One of my favorite things about being a comics fan in Chicago is the annual Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, abbreviated whimsically as CAKE. It’s only been going on since 2012 but feels like an institution already, a way for independent creators to gain recognition and for fans to celebrate their favorites and discover new artists. Several of the participants I talked to mentioned that it was difficult to make the cut as a an exhibitor this year, and many talented comics creators were turned down. As it was, each creator only had half a table in the Center on Halsted’s sizable convention room, and so many people attended that it was tough to maneuver. If CAKE wants to continue its mission of celebrating the diversity of emerging talent in the Chicago area and beyond, it might need to seek out a bigger space in the future.
A number of the artists I met at CAKE shared a retro-timeless vibe, with images recalling illustration styles of the past but adopting more modern themes. M. Dean has mastered this balance in her ongoing webcomic, The Girl Who Flew Away, and in luminous short stories. She incorporates both the cartoonish whimsy and the intricacy of mid-20th-century comics but shifts them toward a female perspective, often turning simple coming-of-age stories and family dramas into adventures. She’s especially excited about her latest project, Regents Walk, which follows the lives of 24 kids in a small town in the 1990s, with each chapter focusing on a different character. When I asked M. Dean about her influences, she talked more about music than comics, mentioning The Carpenters and Patti Smith as two favorites. If you can imagine an aesthetic that perfectly marries those two, you understand why M. Dean’s work is so magical and original.
Dean described Z Akhmetova as her “partner in crime.” They’ve been friends since high school, and they share the goal of telling stories about girls and women that aren’t often told in comics. Akhmetova’s art style is very different, though, drawing on the spookier side of mid-century children’s illustration to tell imaginative, grown-up stories. Akhmetova has focused on one-shot graphic stories in the past, but she’s now working on an ongoing webcomic, Gods Can’t Die, about a girl who becomes a god.
Marnie Galloway takes a different approach to exploring creation myths through comics. She told me that she started out as a more traditional artist, making relief prints, before realizing that she was really making sequential art that appealed to comics readers. Her intricate images, full of swirling animal and nature shapes, form a trilogy of fanciful creation myths in In the Sounds and Seas. Galloway says that she’s more influenced by literature than by comics, citing William Blake and “rad lady poets” as her jumping off points, as well as ancient epics like The Iliad and Icelandic Eddas. She’s turned inward for her latest work, “Particle/Wave,” soon to be released by So What? Press.
Landis Blair’s table caught my eye because it featured a book called The Trial: A Choose Your Own Kafka Adventure. Blair, whose work recalls early 20th century engraving and Edward Gorey, wrote Trial as part of an anthology of graphic adaptations of literature. He told me that he needed a gimmick because it’s impossible to distill Kafka’s meandering, unfinished novel into 15 pages, and because there’s something Kafka-esque about Choose Your Own Adventure stories. He advises fans of odd cat stories (and heartbreaking political allegories) begin with The Progressive Problem and its sequel. These and other short graphic stories are available at Landis Blair Illustration.
LGBTQ artists made up a smaller proportion of the exhibitors than I recall from previous years, but I did speak to three creators who focus on queer themes and representation. Megan Rose Gedris, who also tours as burlesque performer Florence of Alabia, Gedris’s comics are cheerfully dirty, depicting edgy sexual subject matter with a playful art style. She says she tries to balance out her “weird porn” with adventure and fantasy – and plenty of lesbian mermaids. When I asked Gedris where people should start when reading her work for the first time, she laughed, because it’s not every artist who thinks their vore porn is their best entry point. However, Gedris noted that Eat Me has a great plot to go with its queasy-sexy subject matter, and that it resonates with readers like nothing else she’s done. That, along with Gedris’s other finished comics and ongoing webcomic Meaty Yogurt, can be found on her website, Rosalarian.
Chad Sell has become an internet sensation as well as a unique fixture of Chicago’s drag community for his stylized portraits of the drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Sell’s drag images, which can be purchased in book form or as poster prints, are both fan art and documentary images of a subculture on the edge of the mainstream. Sell shared with me the unnerving experiences he’s had talking with drag queens whose performances he admires, only to find that they’re starstruck when he draws them and interviews them. He started out with edgier queens like Raja and says he still finds it easiest and most fun to portray stylized performers with avant garde looks. While his drag queen portraits sometimes overshadow his sequential art, Sell is a terrific storyteller as well, and is particularly proud of his new kid-friendly comic, Sorceress Next Door, about a little boy who wants to be a supervillain. His work, along with archive of interviews with Chicago drag queens, is at The Sellout.
Continuing a long tradition of LGBTQ slice-of-life comics is Tony Breed. After eight years developing a cult following for his webcomic, Finn and Charlie Are Hitched, Breed spun off his universe and characters into the ensemble-driven Muddlers Beat. Breed’s depiction of contemporary gay culture is both celebratory and critical, featuring body types and emotional bonds that we don’t see enough of in media representations of gay men. His comics are also bitingly funny. Breed said that his combination of wicked humor and positive representation do come from a desire for change: “People who are satisfied with their lives don’t make comics.” It’s both surprising and refreshing to hear that kind of statement from such a lighthearted creator.
Using comics to draw readers into underrepresented cultures and experiences was a common theme among many of the works at CAKE, and that goal drives two artists who approach that goal from the same angle: food. Sarah Becan’s webcomic, I Think You’re Sauceome, began as a food therapy diary but soon evolved into a celebration of diverse body types, delicious recipes, and Chicago food culture. She said the shift arrived with her realization that “loving food isn’t a fat girl trait.” Becan’s success at drawing food – and the emotions that surround it – has earned her the opportunity to illustrate menus and other commissions for local restaurants throughout Chicago. Her website features a portfolio of images that will be familiar to local foodies, as well as her travelogue, Stockholm Is Sauceome.
Robin Ha started creating her whimsical food comics when she learned to cook, in the hopes of recording the recipes she tried and sharing Korean cuisine with the world. What began on Tumblr is now a published collection, Ban-Chan in 2 Pages, and an acclaimed cookbook, Cook Korean! Ha also creates narrative comics and Tarot card designs, but she’s found real inspiration in melding cookbooks and sequential art. Recently, she’s gone beyond her family’s culture to learn about other cuisines. A trip to Nicaragua, in which she observed and illustrated locals as they cooked, has provided a wealth of material for an upcoming project on Latin American cuisine.
Chicago is lucky to have such a vibrant showcase for independent artists, and CAKE proves that a free, volunteer-run event can draw crowds. Much more than at the large conventions I’ve attended recently, most of the visitors to CAKE were there primarily for the exhibitors, and most were buying comics and prints, not just window shopping. It’s exciting to see such enthusiasm for independent comics and to see CAKE grow from year to year.