Shrinky Dinks of her characters.
Jack Gross was among a significant contingent of Minnesota based creators at the show. Jack debuted Wizard Friends at the show, which she described as a departure from the “moody pencils” of her earlier work. I asked Jack about her unusually keen backgrounds, which are drawn from real locations in her hometown. She said she worked hard on that aspect of her comics after an especially tough critique from an art school professor. That’s the American higher education system working for you, folks.
Dawson Walker, also lately of Minnesota, showed off his latest work, The Granville Syndrome, which grew out of his thesis project at MCAD. The Granville Syndrome tells the story of a group of amateur stormchasers and deals with Walker’s own experience of migrating from Alaska to the Midwest. Walker’s cinematically wide panels are meant to evoke the wide-openess of the Midwest landscape.
One of the most physically beautiful objects I saw at the show was a CAKE debut from Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, a twelve page silkscreened mini called Amarinthine. Featuring a heavy gold metallic paper cover and three-color interiors, every page of this comic is a single panel that captures a moment in the life of a pair of childhood friends as they grow together and grow apart. This comic was a great example of how the care and craftsmanship of the physical object can add to the emotional impact of the narrative within.
Speaking of handmade books, Mita Mahato of Seattle creates beautiful comics that combine collage and traditional comics. For Mahato, the physical layering of images relates to the layered quality of her narratives. Her comics deal with nature, magical realism, and the grieving process. She is a board member of Seattle’s Short Run comics festival.
Carrie Vinarsky, who designed the poster, badges and other print materials for this year’s expo, also had some wonderful bespoke objects on display at her table. Each copy of the limited edition debut Fried Coolaid was individually bedazzled with glitter and googly eyes, and interior pages feature such surprises as a spray-painted page which is different in every copy.
At CAKE, comics come in all shapes and sizes, from massive tomes like Raymond Lemstra’s Big Mother 4 (left, with Tucker Stone for scale) to tiny volumes like Rebecca Mir Grady’s She is Restless. She is Restless volume seven, subtitled “Lost at Sea,” debuted at CAKE. Each volume contains a single fold-out page that deals with a current event from an environmental perspective. Previous volumes have been inspired by wildfires and drought conditions in the Southwest and of course, the Polar Vortex.
Leigh Luna was displaying the latest minis collected from her webcomic Clementine Fox. She told me that Clementine Fox was recently picked up by major humor comics house Andrews McMeel, who are looking to market Luna’s first major publication next year.
Ben Passmore and Erin K. Wilson’s table featured the debut of Passmore’s Daygloayhole: The Beast in Me and Wilson’s micro-mini Server. Wilson talked to me about her graphic novel Snowbird and the Kickstarter that helped her fund and create it. “I had mixed feelings about the Kickstarter,” said Wilson. “I don’t know who I thought I was that I was going to write my first graphic novel in three months.” It ended up taking about two years. “It was really hard because I had 368 backers, who were for the most part really supportive, like ‘hey, you got this! We’re just happy that you’re making it!’” But a vocal minority ended up making things uncomfortable for Wilson. In order to appease some less patient fans, Wilson began posting every page online as she finished it. “It’s not how you’re supposed to do it. You’re supposed to storyboard the whole book, pencil the whole book, ink the whole book, shade the whole book, and release it all at once. But I did it one page at a time.” Although she was still very happy with the end result, she felt that the pressure from her Kickstarter backers did compromise the process in some ways.
Hellen Jo, one of the convention’s Special Guests this year, also expressed some trepidation about Kickstarter. She admitted to having toyed with the idea of leveraging her popularity online to get funding for comics, but ultimately decided “I’m scared of Kickstarter.” She cited her slow work rate, saying that she wasn’t sure that Kickstarter backers could ever be patient enough for her. Jo is currently working on the second volume of Jin & Jam, a minicomic whose first volume appeared in 2008. But Jo has a good reason for working slowly on her comics: for the past year, she’s been working on a series of Girl Gang paintings which were recently collected as a monograph by Youth in Decline. She also has had full-time gigs doing storyboards for Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe and Regular Show.
