Several months ago, I learned about the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo or CAKE for short. It’s a “weekend-long celebration of independent comics, inspired by Chicago’s rich legacy as home to many of underground and alternative comics’ most talented artists – past, present, and future.” The main event is a massive room full of publishers and creators, and you go to it to buy comics, talk shop, or just fangirl out. There are also workshops and panels, but those are few and far between and didn’t have much room for too many attendees (It was a bit of a let-down.).
This year they had some amazing guests and exhibitors including Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez of Love and Rockets, Jillian Tamaki of This One Summer and SuperMutant Magic Academy, Liz Prince of Tomboy, and my personal hero Lucy Knisley of Relish and French Milk. As soon as I heard that my favorite independent comics creators would be attending, I knew I had to attend. Unfortunately, the event was June 6 and June 7, and my friend Devon was getting married on June 7th. For a long time, I tried to resign myself with not going, but as the wedding date neared and Devon gave no indication that she wanted to do anything that weekend or even that week, I decided that I had to make the trip up to Chicago (which is about 6 hours away). Me, my girlfriend Sam, and my sister Jenny would leave work early at 1:00pm that Friday, dash up to Chicago, get up bright and early and spend the whole day at CAKE, and then leave at about 6:00am Sunday morning to screech back into town no later than 2:30pm. The wedding wasn’t until 4:30pm so we could totally make it on time.
Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out quite as smoothly as we’d planned. We ended up having some unscheduled appointments on Friday and didn’t arrive at our hotel, which was about an hour out from the convention center, until maybe 10:00pm. We were exhausted and hungry, so all we did that night was get pizza at Aurelio’s Pizza, a cool pizzeria with really delicious jalapeno poppers and loaded pizza (totally recommend). Then we settled into our thoroughly underwhelming Super 8 motel.
A quick aside on hotels/motels. When the floor is hard, the room smells like mold, there is no Wifi (How is that even possible???), and you’ve got ugly yellow light bulbs that cast everything in a sickly pall, it’s hard not to feel a bit down. Growing up, staying at a hotel was always a treat. It represented going on a vacation and getting a little pampered. Now I can’t afford to be “a little pampered” (i.e., getting Wifi, a three-equipment “gym,” and a room that’s regularly aired), and I find it incredibly disappointing that getting a decent room costs over $100 a night bare minimum. I’m not asking for sumptuous beds with 1200 thread count sheets and duvets like clouds or giant TVs and room service and sitting rooms all for the low, low cost of $19.99. But for $73 a night, shouldn’t I have gotten Wifi and an aired-out room? Shouldn’t someone have put a carpet pad under the moldy carpet? Shouldn’t someone change the light bulbs so I can actually see if I’m putting on a red T-shirt or a brown one? I’m just asking for a slight amount of service here, guys.
But no matter. We survived, and the point was to spend the whole day at CAKE anyway (Plus we had a ton of books and two smart phones. We dealt.). The hotel was decently close to the convention hall, and we got to spend less than $100 a night on it. No one broke into my car, and Aurelio’s was actually really good. So whatever.
It was a bit of a trial to get to CAKE, which was located in the Center on Halstead in northern Chicago, a winding, labyrinthine area with a lot of angry drivers and no public parking. However, it’s pretty nice and has a strong PRIDE community as well as several ethnic neighborhoods. It’s clean, has some cool architectural and artistic features, and when you’re not in a car trying to turn left, people are generally quite helpful and nice. There was this great Thai restaurant we had lunch at called In-On Thai that I highly recommend. It wasn’t too pricy, but the food was amazing and the woman who served us was very sweet. I had the best Thai Iced Tea I’ve had in my life, and the Massamam Curry was perfectly prepared – great blend of meat and veggies, lightly sweet and spicy sauce, and perfect sticky rice. Their Pad Thai with beef was also really good as was their Pad See-Ew with beef. Basically, everything we tried was excellent, so if you’re in the area, go, eat, enjoy.
CAKE itself I had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it was amazing getting to meet the artists I so admire and to meet new artists like the incredibly talented screen printer Estrella Vega and the funny, sometimes irreverent Isabella Rotman. My sister and I talked with Liz Prince for quite a bit, and she was personable, friendly, and helpful. She also drew very cute little pictures on the books we bought, which made the whole thing even more special. Honestly, all of the creators were like that like Spiro Dousias, who talked to me about Greek mythology for a bit, and The Ladydrawers Comics Collective, who do amazing social justice comics and were interested in my own work. The venue also wasn’t too crowded so you could really stop and talk with all the artists and get to know them. It wasn’t like we became best friends or anything, but I thought it was so sweet that people like Corinne Mucha were willing to give me tips on how to run a comics workshop. I have nothing but love and respect for those amazing creators.
The negative aspect was that there wasn’t enough room at the panels and workshops. On Sunday (when I wouldn’t be there), the Hernandez brothers were hosting a panel called “A Conversation with the Hernandez Brothers” about their lives and work and the influences they worked from and the influence they created. I was pretty bummed to miss it but so excited to see that Jaime Hernandez, my favorite of the two, was hosting a workshop on Saturday titled, “Jaime Hernandez Inks Live!” It would have been so incredible to see him work and try to figure out how he does what he does. Unfortunately, the workshop was in a room that only sat 35 people – 35! By the time I got there, the doors were closed and the room was full. Alongside me were at least a dozen other disappointed people, and as we lingered many more came and went. The same thing happened at the “Doodle Dash” workshop a little later. I understand the need to keep workshops relatively small, but to my knowledge, neither of these had an analysis component. The first one just had Jaime showing what he does, and the second had everyone sitting at tables, drawing a picture, and turning it in when they were done. There’s really no reason why they couldn’t have been in another room, which is what I told the organizers on the survey they sent out. Hopefully, they’ll fix that oversight next year.
So as I left CAKE, I had mixed feelings. I was disappointed that I never got to attend a workshop or panel, and I was disappointed that the organization of the event seemed geared towards solely selling things. If I hadn’t come to event armed with far too much cash and an insatiable desire to buy comics (of which I bought way, way too many), I might have left a touch disillusioned.
However, the prevalent feeling I had when leaving was elation and excitement. I absolutely got to meet my heroes and tell them how much their work meant to me. Lucy Knisley drew a quick picture of me in the book I bought from her, Stop Paying Attention. Print Ninja, one of the sponsors, was giving out ninja balaclavas, and I got one. I have a comic about animal sex. I have a beautiful book about the Devonian period. Jillian Tamaki drew a penguin for me. I met this amazing woman who wrote This Party Really Sucks, which is about being forced to go to her senior prom, and we talked about how great that comic was and her whole face lit up. I may not have walked away from this event with lasting friendships or a book deal, but I got to be rejuvenated by contact with people who love what I love. It was absolutely what I wanted, and I’m absolutely going to come back next year. I really can’t wait for it.
I think all of us felt that way because when we got back to the hotel we spent a long time looking through each other’s swag, delightedly pointing out the cute signatures, laughing at the comics, and repeatedly reorganizing our piles. We’ve spent the past week passing everything all over our apartment, and I’ve started following several new Tumblrs and blogs. It was a great weekend, and we had a great time. What more can I say?
Perhaps one thing: it was absolutely the right call to drive home immediately instead of staying another night. It would have been hell getting up at 6:00am and hauling ass home. Instead, it was only mildly irritating driving from 7:00pm to 2:30am. So next year I hope no one’s getting married on CAKE weekend. You hear that, friends? CAKE weekend is off-limits.