CAKE Chicago Features Best of City's Independent Comic Artists

By Kelly Bauer on May 30, 2014 5:41am 

CHICAGO — The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., is more than a place for artists to hawk their comics.

CAKE is an annual gathering of independently published comic artists that will run 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. For the artists who attend, it's a place to exhibit, sell and sign their work. They also participate in comic jams, where they create strips together, and live drawing battles.

A handful of the dozens of Chicago artists who will be at CAKE spoke to DNAinfo Chicago this week:

Marian Runk, Avondale

Even though Avondale artist Marian Runk bares her life in her illustrations, the 34-year-old said she's far from fearless.

The illustrator, who will exhibit at CAKE over the weekend, uses her work to tell stories about her life and the people in it. One of the most difficult stories she's tackled is covered in "Epitaph," a strip in her "The Magic Hedge 2" book, which debuted at CAKE.

"Epitaph" follows Runk's love of ballet and loss of a mentor, and was spurred by her discovery of a patch in an AIDS quilt for her grade-school ballet teacher.

"I found his square in the AIDS quilt via a Google search while I was at an artist's residency at the Ragdale Foundation, working on the story," Runk said. "I was alone in the studio and totally unprepared for the image, and my emotional response to it. I cried through most of the drawing and planning for that one. But that is also my favorite story that I've drawn."

Runk doesn't shy away from including her friends and families in her narratives, but she will share the stories with them before publication to get feedback. When she can't reach a subject in her stories, she will "sometimes change a name or try to make them unrecognizable."

"There's a difference between challenging a relationship and destroying a relationship, and I am very concerned with not crossing that line. I'm lucky that I haven't felt pressured to do so yet," Runk said. "Sometimes I give people who appear as characters a heads-up and get an OK before working on a story, and sometimes I show them after it's done but before it is published, so they have heads-up and an opportunity to give input."

 Ben Marcus creates illustrations like this one with comics group Trubble Club.
Ben Marcus creates illustrations like this one with comics group Trubble Club.
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Courtesy Ben Marcus

Runk's memoir comics have covered "birds, guitars, love, monkeys, fish, canopy beds, childhood best-friendship, family drama, death, funerals, reality TV, HIV and AIDS, deerskin chaps, Catholic school girls, voice lessons, record players, boomboxes and getting dumped."

Despite the sometimes intimate topics she's written about, Runk said she is "absolutely not fearless."

"I am terrified, or at a minimum, very nervous about every piece I release into the world," Runk said. "But as many people have said, the hardest stories are usually the ones that are the most important to tell."

Ben Marcus, Pilsen

Pilsen artist Ben Marcus had stopped doing illustrations before he joined the Trubble Club two years ago.

But the club reignited Marcus' passion for drawing and led him to comics, and this weekend he will show his work at CAKE.

Marcus, 30, was focused on graphic design between college and the time he received an invitation to join Trubble Club from friend Joe Tallarico, comics editor of Lumpen Magazine.

Trubble Club meets weekly at diners, with one artist drawing a comic panel before someone else does a panel or takes the illustration to use for inspiration, Marcus said. 

"But it's usually just a lot of talking and goofing around," Marcus said. "Drawing, you're alone a lot, working on that. So, I think it functions as a place where we can sort of do what we do alone together."

These days, Trubble Club meets a bit less frequently because its members are preparing for CAKE, where Trubble Club will have its own table, Marcus said.

Marcus focuses on one-panel comics that show particular moods rather than on storylines. He said beyond bringing him back to his love for illustration, Trubble Club also has helped Marcus improve his craft.

"I feel like every time I'm able to draw with other people I definitely learn a lot," Marcus said. "Just watching someone else do what you do all the time is fascinating. I'll pick up little tricks. ... Talking shop is really helpful for me.

"But just to see how people who are more professional illustrators or cartoonists, how they work — what their habits are, how much time they put into their stuff — I'm just really curious about that. I think it's good for me to show up and stay a member, a participating member, of that little community."

Jeremy Tinder, Andersonville

Jeremy Tinder, 34, of Andersonville, has a hard time describing what makes his work stand apart from other CAKE comic artists.

"I just don't think of it that way," Tinder said. "I think of us as one big community."

Tinder, a member of Trubble Club, will exhibit his work with other club members at CAKE over the weekend. If all goes well, he plans to show fans "Heat Escapes," his latest book, alongside Trubble Club's most recent publication, "Exquisite Corpse Drawings."

"Exquisite Corpse Drawings" compiles the strips Trubble Club artists have worked on together at meetings over the years.

Tinder's work will also be available in CAKE's annual anthology, which combines the work of the dozens of artists exhibiting at the show.

"Looking through the table of contents this year, about a dozen of the students were former students of mine here at [the School of the Art Institute of Chicago], and another eight are members of my collective Trubble Club," Tinder said. "It just feels like we're all working toward making these things that are more artful, more thoughtful."

Tinder has attended each CAKE, sat in on a few organizational meetings when it was created (though he then "quickly realized it's too much work for me") and said it's his favorite convention. He enjoys the event's focus on single-authored comics and comics that have been self-published.

"I do think it's a collective effort to keep the medium exciting and keep pushing it to more areas ... that more mainstream comics don't dare go because they're more concerned with profits," he said.

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