Hellen Jo joined Jesse Moynihan and Jo Dery on a panel titled “24 Panels a Second,” moderated by Trubble Clubber Jeremy Tinder. The panelists started by citing some of their earliest animation influences, which included, Goofy, Garfield, Sailor Moon, Ranma ½, and Wizards by Ralph Bakshi. All of them mentioned how important their parents were in getting them into cool cartoons early in life. Although all of them loved animation from a young age, they didn’t consider it as something to pursue. Said Jesse Moynihan “Watching cartoons doesn’t translate to ‘I can do that.’ … the thing that made me think I could tell stories was comics.” Self-published comics like Cerebus and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inspired Moynihan to create his own comics, which only later led to his work as a storyboard artist on Adventure Time. Hellen Jo’s story was similar – it was the circulation of her comics online that led to her first animation job as a Storyboard Revisionist at Cartoon Network.
What was the biggest hurdle for these creators in transitioning from comics to animation? For Hellen Jo, it was the pace: “I’ve never drawn so fast in my life.” Jesse Moynihan cited a cultural difference between comics creators and artists with formal training as animators: “All of the comics people who work on [Adventure Time] are very precious and protective about their work. The people who come from an animation background are more willing to collaborate and have less ego.”
Jesse Moynihan also took time out to sign Forming II at the Nobrow table. It’s the second volume of Moynihan’s full color trilogy that combines mythology, science fiction and humor in an epic battle for the soul of humanity. Also at the Nobrow table were samples of the new concertina book from Kellie Strom, Worse Things Happen at Sea. This intricately detailed Leporello features beautiful colors created through a chromolithographic process, a near-extinct hand color separation technique that was once used in the production of currency. Those interested in how Strom achieves the fine level of detail and vibrant coloration of his work will be interested in this process video.
The highlight of Fantagraphics’ table this year was the debut of Twelve Gems by Lane Milburn. The 150-plus page chaotic space opera, which had not been previously serialized, was sold out by 11:30 AM on Sunday. Fantagraphics’ Jacq Cohen called it Fantagraphics’ book of the year, noting that the book “sold out faster than we could have possibly imagined. It’s incredible to see Chicago supporting a local artist like Lane.” Milburn was tabling with Conor Stechschulte, whose graphic novel The Amateurs is also new this summer from Fantagraphics. The Amateurs tells the story of a pair of butchers who suddenly find that they have completely forgotten how to do their craft. Stechschulte says it was inspired by a story from Werner Herzog about an unbelievably inept butcher shop he encountered in Quito while filming Fitzcarraldo.
More from the Fantastical Epic Narrative Department: Downfall Arts’ Alan D. Caesar told me all about his ambitious series Rena Rouge. The series started with volume 37, and Caesar plans to continue the series by alternating volumes that are numbered forwards and backwards, so that eventually, volumes one and 74 will be released simultaneously. Volume 38 debuted at CAKE, and Caesar had this to say about the project: “ I like worldbuilding. I want people to feel like they’re entering a world that’s fully realized.” The comics feature jam-packed interior pages and lush covers created by offset printing colored paper with fluorescent inks — the covers look even better when viewed under a black light.
Founded by a group of Columbia College grads, Yeti Press has released eighteen books since starting in 2011. One of the eye-catching new releases at their table this year was Andrea Bell’s Rose From the Dead, which Bell described as a “dude in distress” tale. Officially debuting at CAKE was Erik Nebel’s Well Come, the first print edition of his popular tumblr comic. Well Come tells an interwoven fantasy narrative with many characters, all conveyed without words in a simple, geometric style with bold colors. Nebel told me about the origins of the vibrant color palette he employs:
“I read this book called Environmentalism in Pop Culture , and she [author Noël Sturgeon] has this point of view she calls Global Ecofeminism. She analyzes all of the stories of the last 100 years of American pop culture and makes a convincing argument that in all of the stories we tell, we’re creating this false dichotomy. Pitting things against each other that aren’t even separated, for example men and women. That’s a societal construct, the idea of gender identity. The same thing with nature and civilization. And in advertisements and general imagery, there’s black and white. Black is associated with nature, white is associated with civilization. And women, and black, and nature are lumped together, and men, and white and civilization are on the other end. It sets up this superiority where the lighter colors have this symbolic meaning where they represent something pure, more clean, sophisticated. Darker colors are natural, wild, ethnic, tribal. So when I was thinking of the color palette [for Well Come] I started out with human creatures and made them a dark red, and animals I made a light orange, because I wanted to reverse that idea that dark colors are nature and light colors are human. I wanted to take that whole idea and flip that around.”
