The never-duplicated weirdness of Brain Frame

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Ask Lyra Hill something as innocuous as why she started Brain Frame — the mildly loopy, wildly eclectic and passionately adored comics-and-performance whatchamacallit/updated '60s freak out/cartooning-community rallying point that she launched two years ago in a Wicker Park apartment — and prepare to tumble down a rabbit hole. A natural storyteller, she begins with the summer of 2011, "an intense and magical time, featuring one particularly insane episode." She pauses. Ask her to continue — as she knows you would have to, now — and she explains further: Freshly graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, eager to leave the city, she made plans to move to Los Angeles and live with her then-boyfriend.

She arrived in L.A.

He broke up with her.

She pauses again: "Sometimes I deal with things in one big push — I like a good exorcism. So after the breakup, I went to my dad's wedding and became the Drunk Person at the Wedding. I started fights …"

Oh, please, go on.

"A little bit later," she continues, "(Chicago shadow puppeteer and artist) Sara Drake was hosting a prose and poetry reading in her apartment in Pilsen, and she invited me to read one of my comics. I have this comic that I drew called 'They Glisten,' about liquid aliens who crash on a post-apocalyptic Earth and they all die at the end because I only make comics about cute things if they don't survive. So, anyway, I have this comic, but I can't read it as prose because there are no words. Instead I decided to act it out, gesture a lot — give this big emphatic performance. And because I had injured my ankle during the wedding thing, I showed up in a wheelchair. At one point in the reading, I kind of wheeled through the room and stood up for dramatic effect. It wasn't exactly the start of Brain Frame, but after doing that, I did realize how much of a performance there could be in this and became super excited by the possibilities of translating comics live."

She founded Brain Frame a few weeks later, and within a few months the ambitious Hill — who works as a projectionist at the Gene Siskel Film Center and an archivist at Kartemquin Films and — was already re-imagining "They Glisten." She performed it again at the third Brain Frame, and this time she wore a lab coat and handed out green Jell-O shots, explaining it was "alien tissue samples."

She encouraged probing.

Within a year, Brain Frame had become a kind of pleasantly crowded, bi-monthly performance-art happening, evolving into an elaborate must-attend showcase for Chicago's underground comic and hipster communities. On Friday Hill launches the third season of the reading and performance series at the Co-Prosperity Sphere art space in Bridgeport (8:30 p.m.; brainframe.tumblr.com).

"When I first heard about (Brain Frame), I was intrigued by how open-ended and abstract it seemed," says Chicago artist Marnie Galloway. "I had no idea what to expect, then at the first Brain Frame I attended, Sara Drake, who was adapting a Cambodian comic, gave a mind-blowing shadow-puppet performance. We sat on the floor and watched. It felt so Victorian — I got goose bumps and teared up." She has since performed at the series. "Now I explain Brain Frame as: You can read from a novel. But how do you read from visual work?"

Creatively, inventively.

The dozens of artists who have appeared at Brain Frame — often with slides or animation of their comics projected behind them — have embellished their work with dances, songs, impromptu plays, marionettes, bad acting. Last winter, in Amsterdam, Rachel Niffenegger, one of the most talked about young Chicago artists of the moment, and her boyfriend, artist Jeremy Tinder, appeared via a projected Skype performance.

So, last month, when the 26-year-old Hill greeted the audience at the latest edition of Brain Frame with the announcement that the third season of the series would be its last, a loud groan rolled through the room.

"And I understand that reaction," says Scott Roberts, a cartoonist and animator who co-founded DePaul University's animation program (and is on the bill Friday). "Because making comics is very solitary, and while you do get to know people in the comics community, it's different to have a social event. Also, I'm old, I'm 48. The majority of the Brain Frame audience is maybe in their 20s, and if I attended one of these things at that age, it would become my goal in life to be an artist — you come away reminded of what art is about."

Brain Frame has bounced around. It's been performed in churches, in galleries, outside of the Museum of Contemporary Art; Hill says it will likely be moving to a larger performance space soon. But the first Brain Frame, in an apartment, set the tone, she says: "We get about 150-160 people now, but the first had about 40, which was better than I expected the first time, never mind on a humid, stormy evening. This artist, Nick Jackson, read a comic about a dog that lives in a trailer park and runs away when there's a fire. He read it with a wah-wah (distortion) peddle, hitting the peddle when he got to emphatic words in the comic. He would start shouting. His voice would get crazy. There was a live cellist, who would go from beautiful sounding to screeching. It was so powerful that it felt like I was a cave man! And listening to some shaman chanting!

"And then halfway though, the power went out. We were all in the dark and sweaty, and people assumed it was part of the performance. Then about an hour later, the power kicked in, right during a moment in a performance when it seemed like it should. That night, after, everyone kept saying, 'Please do this again.'"

It should be said that Hill, who grew up north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, is a born ringleader: At summer camp, she was the MC during camp talent shows. At 16, she graduated high school and, before moving to Chicago, spent two years attending circus school, she says, encouraged by her family. Also, her family — her mom is a "kind of dream-interpreter academic," her dad is a retired builder and carpenter and an older brother is a "linguist anarchist vegan" — raised her in a household that follows the Reclaiming tradition, which Hill explains as a Pagan community started by "feminist eco-activists."

In other words: Hill is much more outgoing than the typical cartoonist, an often shy, undemonstrative breed.

"I get a lot of applications now from artists who want to be in Brain Frame," she says, "but for a while, people would say they couldn't perform, so I spent a lot of time explaining the reason the show works is novices."

Needless to say, some of that trepidation might also stem from the not-especially hallowed history of live readings of comics — a format that roughly begins and ends with New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who famously read newspaper funnies daily on the radio during a 1945 strike by the city's newspaper deliverymen. Tinder, who taught comics at SAIC, says: "Comic readings are usually dry, kind of Power-Point style, or projected. And the cartoonist is reading the words and you're reading ahead of them, and because the cartoonist is not great in public to begin with, the form tends to become awkward from its very nature.

"Lyra, though, she's not only encouraging blurring lines between comics and performance, she's creating a third thing — in fact, to the point where a lot of cartoonists in Brain Frame do stories just for the show now."

Adds Niffenegger: "Everything is planned for every show, but then the spirit of the thing kind of takes over."

For instance, at the August edition of Brain Frame, a kind of best-of anniversary show, there was a performance of "The Infinite Corpse," a Chicago-based online collaborative comic that, at forks in the story, asked the audience to use laser pointers (supplied by Hill) to literally point the narrative in new directions. There was a shadow puppet piece from Drake, described as "an ambient exploration of the ocean." There was a Niffenegger-Tinder collaboration using an eyeball projected onto a blank mask. And then there was Hill, who — working with her boyfriend, musician Tyson Torstensen — drew gasps, physical shudders.

Emerging from behind a screen projecting a comic set in a woodsy cabin, Hill was in a black fur suit and goblin mask she had molded using her face. She also stood on four-foot-high stilts hidden beneath the fur leggings. She called the character Llama Man. She was so creepy that a woman standing against the back wall stared at the floor for the entire segment, shaking her head when a man beside her asked if she was OK.

The room was silent.

Afterward, asked why she would want to end such a visceral, unlikely series, Hill said: "There are so many shows in Chicago that have become so long-standing and unsurprising that we take them for granted, and I don't want anyone to take this one for granted. I want people who've never been on stage. I want it strange, and so, as much as I want to drag the comic artist into the light of the day, I never want to be predictable."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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