“Imaginary Buildings”: Notes on Memory Palaces, Bryn Mawr, The Secret History of Chicago Zines, and CAKE!

Saturday night at Quimby’s, Edie Fake talked about the “imaginary buildings” that inform his new book Memory Palaces, published this month by Secret Acres. The book collects the drawings from Fake’s show at the Thomas Robertello Gallery in 2013. Fake presented a slide show of photographs of the Chicago buildings that inspired this series of drawings, a few of which are images of doorways created as tributes for lost friends. Those images, he explained, he created so that they would “vibrate at the same frequency” as his memories of those friends. Chicago’s buildings, the ones with mysterious wreaths, colorful tile work, and faded advertisements from long abandoned retail establishments, possess stories, he said, that modern buildings and spaces don’t (yet) possess.

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Edie Fake’s Memory Palaces (scan from the Secret Acres website)

What I find most striking about the cover of Memory Palaces is the level of detail. I can see each line, the delicacy of each letter and each figure. I wonder if this is what it must feel like to read a manuscript and to  discover centuries of stories written one over the other, generations of storytellers adding and subtracting words and images.

I’ve been thinking of these imaginary, communal spaces over the last few weeks because of two other adventures I had in April, my visit to Shiamin Kwa’s class at Bryn Mawr followed just a week later by Jake Austen and James Porter’s The Secret History of Chicago Zines event at Powell’s Books. I’d like to write a few notes on my time with Shiamin’s students, who, as part of their final projects for her Introduction to East Asian Studies course, created a series of zines illustrating the poems of their choice. You can see their comics for yourself on the class’s Tumblr page. Read each one slowly, then read them together, and I think what you’ll discover is a sensation like the one I sensed at Edie’s lecture: that disorienting feeling of a community taking shape. It’s like falling in love, I think, a mix of expectation, certainty, recklessness and wonder.

What I find moving about each one of the projects I’ve seen so far is the sense of shared commitment and vision. In completing these projects, the students faced a unique challenge: they are learning two distinct forms of discourse. First, they are reading often centuries-old poems, and entering into a dialogue with those authors. In doing so, even those who worked alone, of course, had to find a means to collaborate: what pictures would they imagine to accompany these words? Each one also had to think about the way in which words and pictures interact as visual narratives.

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Leverage: The Zine, edited by Chrystine Tran and Krystal Caban

Chrystine Tran, one of Shiamin’s students, whose comic “Selling Wilted Peonies” is the first one you’ll see on the class’s Tumblr page, has also edited a zine called Leverage, which collects the work of several other Bryn Mawr writers and artists. The zine is a collection of stories, of comics, of collages. In their introduction, Tran and her co-editor Krystal Caban explain that Leverage “was born out of a collective frustration over the lack of safe spaces where students of color could voice their concerns and present their work. Exhausted by the constant misrepresentation and invalidation of our identities, we believed we deserved an intersectional space where all aspects of our identities were acknowledged and respected.” You can read more about Leverage and order a copy at the zine’s Tumblr page.

I spent an afternoon in early April talking with Shiamin’s students and a few of her colleagues about contemporary Chicago artists and zine-makers including Edie Fake, Marnie Galloway, and Julia Von De Bur. One of the questions we discussed was the shared vision of the comics being created here in Chicago—do they share a sense of space, of location? If there is a Chicago aesthetic, what does it look like? One of Shiamin’s colleagues asked a question that broadened our conversation: What is the relationship between real gathering spaces—an artist collective, a bookstore like Quimby’s, an event like Zine Fest or next month’s CAKE Expo (more on that in a second)—and the virtual world of social media, Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr? How have these artists, she asked, navigated from one space to the next? I can only answer that question for me, I think, and not for any of the artists whose work we were sharing: I don’t know if these communities are possible without first imagining what they will look like, and we can only imagine those spaces by first sitting next to each other in the kind of communal space documented in the pages of Memory Palaces.