Uncivilized Books’ CAKE presentation featured the first bound volume from the white-hot Sam Alden. It Never Happened Again includes a pair of stories in Alden’s soft pencil style. I asked Alden about the many formats and media he experiments with: “The pencil stuff is like my wife…everything else is just a fling.” Uncivilized publisher Tom K was also very excited to debut Truth is Fragmentary by Gabrielle Bell. Part travelogue and part surreal adventure, the book explores the intersections of memory, reality and imagination across three continents.
Canadian boutique publisher Koyama Press has been at CAKE every year of the conference. According to marketing manager Ed Kanerva, Koyama considers smaller conferences like CAKE as essential to the publisher’s mission of being at the forefront of the graphic arts. Like many artists at the show, Michael DeForge, who released Very Casual with Koyama last year to great acclaim, still self-publishes zines and minis even after having found a publisher for his work. DeForge said he “couldn’t imagine” not making minicomics. Asked if his rapid rise in popularity had affected him or his work, DeForge said it hadn’t and told me “I still spend most of my time in a basement.”
Koyama’s newest release at the show was Elisha Lim’s 100 Crushes. Elisha, who is based in Toronto, told me about their roots in the queer comics community and said they broke through when “Alison Bechdel wrote an intro for a comic that I dreamed of doing.” Koyama and Elisha were connected through a mutual friend, leading to the publication of 100 Crushes. “Basically it’s all different ways that I’ve met queer people on three different continents. The first chapter is about butches and having crazy crushes on them…another chapter is going with friends to the men’s changing room in stores and what it’s like to try on men’s clothes…and there’s one at the end that’s not really queer content, it’s about jealousy, and trying to draw what it feels like to feel jealous.” Elisha said they create comics primarily for the queer community but that their real audience is any “intelligent, or informed” one, and that’s they’ve been blown away by the way their work has been embraced by the comics community at large.
Another Toronto-based artist, Eric Kostiuk Williams, was debuting the first collected volume of his Hungry Bottom comics. Hungry Bottom combines Williams’ own story of self-actualization in the Toronto queer community with wide-ranging pop-culture reference and sampling. Like the three individual volumes, the Collected Hungry Bottom features a four-color risograph cover and two-color risograph interiors in an oversize 7”x10” format.
Some of the most talked about comics at the show were Gina Wynbrandt’s works inspired by “sexual humiliation” and her status as a True Belieber. Wynbrandt debuted her minicomic Someone Please Have Sex With Me earlier this Spring at Chicago Zine Fest and her comic “Fish Vagina” was featured in the 2014 CAKE anthology.
Miranda Harmon, who was singled out to me by a CAKE organizer as one of the artists to watch at the show, was tabling at a comics show for the first time ever. She had previously only brought her comics to SPX as an attendee. Harmon, a recent graduate of Goucher College, had four debut minis at CAKE: Journal Comics, More Good Demons (a menagerie of not-so-scary monsters), Peat in the Woods, and Bad Comics. Regarding the comics collected in Bad Comics: “They’re okay,” said Harmon.
Emily Hutchings was also tabling for the first time. Trained as a sculptor, Hutchings decided to try her hand at exhibiting this year after her friend Ian McDuffie sold a book of her drawings at his table last year. Hutching’s offerings included the beautifully assembled Doesn’t Matter, a starkly minimalist collection of illustrated nihilist poems.
