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How To Make An Awesome CAKE: Behind The Scenes Of The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo

Yum yum yum indie comics.


If you build it, they will come.

That is the essential idea behind the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, or CAKE. A small press expo similar to SPX, CAKE is a both a celebration of the talented Chicago comics community as well as an opportunity for nonnative comic makers to experience the local scene. The show is entering its fourth year, and in its short history has seen incredible success. CAKE accepts 200 exhibitors each year, and nearly 600 applied for the 2015 show.

So, how do you build a convention from the ground up without corporate sponsorship, and double the size of the show by your second year out? I talked to one of CAKE’s original organizers, Jeff Zwirek, to answer this question, and it turns out that the response is pretty simple: know your community, and build the show for them.

Zwirek and his co-organizers are all alternative comics makers or members of the DIY comics scene in Chicago. These CAKE puppeteers began to meet to discuss organizing a show in 2011 because they felt that the city’s DIY scene deserved a comics expo. “We [the organizers] had all been going to conventions for years in other cities, and with the growing scene and all the talent we had it just didn’t make sense that there wasn’t a show in Chicago,” explained Zwirek. “Neil [Brideau] brought up the idea when we were at a convention together. He asked if he was gonna start something, would I want to help out? I said yes without any idea what that really entailed.”

CAKE’s original organizers were Jeff, Neil, Edie Fake, Grace Tran and Max Morris. Neil and Edie were employees at Quimbys, a one-of-a-kind zine and comic store in the Wicker Park neighborhood that has long been a heart of the Chicago comics scene. In addition to being a hub for alternative comics makers to sell their work and seek inspiration, Quimbys became – and remains – a meeting place for team CAKE.

Even with the support of a key comics establishment at their backs, the group had to tackle an immediate barrier: none of them had any organizing experience. Fortunately, each member of the team had attended enough shows as exhibitors and guests to know what both artists and fans alike wanted out of a small press expo. Additionally, CAKE was following on the heels of the Chicago Zine Fest (CZF.) “By the time we had started CAKE there was already the zine fest, which had started like a year before,” said Zwirek. “Neil [Brideau] was an organizer for zine fest when it started. So, that gave us a little bit of an idea of what it would look like.” CAKE and CZF used the same space at Columbia College during CAKE’s first years, and the comics expo has since moved to the Center on Halsted. However, the two events have an amicable relationship and continue to share resources as much as possible.

The collaborative piece of organizing the expo doesn’t end with Quimbys and CZF; CAKE also relies on the other comic shops in the Chicago area to provide storage space and financial sponsorship, as well as to help advertise.

“We’ve had a lot of local comic shops support us, like Comix Revolution [in Evanston], Chicago Comics [Quimbys’ sister store], and Challengers and Conversation Comics. Chicago is a crazy city for comic shops. Every year we tour the whole city and we put up posters in all [of them.] Everybody’s always really accommodating. They put out our postcards, give out free comics on free comic book day that promote the show, stuff like that.”

Being rooted in the local comics scene is clearly key to CAKE’s success, not only because the organizers are clued in to the needs of their community, but also because Chicago has such an open and welcoming comics scene. Zwirek is a former employee of Comix Revolution, and has “been a customer in a lot of shops around Chicago. If there is any negative culture it’s never from the management. The ownerships that I’ve dealt with have always been super cool, very liberal, and very welcoming… I’ve been in shops when customers started to say things that were out of line and the ownership and the management have said hey, that’s not cool, you shouldn’t be doing that.”

The final piece of the show that ties CAKE to its local community is the jurying process. The CAKE jury is a group of comics makers, comic shop employees, and others who are somehow involved in the Chicago comics scene. CAKE receives an enormous amount of applications for tables every year, and the jury helps determine which artists will receive table space by reviewing a more palatable number of applications. “We ask them to look at the application and we ask them to give it a score based on several factors: how well it fits into the scene, how good the craftsmanship is, etc,” explained Zwirek. “What it usually comes down to is taste, how it fits their taste. But there’s a criteria of things to check off. We average out the scores and the top scorers get into the show.”

In its short history, CAKE has become a desirable show to comics makers all over the country, and even internationally. Part of CAKE’s goal is to represent the Chicago scene, so the organizers ensure that a certain percentage of the tablers are local. However, they also seek out artists who have never tabled at a show before, artists from other parts of the country, and now artists from outside the continent. Additionally, CAKE consciously tries to create diversity:

“Gender, ethnicity, that’s something that we really take into consideration. That’s challenging because traditionally comics makers have been young white males. That’s changed a lot. Even from when I started making comics in the nineties, and started attending shows in the nineties, I feel like the makeup between male and female was maybe 70/30. Now it’s easily half, if not more towards women. CAKE specifically has a ton of female exhibitors… I don’t think we have to adjust for that at all. We have so many female applicants, it just shakes out that way.”

The CAKE organizers are most careful to consider gender and ethnicity when choosing special guests. In order to have good representation of both women and people of color, the expo has been building relationships with various publishers. Many artists and comics makers book all their shows well in advance, and publishers and creators both benefit by making appearances that coincide with the release of new work.