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The Secret History of Chicago Zines, courtesy of Jake Austen and James Porter

The Secret History of Zines event at Powell’s on Halsted on Saturday, April 19, asked us to consider Chicago’s long and rich history of zine and minicomics makers. During a short introduction and slide show from Jake Austen, who’s been publishing the underground music and comics zine Roctober since the early 1990s, he and James Porter included everyone from Moses to Martin Luther, Ben Franklin, and Tom Paine as early zine-makers, figures who had something to say and found a way to speak it and to write it down. Best of all, they found a way to self-publish it, from stone tablets to Paine’s pamphlets and broadsides. It was an inspiring evening, with a truly diverse crowd of artists, writers, and performers. Austen made a point of emphasizing the significance of blues, R&B, and punk zines and their impact on the development of underground fan networks. The panelists, including Chris Ware, Karen Heeringa, and Daniel Fromberg, discussed the links between music and self-publishing. Fromberg, a teenage musician and zinemaker, explained that he began writing music reviews after he’d stopped reading so many comic books and, as he put it, picked up some “real books”—you know, the ones without pictures.

If you or anyone you know will be in Chicago in two weeks, on Saturday, May 31 and Sunday, June 1, be sure to stop by the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) taking place at the Center on Halsted. Like Jake’s Secret History of Chicago Zines, it promises to be an inspiring weekend, with artists from all around the world. And it’s a free event, so bring yourself and bring anyone else you know who loves comics and minicomics and zines, books with and without pictures.

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Elisha Lim’s fantastic new collection 100 Crushes

I’m thrilled and honored to be moderating a panel this year at CAKE. I’m a little nervous, too, but I’ll be ok. I mean, what’s better than spending an hour on a Saturday afternoon in Chicago talking art and comics and community with Edie Fake, Elisha Lim, and Eric Kostiuk Williams? I’m off from school for the summer, so I’d rather not give you homework, but you really ought to read Edie’s Gaylord Phoenix, and Elisha’s 100 Crushes, and Eric’s Hungry Bottom Comics as soon as you can get yourself to a comic shop or to Etsy or wherever you buy your comics. Or, better, yet, why not plan to be at CAKE and buy the books directly from these fabulous artists?

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Eric Kostiuk Williams’ Hungry Bottom Comics No. 1

Here’s the description for our panel. I’d like to thank Max Morris and the other CAKE organizers who helped edit this blurb and who came up with the phrase magikomix. I like the sound of it. You can also read about all of the other amazing events on the CAKE website. Since we might talk a little about magic, I guess you could visit our panel on the astral plane, but I guarantee you that it will be way more fun and enlightening in person. Hope to see you there.

Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE!)

Saturday, May 31st

3:00 – 4:00pm

Magikomix, Queer Comics & Visionary Cartooning

with Edie Fake, Eric Kostiuk Williams, Elisha Lim
Moderated by Brian Cremins

This panel is sponsored by Quimby’s Bookstore

Comics and magic have had a long, complex relationship, from Eclipse publisher cat yronwode’s eclectic writings on everything from Will Eisner to love potions and Alan Moore’s worship of the ancient snake god Glycon. In this panel, artists Elisha Lim, Eric Kostiuk Williams, and Speical Guest Edie Fake will read short selections from their work and then discuss their innovations with narrative form. How have magic and the Magical shaped their sensibilities? Elisha Lim—cartoonist, filmmaker, Queer People of Color activist—describes their new Koyama Press collection 100 Crushes as “an excerpt of the most magical undertaking of my life,” one that began when a fortune teller advised them to “go back to doing what you loved as a child.” Edie Fake’s Ignatz Award-winning 2010 graphic novel Gaylord Phoenix is the adventure of a bird man who searches for his true self in an 8-bit universe of flaming creatures who often resemble Pamela Colman Smith’s Tarot card lovelies. And in his ongoing autobiographical series Hungry Bottom Comics, Eric Kostiuk Williams conjures with stories of Goldilocks charming the Three Bears, Jean Genet crooning Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake,” and a young apprentice making a pilgrimage to Beyoncé’s House of Deréon. These visionary cartoonists explore the line between the real and the imagined as they celebrate Queer history and community from Chicago and Singapore to Toronto and Berlin. Writer and comics scholar Brian Cremins will moderate the discussion.