As the new comics writer for Bad at Sports, I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit debating how to contextualize comics as an art form for the audience of a contemporary arts blog. Writing about comics from an arts perspective is a relatively new development for a medium that has been around since the 1830s. Historically, comics have been meanwhiled into the margins of art and institutional processes of cultural validation. In a not so distant past, it would be unheard of for the managing editor of an arts publication like B@S to devote an entire column to comics criticism (or for the editor herself to be the creator of a superhero comic featuring a lady lead). Comics were certainly not something made in art school or written about in the canons of art history. Declaring to family members that you wanted to tell stories with words and pictures was cause for embarrassment and heartbreak. But things are shifting. When I told my dad in 2009 that I wanted to use my life to make comic books, it was met with a sigh of relief, “Oh good, we thought you were going to be a painter.”
For the purposes of this blog, and as a cartoonist myself, debates about the validity of comics as a medium bore me. This is not to say that as comics become more enveloped in academia or part of the art economy that artists shouldn’t be paying attention. There is a lot of smart and critical media being published that speak to this, such as an essay by cartoonist, Caitlin Cass published last month on Inkt Art. For me, comics were validated as a suitable baseline beat for self-expression the first time I found my dad’s stack of pulp comics in his closet, or the first time I checked out a comic book from the public library, or the first time I created a mini-comic as an art student in 2009. The list continues ad infinitum.
Meanwhile… was originally (and continues to be) an interview series and critical exploration which I began with fellow cartoonist, Krystal DiFronzo. We were tired of comics criticism or attempts at canonization that were not indicative of the dense and diverse artistic communities that we, as creators, are apart of. This column is an extension of that project. Each month I will be highlighting and providing captions to an array of artists and thinkers who take comics and narrative creation as a given for navigating their world(s).
To kick off this series (and to tide readers over until next month) I would like to underscore comics/things available on the web for leisurely perusal. ENJOY!
1. Aidan Koch’s gorgeous book, The Blonde Woman, was created with assistance from a Xeric Grant and was originally released online via The Study Group Magazine website. I recommend reading it all in one sitting if possible.
2. The New York Times recently published a mini-comic by C.F. called Face It.
3. Cartoonist, Brian Chippendale made an animated music video out of flip-books he drew as a kid. There’s a dragon and eyeball bombs in it – need I say more? Black Pus – 1000 Years
There is a really fantastic comics festival going down this weekend at Columbia College. Edie Fake and Neil Brideau have been putting it together for the last several months, as is evident from the ambitious vision and extensive programming. It’s like a world-class event with some phenomenal talent, old and new alike. A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to email back and forth with them about what the festival is about, what’s going down and how it relates to the pulse of the Chicago comic scene.
Caroline Picard: I can’t believe that CAKE is just around the corner — what made you all decide to put something like this together? Why this year? What’s it been like to organize?
Edie Fake: Yeah - CAKE is coming up so fast – it’s really exciting! Our initial impulse was that the alternative comics community in Chicago is so large and vibrant, it didn’t make sense tonot have a comics festival to celebrate it. We’d been to other amazing small press festivals of different flavors: TCAF in Toronto, Stumptown in Portland, SPX in Bethesda, BCGF in New York, APE in San Francisco… and it’s awesome to see these festivals harnessing the energy of a city’s scene and putting it in conversation with artists from all over.
This year is shaping up as an amazing year to debut a show like CAKE - there’s a ton of outstanding comics coming out right now, and I’m blown away by the talent we’ll be hosting. We’ve gotten to watch the Chicago Zine Fest (CZF) really take off in the past few years too, which is really encouraging.
Organizing for this year’s CAKE meant laying a lot of groundwork for the festival to continue – so it’s been a long and wild ride at times. We’ve got a tight core of five organizers now and an auxiliary committee of about 20 other folks and that sort of manpower really helps make everything more manageable. It actually makes putting it together pretty fun.
CP: In many ways I feel like your efforts in organizing community zine and comic-events is this incredible way of drawing out and publicizing vital energy that tends to lie below the surface. I feel like there is a ton of natural comic-energy at the moment, but I also feel like my awareness is tied to community opportunities for discussion and public engagement (like CAKE) that you and others are creating. Can you talk a little bit about what that’s been like? And maybe the tension (if there is one) between insular community-creativity and public accessibility?
