From SPX to APE and from MoCCA to BGFC, one of the cornerstones of alternative comics growth over the past decade plus – both for readers and cartoonists alike – has been the alt comics festival. Though online sales and select comic shops help spread art comics across the country, festivals represent perhaps the biggest platform for talent new and old to distribute mini comics, graphic novels and anthology projects.
And as the various festivals on the coasts have grown in size and stature in recent years, one question continually asked has remained, "What about the middle of the country?" That question received its most recent attempt at a permanent answer this weekend at CAKE – AKA the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo – which was held on the eighth floor of Columbia College's Ludington Building Saturday and Sunday.
Though comics-making collectives in Brooklyn or Portland often earn attention online, Chicago boasts an expansive alternative scene alongside its mainstream comics component, and that sense of community permeated the show from conception to floor chatter. "The alternative comics community in Chicago has been talking for a long time about having a show like this," co-organizer Neil Brideau told CBR News at the event. "What [made us do it] was that I started organizing the Chicago Zine Fest with a group of people, which takes place in March. Doing that and seeing it being a successful event motivated me into feeling like we could do something like this. Then it became a much smaller endeavor to tackle."
The show featured a well-respected lineup of local and Midwestern cartoonists like Jeffrey Brown, Lilli Carré, Anders Nilsen and Paul Hornschemeier alongside many up-and-coming or outright unknown young cartoonists (many students or recent graduates of The Art Institute of Chicago), and for a first year show, the festival held a number of notable debuts which were catalogued weeks ahead of time at CAKE's website.
That focus on talent established and new grew from the fact that along with his fellow CAKE masterminds Edie Fake, Max Morris, Grace Tran and Jeff Zwirek, Brideau is himself an alt comics maker. "We've all tabled at shows and a few of us have volunteered at shows, so we came at this as exhibitors wanting to make a show that focuses on the exhibitors and making the show we'd want to exhibit at," he explained, noting that several of the staffers also worked at Chicago alternative bookstore/show sponsor Quimby's. "We think if you make the exhibitor happy, you make the attendees happy. Exhibitors are more excited and eager about the show beforehand and will promote it to their fans, and also during the event, they're going to have really great interactions with the attendees who love the comics they make."
"We invited some special guests as anchors. It's a first year show, so people could have said, 'CAKE? What is this? This sounds stupid!'" Brideau laughed. "A lot of local people said yes, but they're local people who make amazing comics like Anders Nilsen and Laura Park and Lilli Carré and Paul Hornschemeier and Nate Powell. I'm going to forget the rest of the list, but they made people get an idea of the type of show we wanted." While there were no tables held down by marquee publishers like Fantagraphics, Top Shelf and Drawn & Quarterly, many artist collectives and micro presses exhibited over the weekend including Koyama Press, Sparkplug Books, Secret Acres, Retrofit Comics label and members of the former Pizza Island studio.
Though it was held almost entirely on the eighth floor which also served as partial home to the Zine Fest (some CAKE panels took place on a stage downstairs), the layout for the festival distributed the well known talent and first timers evenly in a circular pattern. So while one room may lay off the main stretch of tables for the show, it would be anchored by the likes of Jeffrey Brown, Kevin Huizenga and Ted May. Meanwhile, the hall stretch on the far side of the auditorium was the weekend home of Anders Nilsen, Box Brown and Charles Forsman. Moves like that meant that fans of Gabrielle Bell or Julia Wertz or whomever was set up at CAKE would circulate around, and there were few complaints of dead spots or "no man's land" areas for the festival.
Attendance appeared solid for a first year show, though an official head count was hard to makes since CAKE was free to the public. "We also wanted to keep the table price low for exhibitors so it was more accessible for first time exhibitors," Brideau said, noting that while the official fest took place on Saturday and Sunday, events surrounding the show have been happening for weeks up to and including kick off parties last Friday night. "We've relied a lot on the generosity and support of the comics community. We did an IndieGoGo campaign and a few fundraisers...the majority of the funding for the show has come from the community who wanted to see a show like this in town. I think it's a great model because it's a larger group of people giving smaller amounts in order to put on a great event rather than placing the burden on the people already putting in work to showcase their stuff or the attendees. Now as many people as possible have an opportunity to come in."
Applications for table space also stared as a wide open field, though the final lineup was crafted with a balance of talent in mind. "It was a juried selection, so people applied to an exhibitor," Brideau said. "And we got as many people from the Chicago alternative comics world as possible to put in their vote on a small selection of people. Not everybody voted on everybody. Each person got 20 applicants to review...and it was those personal reactions and votes that were averaged. Each applicant had several people giving them a vote, and we used that average to make the list of people here. We also asked our jury to keep in mind that we wanted a great mix of first time people and longtime exhibitors."
Overall, that mix made for a lot of debut comics for a first years show. Some were long-awaited projects like Ted May's "Injury" #4 or Gabrielle Bell's print collection of her "July Diary" while others were made especially for the show like Anders Nilsen's hand crafted, $200 "Rage of Poseidon" or Jeremy Tinder's surprise first issue of new one-man anthology "Elephant Ear." And those releases were only the tip of the iceberg of dozens and dozens of new comics at the show, including an official CAKE anthology featuring short works by the majority of attendees. "Andy Burkholder edited the anthology and decided that's how he wanted to contribute to the show. We just let him run with it, and I think he did a really great job."
On the programming side, CAKE featured a mix of discussions focusing on specific comics projects and makers whether it be a roundtable on women creating autobiographical comics or a celebration of Chicago's very active queer comics scene. The panels had space built in between them to allow speakers to riff as they need whether it was Hellen Jo talking about the difference between her personal work and her experience on Cartoon Network's "The Regular Show" on the "Crude & Rude: The Importance Of Vulgarity" panel or the local scene-centric "Comics in Chicago" gathering where attendees including Lyra Hill and Ezra Clayan Daniel wondered allowed where all the mainstream comic artists hung out in town. "Edie Fake really put the programming together," Brideau said. "It's something where going to other comics shows, we sometimes felt like it would be better to make panels more specific in order to appeal to more people. Not that there's anything wrong with general survey panels, but we thought this would be fun. We wanted to have some really entertaining people on the panels and a mix of folks."
Overall, the show went off with seeming ease and few complaints from exhibitors. It appeared as though after years of talk of a Chicago alt comics event, CAKE delivered strongly to hopes and expectations. The event will continue next year.