Patrick Brower, along with his partner W. Dal Bush, opened Challengers Comics + Conversation nearly a decade ago in the ultra-competitive Chicago market. Their unending focus, creativity and love of the medium has not only allowed them to survive, but to thrive as a shining example of retail done right. We’ve had the privilege to know Patrick and Dal since they opened their store (thanks in large part to our old co-host Christopher Neseman), and it was high time I sat down with Patrick to hear his thoughts on the state of comics retail and what the future holds for the Challengers family.
Patrick, thanks for taking the time to chat today, sir. It’s been awhile since we’ve had the good fortune to see each other.
Too long, Jason; too long.
I remember when your store first opened, nearly ten years ago. You were stepping into a market (Chicago) with plenty of established competition, yet you and your partner Dal had the vision to build something unique. For those who aren’t lucky enough to have visited your store, tell them about that vision.
Well, here’s the ‘official’ About Us paragraph we’ve been using for the last few years:
“Challengers Comics + Conversation strives to prove that the best thing about being in a comic book store, is being in a comic book store. With a combined 50+ years of comic retail experience, owners Patrick Brower and W. Dal Bush endeavor to bring Chicago a full-service, technologically interactive comic store that has the same level of wonder and enjoyment as the comics they sell. And read. And talk about. And champion.”
Dal and I both spent many years working for other people in what you could call classic 90’s comic shops, but we really thought there was a better way to reach the comic fans of TODAY and, hopefully, TOMORROW, rather than yesterday. We never saw it as unique or progressive; we saw it as building the kind of store that we wanted to shop. Luckily for us, other people want to shop here, too. Our vision is simply a comic book store. New comics and graphic novels. And we don’t mark things up. Any back issues we have are 99¢. Any variant covers we qualify for go on the shelf for cover price.
Nearly ten years later, how has that vision changed, if at all?
I don’t think our goals for Challengers have changed since we opened back in 2008: provide a comics-first retail experience, and keep providing it for as long as our neighborhood wants us to do so. While we do offer some non-comics merchandise (a small selection of action figures, some Challengers-exclusive prints, a 2′ section of Magic cards), our passion and expertise have always been comics and graphic novels. We love the medium of comics, and we love being able to share that with other comics fans.
Challengers won the Eisner “Spirit of Comics” Retailer aware in 2013 after several years as a nominee. What did that recognition mean to you guys, and has it has any impact on the business beyond the affirmation of a job well done?
We’ve been very luck on the awards front. We’ve won many “Best Of” awards in Chicago:
• “Best Place to Buy Comics Minus the Comic Book Guy” (Chicago Reader, Jun 13)
• “Best Comic Book Shop” (New City, Nov 12)
• “Best Comics Shop” (Chicago Reader, Jun 10)
• “Best New Comic Book Store” (Chicago Magazine, Aug 09)
…and we’ve won a staggering 5 Diamond Best Practices Awards from our distributor, Diamond Comics, and those are great because they’re voted on by other retailers. But the Eisner, man, it’s a freaking Eisner Award. Dal and I are not creators, so we’ll never have a chance to win another one. The “Spirit of Comics” award means the world to us because it’s international and it’s THE award in the comics industry. It was great being a finalist three times; hell, just being nominated is pretty great. But to receive the actual award is the highlight of our career. It justifies everything we’ve done. And we have such a great photo of Ashly Challenger up on the Eisner stage, accepting our award in San Diego. That said, no, it doesn’t bring a cent of extra business into the store, as far as we can tell. But it means the world to me to receive it. For a full year after that, we stole CM Punk’s “Best in the World” catchphrase and even put it on t-shirts.
Although the industry appears to be on relatively solid ground as we look at overall sales numbers, I still think there’s a secular concern that relates to building and sustaining new readers. I might argue both DC and Marvel recently threw in the towel on seeking new readers to placate the old-timers. That may help sales in the short term, but I hate what it says about the industry’s health in the long-term. Thoughts? Agree or disagree?
