The second annual Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) took place June 15th and 16th at the Center on Halsted. The Expo, organized by Neil Brideau, Edie Fake, Max Morris, Grace Tran, and Jeff Zwirek, featured a number of small press and underground cartoonists and publishers. CAKE’s organizers, as the festival’s website explains, hope to generate “community and dialogue” among the artists, publishers, and readers.
The large gymnasium on the Center’s third floor housed over 100 tables with cartoonists, fanzine makers, and publishers sharing their work. This year’s festival also featured several panel discussions and interviews, including talks with Chris Ware, Kim Deitch, and Phoebe Gloeckner. Sponsors of the expo included local comic book and small press shops including Chicago Comics and Quimby’s as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Spudnik Press, and other Chicago-owned businesses including Revolution Brewing and Halfwit Coffee Roasters.
As I attended the panels and visited the artists and publishers at this year’s Expo, I considered Chicago’s impact on the history of words and pictures, a legacy that reaches back to the 1920s and 1930s when, for example, cartoonists such as C.C. Beck studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts while writers including Otto Binder were convening with other science fiction fans in Portage Park to dream the future into being in the form of pulp magazines and mimeographed fanzines.
The weekend’s programming began with Jake Austen’s interview with Chris Ware. The Expo’s program notes explain that Austen’s goal was to talk with Ware about his “career and his connection to Chicago and its living comics history.” Austen is himself a significant figure in Chicago’s comics and zine underground. Roctober, the music and underground comics magazine he has edited and published since 1992, celebrated its fiftieth issue last year.
In 2011, Duke University Press published Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll: Conversations with Unjustly Obscure Rock ‘n’ Soul Eccentrics, a collection of interviews from the magazine’s twenty-year history. Although known primarily for its devotion to documenting the lives and careers of obscure musicians, Roctober, from its first issue, has been a home for both up-and-coming and veteran cartoonists. Over the years, artists including Jason Lutes and John Porcellino have contributed comics and illustrations to the magazine.
Austen also hosts Chic-a-Go-Go, the popular cable access dance show for kids that over the years has featured guest spots and interviews with bands ranging from The Sea and Cake to Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu. As Ware admitted during this relaxed and engaging conversation, he rarely dances in public, but in the past he has made an exception during his visits to tapings of Chic-a-Go-Go.
While Austen and Ware reminisced about Chicago’s fertile early-1990s comics scene, which included Alex Ross, Jessica Abel, Archer Prewitt, and Ivan Brunetti, I recalled a comment from Will Eisner’s 1983 Shop Talk interview with cartoonist C.C. Beck. During their discussion of Beck’s Midwestern background, Eisner explains, “I believe geographic origin impinges on style of art considerably” (Eisner 1983: 18).
How has Chicago’s landscape affected the comic book writers and artists who have lived and worked here? Ware described his affection for Chicago and the city’s lack of pretension. As he spoke, images of a Building Stories character standing on Chicago L platform appeared in a slide presentation of his work. Later on Saturday afternoon, the work of other Chicago-based artists appeared in a program of experimental animated films.
Eyeworks, the ongoing Festival of Experimental Animation curated by filmmaker Alexander Stewart and artist Lilli Carré, offered the audience a series of shorts by newcomers Kevin Askew and Leif Goldberg as well as classics by Windsor McCay, George Griffin, Kathy Rose, and Kim Deitch. Carré and Stewart titled this selection “Parallel Lines: Comics and Animation,” they explained, to suggest the links between the worlds of sequential art and film. In April, Carré and Stewart also presented an animation program at Michael Chaney’s Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference at Dartmouth College (you can read my notes on the Dartmouth Conference here).
Of the ten films included on the CAKE program, the one I found most captivating was George Griffin’s Head (1976), which opens with a monologue that echoed some of the themes in Ware and Austen’s conversation. On his website, Griffin describes the film as his “self-portrait,” but one “undone by his own cartoon surrogate.” Thirty seconds into the film, the animator begins speaking directly to the camera. He wears a navy blue t-shirt. We will hear this speech again at the end of the film:
When I was young, my face was fresh, simple, naïve, childlike. I drew very complicated pictures with a fine, crow quill pen. Lots of cross-hatching, textures, shading, heavy with psychological overtones. Now, I’m older. My face is lined, circles under the eyes, double chin. You know, character. And my drawings are very simple, childlike, naïve. You have to be naïve to stand in line waiting your turn to be photographed.
