AN OBSERVER glancing quickly around the Bridgeport coffee shop on Chicago’s South Side where we meet to talk could easily overlook comics artist Edie Fake. He is small in frame, with dark hair and a light complexion, with a perpetual fly-on-the-wall air, more interested in why anyone would want to be the center of attention than in commanding the position himself. As he talks, he doodles or folds a piece of paper, becoming at times very excited and looking up with wide eyes in moments of deep engagement: this is when the real Fake comes out.
“One of the most important things about what I’ve been doing is sharing it in person with people,” Fake muses. “I love book fairs and getting to digest other people’s ideas. I think that’s really why I make stuff. It’s a call-and-response.”
Fake’s initial reserve belies an immense sociability, grounded in kindness and openness. It’s the reason he’s becoming a powerhouse in the American alternative comics scene — an organizer for (and founder of) the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) and employee of the city’s bastion of the underground press, Quimby’s Bookstore. He’s also a flourishing celebrity within queer art circles, with a recent interview with Rad Queers, a video series highlighting the work of queer artists and organizations. “It’s super exciting!” he says of his growing popularity. “I meet people and they say, ‘Oh! You’re Edie!’ They already know my work and I’m like, ‘How did that happen!?’ It’s a huge compliment.”
His unassuming demeanor is more than a mannerism. It’s integral to Fake’s genius: his work appears cute and fun and simplistic on the surface, but quickly reveals a biting intelligence. In his long-running series, Gaylord Phoenix (anthologized by Secret Acres in 2010), he deftly explores deeply personal questions of identity without sacrificing his waggish playfulness. Including work from Fake’s earliest years, it traces the evolution of Fake’s work over time. “The drawings in the beginning are really scrappy and just piles of stuff I was interested in,” he remembers. “Weird diagrams and games and little figures.” The later work reveals a neater, more intentionally designed visual approach paired with metaphoric and nuanced storylines.
The series follows the journey of an eponymous humanoid hero, “the Gaylord Phoenix,” as the nonbinary protagonist traverses epic landscapes and interacts with a variety of fantastical creatures, both helpful and malevolent, in search of personal fulfillment. For most of the series, the Gaylord is unable to save anyone, recoiling from an unnamed, deep emotional trauma. Ancient Greek heroes were men and gods willing to sacrifice themselves to save others through feats of strength or endurance: the Gaylord is on a similarly epic quest to resist the influences of others, to forge an identity free of expectation. In the end, the Gaylord is capable of self-sacrifice in order to be reborn into the genderless form always desired, and not on anyone else’s terms.
“Very early on, after the first three issues, I mentioned to someone that I saw it as a weird kind of queer mythology,” Fake remembers. “That’s how I saw it.”
It is epic: the story follows a meandering, loose narrative that, again like the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome, connects to real and personal experiences, all told to help a reader make sense of the world. Fake turns the Gaylord’s quest into a mythopoeic origin story for queerness itself, providing fantastical answers to the difficult questions of sexual and gender identity, questions that rarely have tidy answers.
The book’s layout is not reliant on the common comics panel-and-gutter layout, which comes in his case from his DIY roots. “[My first zines] were really immediate, just ballpoint pen on copy paper. I had read a bunch of comics, but I didn’t necessarily understand why panels were the go-to form. I was also coming from a film and animation background,” Fake adds, referring to his undergraduate work in video at the Rhode Island School of Design. Indeed, each page appears more as a series of storyboarding cards or illustrations rather than the linear narrative of more traditional sequential art. Pushing the boundaries of what the general reader might think of as comics, Fake uses this style in much of his work, including his two ongoing series — Sweetmeats and Lil’ Buddies.
“I did this series before called Foie Gras which tries to build a narrative based on illustrations from The Joy of Cooking. It was a formal experiment,” Fake recounts. “Sweetmeats are all just kind of tiny narratives. I was reprinting stories I had put into anthologies.” Lil’ Buddies is part illustration collection and part documentation of our visual culture. In the series, Fake collects and redraws anthropomorphized objects from advertising signs (think of the smiling, dancing tooth on your dentist’s billboard) and runs an accompanying Tumblr (http://lilbuddies.tumblr.com/).
His most recent published work, Memory Palaces, is a collection of paintings first exhibited in the Thomas Robertello Gallery in Chicago in January of 2013, put out by Secret Acres in April. No normal exhibition catalog, the book of intricately drawn and colored ornate facades lacks any introduction or accompanying commentary. It feels more like a zine — including a stapled saddle stitch binding — and each page displays one painting after the next. Indeed, Palaces might not seem to many like comics at all.
This is okay with Fake, who sometimes eschews the label. “When I want to be quick about it, I’ll say, ‘I’m a zinemaker …’ but I’m interested in how the borders of comics have expanded,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as a cartoonist, necessarily, but on the other hand [Memory Palaces] is definitely comics. It has narrative to it.”
The booklet depicts 15 imagined facades inspired by extinct institutions of Chicago’s LGTBQ history and a few gateways dedicated to friends (such as Dylan Williams, founder of Sparkplug Books and a fellow comics artist who passed away in 2011). Fake reimagines such spaces as Club LaRay, a former predominantly black gay dance club from the 1980s, or Nightgowns, a defunct queer arts space from the early 2000s, turning them into exquisitely embellished palaces. It’s the literalization of the ancient Greek and Roman mnemonic device known as the “method of loci” (also known as a “memory palace,” hence the title), wherein a subject imagines a large palace and places within each room a memory (much in the same way that some forms of quilting instill within each piece of patchwork a memory or dedication). To recall a memory, all one has to do is visualize the palace and enter the room corresponding to the desired stimulus. “That was my impulse with Memory Palaces: to create spaces that people could identify with, but that you don’t need to be in to feel.”
