Let them have CAKE!

This is the second (and longest) of a set of posts I’ll be doing this month (and a half) on comics culture related events. In particular, this post is all about Chicago Alternative Comics Expo – or at least my experiences of it in 2012, 13, and 14.

In the Beginning (2012)

I first heard about CAKE through a friend of a friend, who would become my friend, comics maker Penina Gal. I was living in Bloomington at the time, and had just finished a course with Collins Living Learning Center on making and analyzing comics, the aforementioned Comics Take Over the World (anthology now available at Quimby’s Books!). I also knew that I would be defending my dissertation on Indian comics that May, so having a good field trip related to comics in June seemed brilliant. And even more so once I discovered that Penina and friend Betsey Swardlick had space in their car for an extra passenger!

I stayed at a hostel in downtown Chicago, and walked to the Columbia College’s Ludington Building. On this trip, I discovered my perennial favorite cafe – Cafecito – whilst also exploring downtown, mainly Waverly Island and the Adler Planetarium. But much of my time was taken up with attending the various and sundry panels, including an animation panel (Double Vision) with some really great screenings. I remember especially digging Sally Cruikshank’s “Quasi at the Quackadero” – but it’s been a while and I mostly remember thinking they were all pretty awesome. I also dug the panels on silk-screened comics (Low Brow, High Mesh: Silkscreened Comics featuring Sanya Glisic, Keith Herzik, Jen Tong, and Tom Toye, moderated by Carrie Vinarsky) and on getting published (with Annie Koyama of Koyama Press, Jesjit Gill of Colour Code, Caroline Paquita of Pegacorn Press, Sarah Becan of Short Pants Press, Austin English of Domino Books, and Greg Means of Tugboat Press, moderated by La Mano’s Zak Sally). The panels with the awesome Anders Nilsen, John Porcellino, and Kevin Huizenga with Caitlin McGurk (now of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum), and on Comics in Chicago with Edie Fake, Jeremy Tinder, Paul Hornschmeier, Robin Huslte, and Ezra Claytan Daniels were also fantastic, if I remember correctly. And I explored the space as well as I could – there were many smaller rooms that could be a bit tough to navigate when it got busy due to the halls in between.

In retrospect, it was a fantastic year to attend Cake, as so many big names were in attendance. I remember being downright shocked to see these creators sitting at tables side by side with lesser known folks – and how everyone was so very friendly, from ordinary chatting to trading comics with attendees who were creators themselves (like me). The sense of community was really strong – and it certainly helped that I saw some repeat offenders like Marnie Galloway and Chad Sell. I had only just met them both – at SPACE and MSU’s Comics Forum, respectively, so it was cool to see them again.

Mostly, though, I bugged Penina and Betsey while hawking my wares to various people. I got a sense that there was a whole group of fine people who loved comics in Chicago – which was downright inspiring for someone who had to explain the notion of alternative comics to many people I met at conferences!

There Was Comics (2013)

I was living in Chicago last summer, so treking out to Chicago was still a bit of an adventure. I did get to stay with a friend in Logan Square, which was nice, if a bit farther away from the new venue, Center on Halsted, in Boy’s Town. So, I wound up only getting to the event around 1 pm or so on the first day, Saturday. I was only really worried about this as my former professor, current friend, and oft role model Phoebe Gloeckner was going to be there. I don’t believe that I was able to get ahold of her beforehand, so I had planned to stop by and say hello.

But, upon saying hi, I found myself in the strange position of helping out with and thus being a part of her tabling – so my comics found their way onto her table. This was in large part because she really only had several prints for sale of her terrifically interesting work on the murders of women in Juarez, Mexico. (Sidenote: I got to work on this project with her in my last summer of undergrad – from painting a salvaged museum diorama of a desert to felting dolls that would later appear in her comics. Twas such an amazing experience!) In any case, I was often asked about her work when she had to take a break or talk to specific people – and I had the great luck to chat with Julia Gfrorer, whose stories feature not only awesome mermaids, but female characters with depth and complexity that ought to be the norm. They’re also often dark stories – which I dig.

The result was that I did not really get around as much as I might have otherwise – but that I did get to feel what it was like to sit at a table for hours at a comics expo. I also got to be that annoying guy who’s taking up space at a famous creators table…which was interesting. A few people really dug my comics, though, and I made a couple bucks. Better yet, after seeing Phoebe and Julia, along with Heater Benjamin and Caroline Paquita (panel title: Intimate Anxiety), talk about their work at the one of two panels I attended that year (the other being the Chris Ware panel, though I’d intended to attend the Kim Deitch one as well), I also got to hang out with Phoebe and some younger comics creators from Matt Crane, Sheila Marcello, and two other creators whose names I forget (I still have some of their comics – but alas they are currently in my storage unit). Oh, and here’s the other panels that happened.