In the middle of this monologue, Griffin gestures to the circles under his eyes and to his chin. How will he translate these shapes and contours to a piece of paper? Fred Israel’s repetitive piano score highlights the next scene in which we watch Griffin, his pens and his paints arrayed before him, at his drawing table. Ready to begin the work, he draws in the “simple, childlike, naïve” style he promised in his monologue.
Other films in the series were just as playful and “childlike.” Both Peter Millard’s 2012 Boogodobiegodongo and Amy Lockhart’s 2005 Walk for Walk, a friend pointed out, borrow their pacing and their humor from the frantic world of 1980s arcade games.
On Sunday, having missed a conversation about micro-publishing with Oily Comics and a question-and-answer session with cartoonist Kim Deitch, I attended “Intimate Anxiety,” the weekend’s final panel. Moderated by Caroline Paquita of Pegacorn Press, the panelists included Heather Benjamin, Julia Gfrörer, and Phoebe Gloeckner. The artists engaged in a rich and complex discussion on the ethics of writing and drawing stories about violation, loss, and trauma. A slide show offered the audience glimpses of Gfrörer’s stunning, Bernie Wrightson-like images as well as Gloeckner’s recent experiments with found objects, sculpture, and photography.
Benjamin’s diabolical, sometimes darkly humorous drawings from her zine Sad Sex served as a counterpoint to the clinical but no less moving illustrations of bodies from Gloeckner’s version of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, first published in 1990 by RE/Search Publications. It is also fitting that Edie Fake, whose Gaylord Phoenix and Sweet Meats have taught us new ways to see, to understand, and to draw the body, introduced the panel, which the CAKE program described as “a conversation about the power and truth that lies within the impropriety.”
Back at home Sunday evening, as I read Bill Schelly’s Words of Wonder (2003), his excellent biography of pulp and comic book writer Otto Binder, and I thought again about Chicago’s “living comics history.” Born in Michigan, Binder spent most of his childhood in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood and began writing for Schurz High School’s student newspaper. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Binder corresponded with other science fiction fans, including Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster from Cleveland, Ohio (see Schelly 2002: 38-41). By the early 1940s, as he began writing for Timely and Fawcett, Binder was already speculating about the future of the medium.
In a chapter on Binder’s early experiences as a comic book writer, Schelly includes a portion of Binder’s essay “A New Medium for Fantasy?” first published in Sunspots, a science fiction fan magazine, in November 1941. “First of all,” he writes, “it’s an intriguing new medium of writing: half in words, half visual,” one with endless potential:
Whether they have lasting power, whether they are a new form of storytelling not to be lightly cast aside, whether they will evolve into fantasy of a more plausible and digestible form—only time can tell. (Binder qtd. in Schelly 2003: 78).
While it is now clear that comics have achieved a status Binder could only imagine in 1941, it is also critical that we not lose the desire for dialogue and cooperation so present and exhilarating at this year’s CAKE. After all, as Chris Ware and Jake Austen reminded the audience, the worlds of alternative and mainstream comics were less divided in the Chicago scene of the early 1990s. That sense of community is part of Chicago’s legacy in the world of words and pictures.
As I called up a Google map of Chicago and looked for Otto Binder’s former home on N. Luna Avenue, I found myself slipping through time, but, just before I settled into the past, I marveled at The Collective Tarot and read Lilli Carre’s Relax, both of which I’d purchased at the Expo. Then, like Binder, I found myself thinking most about the future and looking ahead to next year’s festival.
All photos in this post appear courtesy of Allison Felus.
Eisner, W. (1983) “Shop Talk: C.C. Beck” in Will Eisner’s Spirit Magazine No. 41 (June 1983): 18-23; 42-43
Schelly, B. (2003) Words of Wonder: The Life and Times of Otto Binder (Seattle: Hamster Press)