Honestly, I don’t think most publishers know HOW to bring new readers into comics. The majority of modern day comic creators are lifelong fans, people like you and I that have been reading comics for a very long time, so they cater to what they know. And what they know is the lifelong fan. The once-in-a-decade success of Saga brought in tons of new readers, adults who never read a comic before. Those readers quickly spread to other Image series (Sex Criminals, Wicked + Divine, Bitch Planet) and back into classics that are new to them (Y: The Last Man, Sandman, Preacher), but that was 5 years ago and it seems like more people have stopped reading comics recently than have started. Simultaneously, the Kids and Young Adult markets are bringing in younger readers (the Amulet series, the Bone series, anything a publisher can put Raina Telgemeier’s name on) but transitioning them to the monthly periodical format is hard to do. Books like Lumberjanes, Ms. Marvel and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl have the ability to connect with those readers, but it takes time and effort, and trust, and it’s hard for a lot of shops to cultivate those elements. We’d never intended to be a “Marvel and DC” store, and the breadth of great books currently being published has made serving diverse markets easier than ever.
As comics fans, we both KNOW that the medium could and would and should be loved by a much broader audience. IF ONLY WE COULD GET THEM TO TRY. It seems you and Dal have done a great job in getting new readers to try new things. What’s your secret? And can we bottle it up and dispense it to other retailers?
What works for us is our own passion for the books we sell. We push what we really like, you know? I was on a panel recently at the Diamond Retailer Summit, “What Can Comic Shops Learn from Bookstores” and I was talking about this very subject, and a retailer in the audience said, “I don’t have the time to read all this crap.” I feel like that, right there, is our ‘secret.’ We believe in the product we sell. Sometimes I feel like we’ve burned through all our personal capital, specifically when we rave about a book, and our sales numbers don’t show it. .
Recently I was championing Image’s Green Valley. It’s a very well done book that I enjoy immensely, even though I have no affinity for Max Landis as a filmmaker. In spite of my love for this comic, and after hyping it for two months before it came out, and upping our numbers after reading the preview, we had a total of nine people subscribe to the book. Nine. But I get it; you can’t buy EVERY book that Dal and I love… I just wish it felt like we had more of an impact. Anyway, the point is knowing the product.
Although we might be getting a bit into the weeds, as one of the retailers I respect the most, I’ve been meaning to ask you for a long time if you could speak to the sales tricks being employed by publishers – things like incentive variants, over-shipping, making certain books returnable. How does each of those impact YOUR (meaning retailers) businesses?
These sales tricks or incentives impact our business as much as we allow them to, or not allow them to. At Challengers we just don’t care about variants or multiple covers. Many DC Rebirth books have two covers; we only stock one. I kind of hate it when people buy multiple copies (we limit to 2 of any given book in its first week of release) or multiple covers. I’d rather that extra $3-$4 go to buying a different book. To this day, having different covers for the same book still confuses people. And as for incentive variants, I hate them. Most stores immediately jack up the price on those covers because they are harder to get, but that turns it from a comic to a commodity, and that’s not for us. We want you to READ the comics you buy. Sure, it’s none of my business what you do with your comics, but I didn’t set out to sell collectibles.
Overshipping? Fine. We save those books up and give them away. Returnability? That’s great, but we’re not going to jump through hoops to qualify for it. However, I can say that offering returnability of a new title does get us to order larger quantities. Rebirth is a perfect example of that, and when we found out that people only really cared about trying everything in the first month (as opposed to the first issue of every title in the slow roll out), we were happy to have the ability to return books. That helped us to learn our average (baseline) DC numbers without having to pay for our learning. I saw retailers that had returns over a foot in height (think of all those stripped covers piled up and how many books that must be!) but our returns were a few hundred dollars for the first round halving each consecutive round. You can argue that we had all that money tied up in those books when it could have been better served elsewhere, but it’s worth it to me to find our ideal sales levels without getting stuck with books we’ll never sell.
