CZF Poster by Mike Centeno

It would be unfair to write another piece about Chicago Zine Fest (CZF) without admitting bias. I don’t go to a ton of shows because navigating big crowds wears me out very quickly, and while I love meeting creators, I also get nervous and can turn into an awkward mess. However, CZF – and perhaps zine fests in general – have a different feel from other conventions. The subject matter is undoubtedly the cause; zines are often so raw, open and personal that discussing and sharing them also allows people to be more open. Smaller festivals and expos feel more comfortable; they’re just my kind of spaces.

This year, the programming at CZF exemplified the connection between zines and intimate storytelling. Friday night’s panel, titled Tools of Survival: Using Zines for Self-Care, featured three panelists whose work is deeply personal: JC, whose zine Tributaries describes her experience with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis and how physical illness affects mental health; Kevin Budnik, whose autobio comics cover topics such as disordered eating and depression, and Rinko Endo, whose works such as Aggression Management Manga and The Cage cover a range of physical and mental health experiences. Listening to these three creators discuss how drawing, writing and creating factored into mental health and self-care set the tone for a festival that was all about engaging with very personal work.

CZF offers a number of panels over the course of the Saturday, and a similarly wonderful and unexpectedly emotional highlight of the festival was the Youth Reading. This event is a CZF staple but I’d never attended before, and was delighted to hear 8 and 9 year olds read comics and even do magic! My favorite readings, however, were those given by teenagers on topics such as anti-blackness within the Asian community, fantasy stories rooted in familial memories, and an incredible poem written to John Green, from all the girls he’s ever written. It was inspiring and humbling to see fifteen, sixteen and seventeen year-olds stand up and speak publicly about subjects normally private; expressing their anger, love for their communities, or just showing off their talent.

If you’re the type of person who avoids conventions or who only attends the big ones, I hope these highlights encourage you to check out your local zine fest, or even travel for CZF. You’ll be rewarded with more than just eye-opening conversations; you’ll also discover incredible new work! The following are four zines (by five creators!) that give glimpses into very different, personal experiences, and are all absolute gems.

Team Work Makes the Dream Work by Beth Hetland and Kyle O’Connell

Team Work Makes the Dream Work, by Beth Hetland and Kyle O’Connell

I have been describing this comic to my friends as, “a zine shaped like a pizza that blooms like a flower.” Hetland and O’Connell are collaborators, friends, and people who understand each other’s snacking habits. This zine not only describes how their collaboration works, it also reveals how important pizza, nerf and friendship are to making collaborative comics. You can buy it online, along with their series Half Asleep!

WHODI, by Adam Jason Cohen

This photography zine collects black and white photographs Cohen took in New Orleans in 2016. I am not from New Orleans but I am from a place that experienced a devastating natural disaster. After the hashtags and blood and money donations die down – if a natural disaster gets enough media coverage to earn even that – the effects stay with a community for years, decades, usually forever. Like New Orleans, the poorest parts of my hometown were affected most, and the people whose homes were too toxic to be saved will never be free from the floods. I was very moved by this reminder from Cohen that Katrina’s damage is still present in New Orleans. This zine isn’t available online, but you can check out his other photography on his website.

Bubblegum by Cam Del Rosario

Bubblegum, by Cam Del Rosario

Cam and his co-creator, Javier Suarez, read part of their hilarious comic, Kanye Stops Kanye from Interrupting Taylor Swift: A Time Travel Adventure, during the Friday night readings, and had us all in stitches. Bubblegum similarly showcases Rosario’s absurd humor by exploring how a bubblegum-blowing champion would attempt to avoid running into her ex. The documentary-style narrative, innovative bubblegum tricks, and the protagonist’s facial expressions make this short comic an absolute delight, especially for anyone who’s awkwardly run into an ex. Buy it from Rosario’s Big Cartel, and follow Low Key Label for more surreal exploits.

Anything that Can Go Wrong by Mia Cruz

Cruz’s table felt like it was tailor-made for me – postcards featuring food paired with sweet, funny and snarky remarks plus chunky zines full of autobio comics! Much of Anything That Can Go Wrong is available online but the zine encompasses more than a year’s worth of work, and it’s a delight to read. Whether it’s Cruz’s strange eating habits – like completely deconstructing a pizza slice before eating it! – or contemplating the disastrous results of sitting on a workout ball instead of a chair at a desk, Cruz keeps you laughing and smiling straight to the final page.

Thanks to all of Chicago Zine Fest’s hardworking organizers for another great year! I can’t wait for next year – although please take a break, maybe have some pizza, and grab a coffee before you start planning for 2018.