Neil Brideau: I think over the past few generations comics have really come into their own. They’re being accepted more by the larger cultural world, and I think that helps cartoonists break out of their shells a little bit. Most of CAKE’s exhibitors are in their late twenties and early thirties, and I feel like this generation is a lot more social than their immediate predecessors. There’s this stereotype of the alternative comics artist toiling away in their studio not getting any financial or critical compensation for what they love, and feeling sorry for themselves. But I see our peers really celebrating their creative process and the creative process of others. Not that there aren’t a lot of nights spent alone in a room inking pages of comics very few people will read. I think Chicago too, in general is really welcoming of DIY and small-run creativity. Whether it’s the Night Market, or the CIMM Fest, or the Chicago Zine Fest, or Printers Ball, or house shows that DIYCHI is putting together, Chicago seems to be an incubator for lo-fi production and celebration of that production. I think cartoonists in Chicago react to that energy, and are more social and community-oriented animals.
CP: Is there a way that you would characterize the comic-making energy and interest in Chicago at the moment? Do you have a sense for how that compares to other cities?
EF: Comics in Chicago have been a pretty big deal for a while – but I think we’re in a golden time right now. There’s a lot of overlapping community here. The Trubble Club is a great example of folks meeting up and drawing, sharing about what they’re making and influencing each other’s work. We’ve got micropresses like Sarah Becan’s Shortpants Press and printshops like Spudnik and try-anything stores like Quimby’s. Lyra Hill’s performative reading series Brain Frame is expanding what comics are and how they’re presented. We’ve also seen totally off-the-chain events happen here recently like Hilary Chute’s star-studded Comics: Philosophy and Practice conference. This city values great comics like no place else- the scene here is really open, supportive and interactive. People here really up the ante for each other.
CP: I feel like we should talk about CAKE too, of course! What kind of things can people expect? Are there certain events that stand out as highlights for you?
EF: It’s going to be a jam-packed weekend! We’ve got over 200 artists exhibiting comics and a full slate of panels, screenings and conversations. We tried to set up events that we thought were a vital part of comics that we hadn’t seen happen before, like a panel on silkscreened comics and how the printing technique changes and expands the shape of comics. Ryan Sands, who’s an incredibly interesting and edgy editor is presenting a slideshow/mixtape of stuff he’s excited about and it just might be like seeing the future. The Eyeworks Animation Festival has curated a great program of work that highlights the overlap of comics and cartoons along with a q&a with Amy Lockhart, Marc Bell, Jim Trainor and Jo Dery. We’ve also got artist and comics historian Joe Tallarico leading a discussion on comics and fine art between two tremendous local art monsters, Paul Nudd and Karl Wirsum.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too – we’ve really been able to do a lot our first year out, including putting out an anthology CAKE Book with ITDN Group and an art show in conjunction with Morpho Gallery’s downtown Annex. It’s going to be a great time.
CP: Aren’t some people debuting comics too? What’s that like? (I’ve never been to something where comics — and multiple comics — debuted, but I imagine it’s some kind of custom? haha. I sound like such a goober.)
NB: Oh yeah! Debuts are a great tradition at alternative comics shows. Self- and small-press publishers often use comics fests as anchors to plan their publishing schedule. Making a comics fest like CAKE as the first time someone can get their hands on a comic helps create a buzz for their publication, the creators are excited to get it in people’s hands, and a lot of attendees seek out new work, knowing their the first folks to get their eyes on the comic! So celebrating these brand new books are events within the larger event of CAKE and those celebrations add to the excitement that already exists within this convergence of tons of comics creators showing off their gems of self expression.
We have over 25 new titles debuting at CAKE, which we’ve been announcing on our website, one at a time. Being the one who posts them on the site, I’ve been bubbling with anticipation about some of the stuff coming out. My list of comics I need to get my hands on is already really big. A few that stand out to me are:
-Suck It Up by Krystal DiFronzo, who enthusiastically performed a portion of the comic (which involves a character puking out her stomach to consume her lunch) at the most recent Brain Frame performance at Happy Dog
-July Diary by Gabrielle Bell, published by Uncivilized Books. Gabrielle is a great cartoonist who drew a comic everyday last July, which is now collected in this book.
-The Adventure School for Ladies Comics Intensive, is putting together a book during their two-week session, which takes place right before CAKE, so their book will be hot off the presses!
-Weather by Gabby Schulz -who also goes by the name Ken Dahl. Secret Acres is publishing a comic featuring his character, Gordon Smalls, who is a great vehicle for Gabby’s social commentary on american consumerism.
For more information about CAKE and all its illustrious events, please visit their website.