A lot of comic stores have diversified into other areas, such as card games or video games, or pop culture tchotchkes and toys. Many argue they wouldn’t survive without the added revenue streams. Challengers has taken a different approach –why has your focus on comics worked so well, whereas it’s considered a risky proposition to so many others?
For what some have charitably referred to as our “successes,” most of that comes from paying attention to our customers. We’ve changed the emphasis on certain publishers, expanded our spotlight on certain creators, designed events around certain properties, all because we’d seen the response from our customers in the months and years prior. If someone comes in and asks for a graphic novel we don’t stock, that’s a book we’re going to order for our shelves immediately. If people are excited about an upcoming release, we’ll try and work out an event with that book’s creator. A comic shop isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept; it has to change and grow alongside its community. We opened a comics shop to sell comics. We love comics and actively consume them. We don’t play any card games or role-playing games, and to me, selling those things would be disingenuous. If I can’t answer questions about, say, Settlers of Catan, then I shouldn’t be selling Settlers of Catan, you know? The comics industry isn’t the most financially stable industry, and we’re not at a point where things are comfortable. There are a lot of shops in Chicago, and opting out of the high margin variant covers/vintage comics/collectibles markets makes week-to-week survival never a guarantee. That said, we’re still here, and it’s still fun to talk to folks about what they’re enjoying, and to get to recommend great new comics. It’s something we plan on doing as long as the market will let us.
Are you and Dal collectors? Meaning, do you keep your own collections elsewhere or has the store become your collection? Do you collect other things? Art? Vinyl? Movies?
You got it right—the store is our collection. I mean, I still have 96 long boxes in a storage unit, but those are slowly working their way into Challengers. Both Dal and I used to have decent original comic art collections (I had several Hellblazer covers), but we wound up selling most of them off when we needed money for Challengers. And while I do have a bunch of action figures, I don’t really collect them, I just buy what I want and yes, play with them. I also sold all my vinyl a few years back, but then I got a record player for Christmas so I have been slowly rebuilding my library (mainly thanks to my brother). Dal, however, has a pretty extensive Transformers action figure collection. Those he collects.
From your vantage, if you suddenly were imbued with the Power Cosmic, what are the one or two things you would instantly change about the industry?
Yes! Ultimate power!!
#1 — I would remove the attitude that ‘comics are just for kids.’ Comics are SO very well-respected in so many other countries and cultures, yet here in America, their birthplace, they are constantly disrespected. I would remove that stigma. Openly reading comics on the train or bus would be celebrated!
#2 — I would put spinner racks back in all drug stores and grocery stores. On the larger scale that would require bringing back the newsstand market, but I’d have the Power Cosmic, so it would be easy and not at all a logistical nightmare. Ultimately I guess I would just make comics readily available to the masses. And no, I do not think that would hurt comic stores. I think that would HELP comic stores.
While you are 100% right about comics not being just for kids, one might argue kids are underserved by today’s direct market. Yet, you all have an adjacent space called Sidekicks that caters to kids and YA readers. How is Sidekicks going and has it become a known destination for parents looking to expose their kids to comics?
Sidekicks is great! While I miss our comic art gallery (what was in that space before Sidekicks), Sidekicks is 100% what that space SHOULD be used for. We have a subtitle for it on the signage, “A Place For Young Challengers”, and that’s how we think of Sidekicks. It’s a smaller version of Challengers, and it hopefully creates a space where younger readers (and their parents) can feel comfortable. It is 400 square feet of all-ages awesomeness, and watching kids walk into Challengers and immediately turn left to go into Sidekicks is pretty great. People are still finding it every day, but the really fun part is that kids don’t know that most comic stores don’t necessarily cater to them, so there is no reason they should be surprised that Sidekicks exists. If we’re the only comics shop they know, they why wouldn’t stores have a dedicated kids section, you know?