Best of all, I got a fantastic signature from Kim Deitch – which I will add soon…

The new venue was pretty great – if sometimes a bit crowded – and I LOVED the nearness not only of that vegetarian/vegan haven Chicago Diner but also of the Whole Foods in the first floor of the Center. So much pizza slices!

And Then…There Was MORE Comics (2014)

This was the year that I volunteered – I figured that I had seen the event as a consumer (2012), as a tabler (sorta in 2013), and I wanted to see more of the inner workings – also, I applied for a table but was waitlisted. I would later find out that due to certain venue-related issues, they’d had to cut back the number of exhibitors quite a bit. This led to a much easier to navigate space, but some confusion as to how certain people were included/excluded – any bitterness though quickly dissipated in the presence of…all them comics!

My first day was that Saturday – and I arrived around 8 AM to meet and greet incoming comics creators. This was my favorite part – I got to say hello to various comics peoples (many I didn’t know) and help get them up the stairs while often briefly chit-chatting about the beautiful day. And it was wonderful out – warm but a bit chilly in the breeze. Plus, I got to meet, chat, and generally get to know Jon Drawdooer – who is generally awesome. Check out his comics!

Later on, once the event started, I was assigned the door into the Expo – this year saw the first time there was an “in” door and an “out” door. Mostly, it went fine, but we had to count people going in or out for the purposes of the fire code – which was a little contentious, sometimes. Mostly, people were really friendly, and, once finished, I switched out of my “staff” t-shirt and explored the Expo. The thing that struck me first was just how much more spacious the venue felt with fewer people and how easier it was to navigate the aisles. I have problems with crowds (to the extent that I once unthinkingly knocked over an elder in the Smithsonian to get out of a crowded exhibit), so I definitely appreciated not freaking out (only a little bit) from getting stuck in between peoples. The other thing that I noticed was that there were both not that many big names I was familiar with (I had never heard of Tony Millionaire, Anya Davidson, Ines Estrada, Edie Fake, Lizz Hickey, or Hellen Jo – which says less about them than me, especially as I recognized much of their work once I saw it), and that there were many people whose work I had bought previously and greatly enjoyed at CAKEs 2012/13.

I tried to refrain from buying much that first day, but mostly, I failed. Here’s my haul from both days:

Cake Haul

I’m a big fan of the dreamy, magical realist stories of Dakota McFadzen, the visually stunning comics of Jen Tong,  fantastic & cryptozoologically great stories of Reid Psaltis, and the magnificent Julia Von De Bur. Julia and I talked about making comics about dragons, as I really loved the visual style she uses in the story – which you can see above, in the middle top row. I told her about Battle the Unicorn and my plan to do either a battle with a phoenix or misogyny – and that is how the fight with the phoenix came about in Battle #3. Plus, you can see the work of my friends: Jon Drawdooer’s Guy Gardeners, Penina Gal (with Scout Wolfcave)’s Limp Wrist, and Betsey Swardlick’s #Hairofthedog. And more recent comics by the disturbingly cool Julia Gfrorer, as well as the awesomely poetic John Porcellino. You can also see the program in the lower right hand corner of the above photo, and a book that I found on the free table for some reason – Jeff Zwirek‘s Building Burning Comix.

CAKE 2014

In any case, the second day was a bit of a later start, as I only had 3 hours at the end of the Expo – so I was stationed by the exit door. That is where I took the above photo, where you can get a sense of what CAKE 2014 was like. Being the door attendant was a bit interesting as multiple people complained about having to enter through the door around the corner. The best was a girl who almost broke down crying and said “But the entrance is so far away – I don’t want to walk that far!” She cracked me up a bit, I’ll admit. The day seemed to end fairly quickly, and then it was time to put away tables, chairs, and any trash/remains,  followed by a ginger ale on the veranda during the After Party (for exhibitors and volunteers). Everyone involved was terrifically friendly – and it was good to just chill out a bit after the long weekend.

From 2012 to 14, the Expo has certainly changed – though it’s hard to draw out patterns from only three years, really. It will be interesting to see what happens next year, as it seems like CAKE could move to a different venue (though I’ve only heard rumblings of that – nothing substantial). I may or may not volunteer – as it was fairly energy-intensive but also really fun.

Next time, we go back to the International Comic Arts Forum in Portland, Oregon back in Spring of last year – where I met many cool comics creators, scholars, and creator-scholars – or as we like to be called, philosopher-kings….not.

Til then,

J

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