Imagine you’re in an artist alley at a large convention. Now take all of the self-published creators making comics that don’t look like anything else being sold on the con floor. This is the fringe. This is CAKE.
The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo is in its third year, and it is a small show that is highly curated with a clear aesthetic in mind. Everything being sold here is made with a DIY mentality, but executed in a more sophisticated manner than say, someone stapling together their own mini comics (we still saw some beautiful mini comics, but they sure didn’t come off of copy machines). This year the show was very well organized; volunteers in bright neon yellow shirts directed attendees to the con floor efficiently about every 20 feet. The first space of the convention featured several publishers and a few of the more well known indie creators in attendance for signings. Of course the largest publishers you’ll find here are relatively small in the context of the comic industry at large–Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, Koyama, 2d Cloud. These are the big names in small press. The main floor of the expo was once again in the gymnasium of Center on Halsted, a space dedicated to Chicago’s LGBTQ community. It was a relief to see that the space was air-conditioned (that was not the case last year). After about two hours, I had visited every single table and was ready to take out a small personal loan to buy all of the comics.
For the most part this year, CAKE featured creators and collectives that are bubbling right underneath the radar. These are the kind of creators that cross your tumblr feed regularly, but you might not yet know them by name. CAKE organizers set aside a certain number of spots for first time tablers, so you were guaranteed the experience of seeing creators in the early stages of their careers. Don’t think that means a drop in quality though. The standards for inclusion are high for everyone, and even the newcomers brought top notch books. The print quality alone had me wanting to touch and closely examine nearly every comic I passed. Another observation after attending this indie comics expo: if you are not offering ways to accept credit/debit, you are probably in a shrinking minority. I know it is tough giving a cut to Square or Paypal, but I spent every dime I walked in with and then the rest I spent went to anyone with the ability to swipe plastic. The friends I came with also spent more than they planned, and that simply would not have been the case if everyone insisted on only taking cash. It might be the least indie-attitude here, but I want to give you my money, please make it as easy as possible.
Like the previous two years, organizers have taken aims to include a fair mix of international, national, and local talent. There were more than a few local creators I would have liked to see tabling; whether they simply did not submit or were wait listed is unknown. I can see where it would be tough having a lot of local creators; it is not an exaggeration to say the space could easily be filled with talented local indie-creators from Chicago. Having exhibitors from all over the world gives a more well rounded view of the alternative comic scene. However, the organizers could consider the benefits of a local showcase, a place for creators to sell their book without dedicating too much physical floor space to local talent.
After a full day of shopping, I failed to set aside any time to take in the show’s programming. There were a few signings here and there and about three panels scheduled per day. The intimacy of the space and the ease with which one could interact with exhibitors made it difficult to tear myself away from the con floor. Next year if I make it to both days of the show, I’ll be sure to check out a panel or two. If they are as well thought out as the rest of the convention, they are definitely worth attending.
Philippa J. Rice, creator of the webcomic Soppy, was one of CAKE’s many international guests.