Anna Bongiovanni debuted a minicomic collecting the Grease Bats strip they draw for Autostraddle.com . The (Mother Fuckin’) Grease Bats has the tone of a buddy comedy or sitcom even as it addresses serious issues of identity and acceptance in the queer community. Also on hand for the show was the awesome educational comic A Cheap and Easy Introduction to They/Them Pronouns. Bongiovanni created this comic in order to explain and promote the use of gender neutral pronouns for those that choose to use them. It’s a great tool and as a writer I can say I found the guide really positive and helpful. They made it accessibly priced to make it easier for people to share with friends, family and coworkers, and they plan to release more comics in the Cheap and Easy series including an upcoming pamphlet on consent within the queer community.
The Comic Nurse, MK Czerwiec, was at the show to inform about the burgeoning world of medical comics. She told me about the scene: “I started making comics during the AIDS crisis when I was working as a nurse and was so overwhelmed by what I was experiencing and couldn’t figure out how to process it. I stumbled into making comics, and it turned out to be a really effective way of dealing with what I was seeing as a nurse. I ended up getting a degree in Medical Humanities, and, this was about ten years later, I wanted to look back critically and ask ‘why did that work?’ what was it about the form that helped me process experiences, and a large question, can comics have a serious role in medicine, in education, and what can they do for our patients and providers?” Around the same time, Ian Williams was creating the website Graphic Medicine to catalog comics that told of the experience of severe illness for patients and loved ones. Soon, MK and Williams were arranging a conference based around comics and medicine. This year that conference will celebrate its fifth anniversary at John Hopkins University in Maryland. MK herself teaches at Northwestern Medical School using comics in her classrooms.
Continuing in the practical-comics vein, Isabella Rotman debuted Gatherer, an easily-pocketed illustrated guide to fifteen edible plants which can be commonly found on the East coast and in the Midwest. Her tablemate Amara Leipzig had a gorgeous new book called The Ruins, which asks, “If a person grew up with no preconceptions, would they choose science or religion?”
Rotman will be one the artists featured in the upcoming anthology Speculative Relationships. The kickstarted anthology reached its funding goal on Saturday of the convention. I spoke to editor Tyrell Cannon about the book. “Anthologies are usually bad,” he said. One of the problems is a lack of cohesion. Speculative Relationships has a tight focus: Romance comics with a science fictional setting. The PDF of the anthology should be ready this month, with print editions headed to backers by the end of July.
Odin Cabal debuted the eighth issue of his self-publishd series Midwestern Cuban Comics, which collects several stories including the multi-part epic “¿O hermano, donde esta usted?” Cabal’s comics incorporate everything from baseball to MMA to one-night stands to the fairy godmother. He’s based in Kenosha, Wisconsin, but like many artists at the show, he got his start in comics when Quimby’s began carrying his work.
Scott Roberts, creator of the Star Spangled Angel, took a long break from making comics and returned to the form about four years ago. I asked him what brought him back: “It was what had exploded, the alternative world was so much different. It was a combination of art, printing and illustration. I hadn’t really thought of comics as such a great means of expression before. I mean I loved it, I loved RAW back in the ‘80s, but I always thought you had to have a publisher.” Though Roberts said he wouldn’t mind working with a publisher, he said that’s not the goal. He encourages younger artists to think of making their comics as an ends in and of itself, and not always a jumping off platform to more money and success: “There’s no real money in [comics] anyway. If there was a lot of money in it, you’d have a lot of different personalities involved. Some of the young kids go around passing out business cards. What in the world would I do with that? Just make some comics, and I’ll look at your comics!”
At the same table, Keiler Roberts had the latest issue of Powdered Milk available. “It focuses on my daughter who’s three years old, the things she says, domestic moments. It’s more structured than some of my other work.” It was the funniest comic I read at the show.
CAKE was an amazing show this year. The event continues to grow and expand and is quickly gaining recognition as one of the significant alternative comics shows on the crowded summer festival roster. There were many more brilliant self-published and small press comics than I could ever hope to chronicle here — the only way to see everything is to check out the show. Hope to see you at CAKE 2015!