CAKE 2017: Queer Alternative Comics on Display

The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) returned to Chicago's LGBTQ community center Center on Halsted for its fifth year, and it was the queerest CAKE yet. The standout theme of representation at CAKE was the emergence of young artists who are assertive in their queer expression. In the past, some alternative comics creators who are queer have not wanted their identification to limit their exposure, wanting instead to be known as creators without too much connection to their work. This year, things were different. CAKE felt like an empowered refusal to hide such identities.

The first table near the doorway boasted works by Printed Matter, Inc., who publishes trans artist Edie Fake. Fake has been publishing his highly stylized comic Gaylord Phoenix for years, and just released issue #7. This new issue continues the consistently polished execution Fake is known for, and features a beguiling gold foil on cardstock cover. As one of the most influential alternative comics creators, it's thrilling to see the pop surrealism Fake has developed weave throughout much of the work I saw walking the Expo floor.

Gaylord Phoenix #7

There were many familiar faces from previous years, including Hazel Newlevant, Tony Breed, Lucy Knisley, and the ladies of Ladydrawers (including previously featured Sheika Lugtu and Rivven Prink). Rivven had some fantastically queer stickers. Sage Coffey, co-editor of Sweaty Palms, debuted a hilarious mini-comic Wine Ghost, which I have already read a few times. It's pure joy. Special Guest Kevin Budnik, a straight ally who identifies as demisexual, debuted a lovely book called Peer, which he describes as a psychosexual tale of adolescent development. Emil Ferris presented her instant classic My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.

Rivven Prink's awesome stickers

Chicago-based Chloë Perkis pushes pop surrealism to its most lowbrow. Perkis, a self-identified "queer dork," provided CAKE readers with comics titled Bitch, Needy, and Laugh Track. The books have distinctively liquid lines eroticizing the female form, accompanied by clashing colors. This is a creator worth following for audacious style, sexiness, and humor. It's worth noting that Perkis was represented at Chicago's Fed Up Fest! 2016, an all ages festival "showcasing and celebrating queer and transgender voices in punk communities." Fed Up Fest! 2017 is scheduled for July 28–30 at Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The visually compelling works of Chloë Perkis

Anna Archie Bongiovanni was another memorable discovery. Minneapolis-based Bongiovanni had a broad assortment of wares, but the work is connected through their nonbinary queerness. Of particular interest is Out of Hollow Water, a dark meditation on the female experience. They have a charming sense of humor, though, and also created a queer "truth or dare" card game called Sweatgasm. Bongiovanni describes the game as having cards divided into truth and dare with the dare cards including explicit sex acts. I picked up zine-style comics A Cheap and Easy Introduction to They/Them Pronouns (co-written with Tristan Jimerson), and New Year's or My Last Day of Serving. Both are sharply humorous meditations on the intimacy within gender identity, the discovery of being nonbinary, and the empowerment of becoming. The two comics have a loose, immediate, style that enhances their humor and richness of the discussion.

The diverse works of Archie Anna Bongiovanni

The queerness in the work of Quinn Rivenburgh is immediately identifiable. Rivenburgh is a recent School of the Art Institute graduate studying Art Therapy. Their work has great visual appeal. I wish I would have gone back to the table for Queer Saints, a mini zine with carefully rendered portraits of James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Keith Haring, and Sylvia Rivera, among others.

The elegant works of Quinn Rivenburgh

I was so pleased to see the work of Minneapolis's Madeline McGrane, who creates beautiful comics about vampires. I purchased her Vampire Comics, which is a humorous collection of short vampire tales. A highlight is "Vampire Beach," where two vampire friends meet two werewolf friends. The blossoming romance between vampire Jesse and werewolf Martin is a charmingly queer tale punctuated by detailed character work. Vampire Comics is not available in her shop, though I hope it is soon as it is highly recommended.

Madeline McGrane's vampiric work

I was excited to see Davey Krofta tabling at CAKE for the first time. His Instagram is one of my personal obsessions, as he is a staggeringly diverse artist working in puppet-like creations, window displays, graphic design, and comics. He debuted his comic Alabaster, and had a couple mini-comics for sale. One of the minis, Gettin' Ready With Alabaster, is a brief montage of androgynous glam monster Alabaster getting ready for the night out applying mascara and lipstick, flossing, and putting on some punk pants and boots. Krofta's work is exceptional with a humor that is subtle but potent.

Davey Krofta and his treasures

Canada's Laura Kenins stood out as a strong feminist voice, and was promoting her standout queer work Steam Clean, about a group of friends and strangers at a women's only sauna. She was also selling some great stickers including one depicting a daikon root and the caption "daikon dyke."

Laura Kenins's Steam Clean, and boss feminist stickers

Seattle's Hannah Fisher made a queer zine about the musical Grease called The One That I Want, and a vibrantly illustrated comic titled Cosmoknights which can be read on her website. It's an exciting story beautifully rendered and colored.

Hannah Fisher

Circling back to the Ladydrawers, my top selection from CAKE is a comic by Finnish creator Hanna-Pirita Lehkonen, translated into English as Short Gay Stories. It's an essential queer comic that traces their journey of being nonbinary and demisexual. With grace and humor, Lehkonen's story is told through seemingly unrelated superhero, fantasy, and genre vignettes. One after another, they lovingly illustrate (and color) some of the finest comics work I've seen in a long time. Short Gay Stories can be found stateside through Ladydrawers.

A selection of Ladydrawers comics, including Short Gay Stories

All in all, CAKE was another amazing weekend of alternative comics from diverse creators from around the world. CAKE's vetting process is stringent, and the level of quality throughout the room was consistently dazzling.

I want to give a special shout-out to emerging creator Carolina Hicks, with whom I talked about her developing exploration of her sexuality and identity. Her work also touches on mental illness, a necessary and still-developing topic in the alternative comics sphere. I loved her style, she's a lovely person, and I hope to see more of her work soon.

Gavin Rehfeldt's picture
on June 15, 2017

Native Chicagoan. Former comics slinger. Current comics reader. Bespectacled.