The method mimics natural memory processes in the brain (i.e., it’s easier to find the remote if it’s always in the same place), but in Palaces, the result is more dizzying than clarifying, captivating the reader visually and nostalgically. Fake turns a former lesbian newspaper — The Killer Dyke — into an electrified dive bar of flamboyant stained glass. The Newberry Theatre, a former movie palace turned gay porn theater that closed in 1977 (before Fake was born), is given a second life, complete with an eternal marquee advertising two features: Any Boy Can and The Insatiables. As the reader flips pages, each building becomes a character in and of itself, a repository for both Fake’s memories and those of the reader. “It’s meant to help someone reimagine history or remember old friends,” Fake suggests. Indeed, an arch’s keystone holds the nervousness of a first kiss, and there on a pedestal is your awkward dance at the first gay club you ever went to. Each bar on each window is another queer friend who protected you as you began making a space for yourself in your new, queer world.
Fake bridges the personal and the social, pushing beyond entertainment toward activism. “There are some people that, in reviews of my work, just don’t know how to talk about trans-ness as a part of the story,” Fake states.
When I deal with my own body in space, if some people don’t know how to deal with that, then they won’t give me the time of day. People reading my work often want me to make it more clear, more tidy, but I won’t make it clearer for them. I want to take up the space I take up in the way that I do.
Fake mentions that readers of Phoenix, perhaps wanting to pin down the epic work’s unclear narrative, are quick to conflate the character’s questioning of gender and sexual identity with Fake’s own personal story (which he writes about in Sweetmeats).
“One of the questions I get a lot is: ‘Are you the Gaylord?’ It’s like a ‘Yes, sort of, kind of,’ thing,” he offers. “I don’t really have an interest in drawing autobiographical comics, but I do have a huge interest in drawing trans bodies in space and making that an integral part of the story. That’s part of the universe I walk around in every day so it’s become a huge part of my comics.” Memory Palaces is similarly personal, but Fake’s work goes far beyond autobiography to propose a shared history.
As we sit in the coffee shop, Fake regales me with stories of his nomadic past. Raised in Chicago, he eventually left to attend RISD. He moved to New York City, where his work picked up momentum and the offer from Secret Acres came to publish the — at the time unfinished — Gaylord Phoenix series in a single volume.
It’s a funny story: I was living in New York, but they were LA-based. Secret Acres had sent a letter, but I hadn’t received it [when] I [went to] a book fair in San Francisco. These people came up and said, ‘We love Gaylord Phoenix! Have you thought of having it published ever?’ And I thought they were just fans asking about my ambitions for it, so I said, ‘Maybe. But I love self-publishing!’ They just said, ‘Oh, okay. Well, we’ll look for more of them!’ When I got back to New York and got the letter, I called them up. ‘Yeah, I’d be interested in publishing.’ And I think I said, ‘It’s funny, some people were just asking me if I had ever thought of publishing.’ Then when I went to the meeting, it was them! The superfans!
After the offer from Secret Acres but before finishing Phoenix, Fake bought a school bus and toured around the country. “I went feral for a while. The bus kind of ate my life for a year,” he describes. It did take him to Baltimore, where the bus finally broke down. Weighing his options, he decided to return to Chicago, which, he said, “Welcomed me back with a bear hug.” He arrived back home on the day Michael Jackson died. “I got out of my friend’s car in Chicago and another friend called and said that Michael Jackson was dead. I said, ‘What are you talking about? What witchery is this!?’ I remember it being a really communal day.”
In many ways Fake is a classic nomad; this fall he will be moving to Los Angeles for graduate school. “I’m going to USC for straight-up art,” he says. Fake may be nomadic in terms of space and freedom, but he is (perhaps because of this fact) heavily invested in the ideas and politics of place: how we create them, what they can mean to us, and who in our society is denied their security.
Fake’s work examines the intersections of history and sexual and gender identities, how they can be used to create artwork, and how they can create a place for his readers. In Gaylord Phoenix, he gives gender-neutrality an origin story via a grand queer tale. The anthropomorphized objects in Lil’ Buddies turn ubiquitous advertising conventions into friends, instilling them with a sense of familiarity. (I now point out a Lil’ Buddy whenever I see one.) And in Memory Palaces, Fake gives a second life to institutional spaces that no longer exist in any form — each now devoid of a real space — providing them a historical security and queer readers a mythological origin story of their own.
“Autonomy complicates the definitions of things and the rules about things — especially about gender and sexuality,” Fake said, considering his work’s place and appeal in contemporary comics culture. “I think that knowing who you are, finding out who you are, and claiming who you are can be like the trans 13-year-old who plays baseball but doesn’t have an organized sports teams to join. It’s about an all-is-one kind of thing, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be nuance.”
In her book Belonging: A Culture of Place, bell hooks writes about returning home to rural Kentucky after a long academic career in New York City. In one chapter she discusses porches, the ubiquitous womb-like structures attached to the front and back of any rural home, writing: “A perfect porch is a place where the soul can rest.” In the same way, perfect comics can give openly and sincerely to the reader a place to rest their soul. This is Fake’s most powerful talent and his work’s best quality.