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CAKE: The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo

Comics in the United States stand out among other art forms as a uniquely stigmatized medium. A simple Google search for “comics stigma” will yield blogs, news sites, and academic articles including the terms unnecessary social stigma, geek stigma, kid stuff stigma, and low status. It’s hard to imagine a major art form in the US advocating a day where you experience it in public to combat its stigma, but sure enough, International Read Comics in Public Day is on April 28.

Fortunately, there seem to be more and more people in Chicago who see comics for what they really are, words and pictures set in a sequence. In the past few years the attention given to comics has exploded. Three years ago C2E2 joined Wizard World as the city’s second commercial comic convention. In the same year, The Chicago Zine Fest launched and provided a platform for comics artists to sell and promote their work. This May saw the first Comics Philosophy and Practice Symposium at the University of Chicago to chart the future of the medium. Recently Chicago experienced its first alternative comics convention in 15 years, the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo or CAKE. With CAKE Chicago joins the ranks of other North American cities like DC, Toronto, and Minneapolis, which have been hosting similar alternative expos for years.

On June 10th I attended CAKE and was blown away by the quality and inventiveness of the work on display. To learn more about those presenting their work, I chatted with four artists from four different cities.

Zachary Johnson (ZJ): So, are you at CAKE as an artist or a publisher?


Ryan Standfest of Rotland Press. Chicago, IL. 2012. (Photo credit: Zachary Johnson)

Ryan Standfest (RS): I’m something in between. I registered as an individual, but I basically design, edit, and publish all of this material. There’s a bit of me in all this material and then some of it’s my own work too. Rotland Press itself is from Detroit, Michigan. I like to call it a “Fine Publisher of Excursions into Humor and Despair”. That’s what it covers.

ZJ: Tell me a bit about the work you’ve brought to CAKE.

RS: I have Black Eye 1, the Ignatz-nominated anthology. It’s basically a dark humor anthology with a lot of contemporary cartoonists from Europe and America. I also have Carbuncle which is a little hardcover collection of my own texts and images — sort of poems that have a darkly humorous bent…Then Funny (not funny) which is a catalog to an exhibition I curated for the University of Michigan which is all focused on dark humor. That was the first publication I put out, and it did pretty well, so I decided I wanted to publish more. I got the bug.

ZJ: How did you find your focus on dark humor?

RS: It’s always been an interest to me in my work. I’ve never been one for sequential narratives, but I’ve always loved gags. I grew up loving Charles Adams. I think he invented the DNA of dark humor in me and that’s been a part of my work [since]. So it just became natural that that’s a focus I like. There was a lot of stuff I wasn’t seeing in comics, [dark humor] being one of them. I wanted to promote dark humor and gather together the only artists I was seeing who did that, link them together and put dark humor comics out in the world a little bit more.

ZJ: How do you feel like Detroit is for comics?

RS: Terrible. For art there’s a nice little community that seems to be growing every day, as I think the city is. It’s been decimated for a time, as many people know, but out of that rubble these little artistic tendrils seem to be rising up, and I think there’s a creed of impulse in that city. Not for comics however. For superhero material maybe, but when it comes to alternative or indie comics, no. For some reason it’s not there; it doesn’t seem to be emerging. I’m having a hard time finding [comics] artists that are independent or alternative artists there. So, I’ve been reaching out, and Chicago is the closest city to me, and it happens to be a very important comics city. I just wrote an article for the Comics Journal that covered the conference at the University of Chicago, and I delved into how it’s imbedded in the character. It’s in the bloodstream of this city – comics and a certain kind of image-making. So, this is a great place for me to be. It’s just a car drive away.

Brittney Sabo at CAKE. Chicago, IL. 2012. (Photo credit: Zachary Johnson)

ZJ: Tell me a bit about the work you’ve brought to CAKE.

Brittney Sabo (BS): My work is [about] weird creatures and monsters. A lot of my stuff is based on myth, folklore, those kinds of things. I just love drawing monsters. I feel a genuine passion for the supernatural and stuff like that. It’s my obsession aside from comics. It’s fun to do work that you’re really obsessed with, and I think that makes the work genuine.

ZJ: Being from Minneapolis, how do you feel about the comics scene in the city?

BS: Minneapolis is great for comics. It’s not as big as Chicago or New York but it does definitely have its own scene going on. There’s an art college there, MCAD, which has a comics major, kind of like how SCAD does in Savannah and a few other colleges in the US. So, a lot of graduates stay in the Twin Cities, and a comics community has sprung up around that. I graduated from MCAD myself, though I was an Illustration major.