Thanks to their growing relationship with Fantagraphics, this year’s CAKE will play host to Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, creators of the incredible Love and Rockets comic series. “Fantagraphics has been a great supporter; they’ve been to the show the last couple years,” explained Zwirek. “We’ve used artists of theirs as special guests in the past, like Tony Millionaire and Kim Dietch. The Hernandez brothers are artists that we’ve dreamed of having at the show since we started. They’re pretty much the pinnacle of what we want in a special guest – they have such a long history with the medium and they’re so iconic in terms of alternative comics, there’s no better fit.”

Of course, no convention is all tabling and oogling the special guests at signings – it’s also programming! By now, it will be no surprise to hear that CAKE’s process for organizing panels is democratic and community-oriented. “Figuring out the programming is an alchemy,” elaborated Zwirek. “You figure out who your special guests are, and you figure out who you could pair together that would make a good, interesting conversation. Then you come up with a topic and [find] a moderator who’s going to lend to the conversation.”

Because of the incredible amount of work that is necessary to organize the show, CAKE has pulled in some more volunteers to help put together the programming as well as the workshops. Brian Cremins, a comics historian and English professor at Harper College, has been helping coordinate programming alongside organizers Max Morris and Ben Burtin. Amara Leipzig, a talented comic artist and illustrator, has also recently joined the team to help create workshops. These new coordinators listen to suggestions from the wider community in order to design programming that will hold a wider appeal.

By now you must be wondering, how is all of this financially possible? CAKE has recently attained non-profit status, but has been functioning as a non-profit since its conception. “That was an understanding from the get-go, that we were all going to be volunteering… and this was how we were gonna keep table costs low and [keep the show] free,” explained Zwirek. “That’s also the culture that we wanted. Personally, I’ve gone to shows that were for profit and there’s definitely a different feel.”

CAKE’s model is a bit unique, as many shows partner with other organizations in order to gain their non-profit status. SPX, for example, is partnered with the Comics Legal Defense Fund, and the MoCCA Arts Festival works with the Society of Illustrators. While the partnership method is a successful and beneficial way to function, CAKE’s style has – at least thus far – required them to remain independent. “We don’t really want anybody to have input in how we put together the show,” elaborated Zwirek. “We want to be able to put together the show we want to. Sometimes that means you’re gonna have to sacrifice things.”

SPX’s non-profit status allows the show to sponsor cool initiatives, like the Ignatz Awards. Now that they’ve also acquired official non-profit status, CAKE was able to kick-off the Cupcake Award, a microgrant of $250 to allow an up and coming artist to create and publish a new mini comic. The winner, Sara Drake, will have a half table at the 2015 show and will debut her new work.

“Mini comics are such a huge part of the culture of alternative comics. It’s where almost all of us start off… its’ a great place to start for fans and creators… The people that are making the show possible are the people that sell mini comics, the people that pay their table fees to sell the mini comics… That was a big part of the idea with Cupcake. We want to reward people that are still self-publishing, still doing mini comics… they’re producing exactly what they want to produce, their own specific vision and voice. That’s something that’s crucial to the identity of CAKE.”

If you’ve already fallen in love with comics, attending a show like CAKE is a no-brainer. But what about those friends who you know will love alternative comics, but aren’t into the scene yet? According to Zwirek, it’s all about finding the right trigger. “I think that for all of us it’s a very similar story. You came across a mini comic or a zine, or nowadays you see something online, and you go, ‘Wait a second, what is that? What are people doing?’ That’s all it takes.” Attending a show like CAKE is a perfect opportunity to find those triggers, because you’re encountering an incredible variety of styles. Plus, you’re discovering new comics while surrounded by a super positive atmosphere of celebration.

The nature of the show is built into its lovely acronym: CAKE. When I asked him about the origin of the name, Zwirek started laughing.

“I think we spent a good six months coming up with an acronym, it was ridiculous. …Some of [the members of the jury] were in on the email chains when we were still coming up with a name, and if memory serves Aaron Renier – a local comics guy – suggested CAKE, Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, and changing the C to a K. When it was suggested, I remember several of the organizers going, ‘That’s it!’ …Everyone likes cake. It’s something that people like, it’s an indulgence, it’s a celebration. It felt appropriate for something that’s happening once a year, that you’re coming to and seeing your friends, and you’re celebrating.”

If you’d like to join up with some friends and indulge in a little CAKE, you can attend the show at the Center on Halstead on June 6th and 7th. A full exhibitor list is available on the website, and a full announcement of programming and workshops for the show is forthcoming (although some has already been teased.) To support the show, you can volunteer via the website.

I’ll definitely be attending CAKE, and I hope you can come celebrate with us.

Alenka Figa is a queer, feminist, wannabe-educator who is over traditional education. She spends her days reading comics at her toy store day job, watching Adventure Time, and writing book and comic reviews at her Tumblr blog League of Shadows.

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