As a lifelong Illinoisan, Wizard Worlds and hotel lobby “cons” served as my only respite for the drought plaguing the midwest comics scene. Cholera-laden wells if ever there were any, I quickly learned that there were few other options than to either drive or fly a significant distance from Central Illinois or to accept the fate of living in what is essentially a flyover state. The game began to change when C2E2 first landed in Chicago five years ago, but as I’ve opined elsewhere, the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo has grown to be much more about the entertainment (and the merch) than the comics.
At C2E2, the only significantly attended panels focus on the next big announcement from Marvel and DC, and the bulk of the showroom is devoted to t-shirts, toys, and other ephemera. I don’t think that there is necessarily something wrong with comic conventions merging toward being more pop culture conventions and diversifying, but transforming them into almost wholly commercial endeavors is disappointing. The only real respite from the commercialization at C2E2 was in Artists Alley, but even then there are about an equal numbers of artists promoting their works alongside people selling unlicensed prints of famous characters (like Doctor Who, DC, and Marvel properties) and those taking commissions with scantily-clad women posted all over their booth. It took five years for C2E2 to shift subtly toward its status as a pop culture convention, a shantytown for nerd merch, but it looks like we’re back to the cholera-laden wells.
While I expect a dehydrated man wandering through this desert of comics commercialization would prefer water, I don’t expect he would turn down a nice slice of cake either. The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) will not single-handedly turn the tables on the comic convention scene, but it’s a damn good start. Founded in 2012, CAKE humbly begun its existence at Columbia College, sharing the same place as their DIY/small-press sibling, Chicago Zine Fest. The first year of CAKE brought quite a bit to the table for an up-and-coming convention, but with Chicago at one time or another being the home of Jeffrey Brown, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, John Porcellino, Anders Nilsen, Paul Hornschemeier, Lilli Carré, Skottie Young, Jill Thompson, and Chris Burnham as well as rising stars like Kevin Budnik, RJ Casey, David Alvaredo, Kat Leyh, Andrew Rostan, and… well, you get the idea, Chicago loves cartoonists and comics.
Now in its third year, CAKE continues to draw out some of the best in the world of independent comics, having relocated to the Center on Halsted which gives them plenty of room for individuals to table at the event as well as publishers ranging from Fantagraphics and Top Shelf to Koyama Press and Chicago’s own Yeti Press. Although CAKE continues to draw some of the biggest names in the business, it has yet to feel like anything more than a celebration of a love of the comics medium by equals. It has the feel of C2E2’s artist alley, less the cheesecake commissions and pop culture profiteering; it’s an air of sincerity.
One of the most interesting aspects of this year’s CAKE was seeing both Jeffrey Brown and Anders Nilsen in the crowds. Nilsen no longer lives in Chicago and Brown was only there as an attendee, and seeing them interact with their peers, perusing works from Nobrow to Uncivilized Books to the candy-striper-esque science zines/comics, reminded me that this is a community of artists just as excited about the art of others as they are about their own. Offering to feed exhibitors—including an on-site CAKE cake—surely went a long way towards making it feel like a celebration of comics and cartoonists more than anything else.
While you’re not likely to find a plethora of superhero stories at a place like CAKE, the open-minded superhero comics reader is certainly welcome. If you appreciate the kind of stories being told in Hawkeye, for instance, there might be quite a bit for you at CAKE, where all it takes it a quick glance around the room to see that comics are far more than capes and tights. They’re as diverse as the people who make them, and if you want to go to a comic convention that is more about the medium than the merchandise, well, you can have your CAKE and eat it too.
David Fairbanks is a freelance writer, poet, and artist. You can find him on Twitter at @bairfanx.