Minneapolis is really great for comics; there are a lot of arts organizations that support and elevate it by doing gallery shows. There are several collectives in the city doing stuff [related to comics] and also small publishers. It’s a really vibrant scene for its size.

ZJ: Tell me a bit about the work you’ve brought to CAKE.

Lark Pien (LP): Here we have a mixture of handmade comic books, mini comics, and published works from bigger companies. For example, I have a children’s book called Mr. Elephanter published by Candlewick Press, an old, established publisher from Boston. The stories range from kid level reading to adults.

Lark Pien at CAKE. Chicago, IL. 2012. (Photo credit: Zachary Johnson)

ZJ: Focusing just on your sketchbook anthology, Lollygag, how did you get the idea to put it together?

LP: I’m an artist-cartoonist at heart. It’s what I like to do and the community means a lot to me. I really wanted to share sketchbook pages with friends, but I wanted all of it to be in the same place, so I asked a bunch of people [to contribute pages to this anthology]. I tried to make it pretty comprehensive, so there are a few people who participated from Europe in this as well, not just from the United States. I tried to pick up different styles and find many voices to include in this anthology. I got the idea to use Japanese stab binding to bind the books by hand because I wanted to give it a really handcrafted feel. So, I wanted to up it a little bit, make it a little more fancy, though I’d never done this binding before; I found out it’s a lot of work. This is a run of 75, but I’ve got 400 more to make. So, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

ZJ: Being from San Francisco, what do you feel like the scene is like for comics?

LP: There’s a healthy scene for comics there. It’s really diverse, and the people in it range from their early teens to – I don’t know – retirement. So, it’s healthy, but also a little, not stratified, but at the moment it’s a little bit unfocused. There are a lot of different styles but not particularly one statement that all of us are making together. So I’d say there’s a lot of variety and a lot of creativity.

Jon Wolfe at CAKE. Chicago, IL. 2012. (Photo credit: Zachary Johnson)

ZJ: Tell me a bit about the work you’ve brought to CAKE.

Jon Wolfe (JW): I have two comics. One of which is the first issue of a series, and the other is the next. Then I have a CD of music I made and pins I’ve carved from stone and polished. The first comic is more about symbolism. There’s a lot of geometrics and using that in the context of a narrative. The second is retreating backwards from that and delving into objects as symbols.

Also materiality [is a theme of that one]. [For instance], with the cover there’s three different finishes on it, the original material, the matte finish, then the clear acrylic finish – so they have different tactile natures to them. That [materiality] carries over to the pins as well. How you touch a visual object is the main focus of my work right now — trying to present that [tactility] through a visual medium even if it’s not present. I’m also interested in handcrafted objects that are very personal. Like with my business cards having each of them done individually or the different colored stitching and different stencil work on each book. No two things are the same. The idea that even though [these come from] a repeated process and whatever you get is one of an edition, there’s enough different about each object that you are getting a one-of-a-kind that really is its own.

ZJ: Does that make it more interesting for you?

JW: It makes it more interesting for me and it’s important to me that when I give something to someone I have a personal connection to it. So, even though it’s just a pin, to me it’s two hours of work. So, these objects are a particular moment of my life. I feel a lot more comfortable giving something to someone that is an art object. With the way the world is now, it’s so easy to reproduce things, so the more you can do to make the things that you’ve reproduced special, the better, at least to me. This story’s all about objects being special. We deal with objects so much in our lives, but they’re so forgettable, even though everything has its own tangible history.

ZJ: How do you feel Chicago is as city for comics?

JW: I think that Chicago has a really big scene that’s really tangible. Growing up in Seattle, we have Fantagraphics based out of there, but there weren’t any comic shops close to me. I didn’t know anybody that read comics. In Chicago there are tons of comic shops, and here at CAKE there are a ton of creators from Chicago. It’s just really easy to know people through comics. Even when I meet people who don’t do comics, they always sort of know somebody who does.

ZJ: Last question, since you’re selling stone pins, what’s your favorite stone?

JW: Calcite’s pretty cool. I follow a couple stone blogs and I think I’ve seen a million images of calcite where I’m like, “Oh! What is that mystical thing?!” Then there’s mineral variations, that’s when things get CRAZY!

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2 Responses to " CAKE: The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo "

  1. Miles says:

    What great interviews! It was a good idea to use CAKE as an opportunity to find out more about other city’s comic scenes. I wish I could have attended the show!

    • Zachary Johnson says:

      Thanks! I was glad to hear good things about Minneapolis and SF. Too bad about Detroit, though!

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