Among the many joys of June in Chicago is CAKE, the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo. This annual celebration of the alternative side of comics is a place for marginalized voices and individual visions to dominate. Unlike C2E2, the other highlight of the yearly comics calendar, where the work often feels like a stepping-stone to a movie deal, the comics at CAKE are usually done by a single creator, and they’re as far from corporate influence as Mercury is from Pluto. When it comes to creators and comics, CAKE is a decidedly diverse lineup with a surprise at every table, including spoofs of corporate culture, sprawling cosmic odysseys, New Yorker-style single-panel cartoons, nonfiction comics about wrestlers, memoirs in multiple art styles, and more. If C2E2 is a four-pack of Crayolas, CAKE is a box of 64,000. If you ever thought about getting into comics, there’s no better gateway event.
Here are four of the many accomplished creators you’ll see at this year’s expo.
CAKE is a showcase of not only the diversity of comics creators, but the diversity of influences on any given creator. Case in point: Whit Taylor, who has been prolifically creating and self-publishing comics since 2011. Two of her strongest influences are the perpetual teens of Archie Comics and botanical illustration. These loves—a far greater contrast than Betty and Veronica—feed her appreciation as both a creator and person for the wonders of friendship and nature.
Taylor’s socially conscious work includes webcomics from publications such as The Nib and longer work, including Ghost Stories (an imagined series of meetings with some of her dead heroes) for Rosarium Publishing and Up Down Clown (a look at mental health through the unlikely perspective of a birthday clown) for Ninth Art Press. She works in a wide variety of genres and methods, maintaining a balance in several ways, notably by alternating between doing the whole comic herself and working with other artists, such as Shannon Wright and Maki Naro, who illustrated a scary recent piece on life before the FDA.
The comic at hand determines whether collaboration is in the cards: “Some stories, especially personal ones, make sense for me to draw,” says Taylor. “Other times, I like pairing up with creators because I think their style will work best for that specific piece. It’s usually quicker for me to write, so sometimes it allows me to better juggle projects.”
Taylor does both educational nonfiction comics—which fit well with her day job as a clinical health educator—and more personal fictional stories. She sees no need to limit herself to one genre: “There is a place for both for me. Both types of comics are challenging and fun in different ways and add value to my practice as a cartoonist. They also appeal to different types of readers.”
Among other comics and illustrations, Taylor will be bringing copies of issues #1 and #2 of Fizzle, an ongoing fictional minicomic series about the challenges of life with a retail job and stoner boyfriend.
Michael Kupperman—whose books published since 2000 include Tales Designed to Thrizzle, Snake’N’Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret, and Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010—is a New York-based comic book comedian with few peers. His cartooning combines a retro style reminiscent of 1960s and ’70s superhero comics with a sense of humor that resembles Jack Handey on bath salts, producing absurdities such as Mark Twain and Albert Einstein as a crime-fighting duo. Kupperman’s work shows a genuine love for the comic medium and a surgeon’s touch at dissecting it for laughs.
“Humor is one of the most deconstructive forces there is,” Kupperman says. “When you combine it with art it has a peculiar deconstructive power. I like to think I’ve combined them in ways nobody else has. It’s about freedom. To me comics are the easiest and most direct escape there is, into a sheet of paper or a computer screen.”
Kupperman’s comedic output alone would keep most creators busy, but he broadened his range considerably in his 2018 book All the Answers. In this gutting and honest memoir, Kupperman wrestles with his father’s traumatic childhood as a quiz-show prodigy.
Moving from comedy to memoir was about as scary as you’d think. “It was absolutely terrifying to open myself up to that level,” says Kupperman. “The publisher called it a graphic memoir, but I wonder if a better description might be graphic autonoir. I followed the mystery of my father and at the end of the trail, what was waiting for me was the realization of how alone I’d been my entire life. It hurt me, badly. And then I presented it as narrative. I had to feel this pain all through it in order to portray it correctly.”
Post-Answers, Kupperman has been working on more humor and personal work, as well as expanding into new areas: “I’m working on a history of advertising, a book about the Greek gods, and some other assorted pieces right now.” Besides All the Answers, CAKE attendees can pick up two exclusive Kupperman works: a printed collection of Supervillains, a batch of bonkers comics that appeared on the Adult Swim website; and Tork, a memoir comic about Kupperman’s former neighbor, the late ex-Monkee Peter Tork.
One of the weirdest subgenres of corporate comics is the unlikely crossover. Over the years, fans have giggled and gaped at preposterous pairings such as Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, and Archie vs. Predator. Writer-artist Rosemary Valero-O’Connell worked on the similar series Lumberjanes/Gotham Academy in 2016, bringing together successful teen series from the creator-owned Boom! Studios and the Batman-adjacent world of DC Comics. Crossovers are natural for Valero-O’Connell, whose life and work thrive on juxtapositions.
“Comics are my truest and oldest love,” says Valero-O’Connell, “but there are a lot of other creative muscles that I like to stretch if I’m lucky enough to get the opportunity. I love drawing more than anything, which means for better or for worse, I hardly ever say no to a chance to do it, which has meant a wide breadth of work across different avenues. I think if I stuck to only one or two very specific types of creative output my work would start to stagnate, so I’m very grateful that I get to try new modes of working that teach me new techniques and skill sets.”
Valero-O’Connell’s creative résumé, which includes the Eisner-nominated What is Left (a haunting story of the sea and memory) and the recently-published Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me (a teen tale written by Mariko Tamaki that anyone who’s been in a toxic relationship should appreciate), is influenced by her upbringing: she was born in Minnesota, raised in Spain, and returned to Minnesota as an adult.
“I think growing up between two places and two cultures generally means you end up doing a lot of introspection with regards to identity, belonging, community, etc.,” says Valero-O’Connell. “A lot of my work comes from mining personal experience, from interrogating and examining my own feelings about the world through fiction, and growing up in a shifting landscape provided me with a lot of rich soil to draw on in that regard. On an aesthetic level, I have a bit of an obsession with the somber and spiritual that is simultaneously gilded and intricate, and I owe that sensibility completely to the art, architecture, and traditions that I grew up with in Spain.” That European sensibility makes her work stand out in the crowded field of American comics.
If you’ve ever been to Catholic school—or if you just have an appreciation for sexy nuns fondling skulls and devils—you’ll say a prayer of thanks for the work of Chicagoan Corinne Halbert, which includes appropriately named comics Hate Baby 666 and Naughty Nuns.
Halbert’s artistic proclivities originated much as you’d expect: “I was raised Catholic and attended private Catholic school from kindergarten through fifth grade. The brightly colored idols, bold church designs and psychedelic stained glass windows have left a permanent mark on my subconscious. My erotic horror style is a culmination of everything I love aesthetically and consume on a regular basis, i.e. books, films, music, and ephemera.”
Aside from the literal world of nuns and crucifixes, Halbert has been influenced by many creators inside and outside comics. “Black Hole by Charles Burns is my favorite graphic novel and biggest influence as a cartoonist,” she says. “Junji Ito and Al Columbia’s work have deeply impacted me as an artist. Horror and cult movies, vintage publications as well as an array of heavy music are constant sources of inspiration.”
This profane and powerful set of influences can be seen in Halbert’s latest work, which will debut at CAKE: Demonophobiac: Fear of Possession. Halbert describes this comic as “a meta, demonic possession horror comic with threads of autobio storytelling weaved in throughout the book.”
Such sinful, sensual work is hard to resist—as is spending too much money at CAKE. Hey, there’s always confession. v
Correction: Corinne Halbert’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.