You’ve maintained for a long time that digital comics are not a threat to print retailers. Do you still believe that? Do you get a sense that digital is acting as a feeder for new readers and some of them are transitioning to buyers of the physical product?
You know, I have always wanted sales data for digital comics. Not numbers so much as demographics. WHERE are these books selling? In rural areas where readers may not have access to stores? Or in major metropolitan areas? But yes, I still believe that digital comic sales are not a threat to print retailers. I don’t have the numbers handy, but print sales were up in 2016 and digital sales were significantly down in the same year. Not like 50%, but at least down double digits, and that’s a big deal. I certainly know digital is not for me. I mean, I do read a significant amount of digital comics, but mainly as previews from publishers for ordering purposes. Oni Press is one of the few companies that still sends us printed preview books, and when I get one I drop everything to read it because I much prefer holding a printed comic, reading a printed comic, but I’ll read comics digitally when I need to.
And yes to the other part of your question. I believe digital comics are a good feeder system and that some of the digital readers do transition to hard copies. It may not be that way in the future. If today’s kids are introduced to comics as a specifically digital medium, then that is how they will continue. This is not new information, but I’ve always looked at the recording industry as a comparison. The transition from records to 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs to mini-discs to MP3s to streaming services and beyond. Comics only had to deal with the transition from print to digital, and we didn’t lose the previous format when the new one came around, but I think it’s because we only had the one format for so long that it’s lasted.
You and Dal host a weekly podcast, Contest of Challengers, which I enjoy. Recently you addressed the brouhaha about diversity in comics and the misconceptions therein. Could you share those ideas with our readers, as I thought you had an interesting perspective?
Aw, thanks for the kind words about Contest of Challengers! I can’t believe we’ve been doing it since August of 2009. I think you know a little something about podcast longevity!! Anyway, I grew up reading comics in the 1970’s and 1980’s. I was a middle-class white male living in the suburbs. Almost every hero I read about was a white male. If they weren’t, they were either an alien or from some other dimension or something. My grade school and junior high had several Asian kids and a few black kids. Comics at that time had a few Asian characters and a few black characters. The percentages matched what I had in my life, so it never seemed odd to me. I certainly never felt under-represented in comics. As I got older and my world grew, so did the variety of people I interacted with. And now (so many years later), my personal world is filled with all kinds of people. All races and religions and genders and identities. And comics should absolutely reflect that. Because that’s the world we live in. Not just me; you, and everyone else. This is not diversity or inclusion; this is reality. Comics are not attempting to reach specific minorities – they are FINALLY looking out their own window and seeing what’s out there. And for the life of me, I don’t see why anyone could ever possibly have a problem with that.
What can publishers be doing better to get their books into more stores? Speaking about everyone not named Marvel and DC, of course.
Brother!!! That is an awesome question. At the ComicsPRO annual meeting in Memphis this year, the number one question asked to ALL publishers, when discussing proposed new comics (and man, oh man, were there a LOT of new comics announced) was: Who is this book for and how do YOU plan to reach that audience? Each publisher should have a specific marketing plan for each book. You can’t just put it out there and hope it sells, and you can’t expect the retailers to do all the selling. Tell us who it’s for, specifically (ages, fans of other books, etc.). Give us an elevator pitch (this property + this concept = my new comic). Let us read full-issue PDFs before we have to order! And have a plan for how to engage that audience. Don’t just say, “this book is for fans of Hellboy” and expect that to work. We’re ALL looking for new ways to market to existing fans and, more importantly, NEW fans. Tell us YOUR plan, and we’ll work with you.
Ten years from now…Patrick and Dal are: A) celebrating 20 years of success at Challengers, B) managing multiple storefronts across Chicago, C) reminiscing about their days running a great LCS in quiet retirement?
A few years ago I said that I was going to retire from selling comics in April of 2018. Not that Challengers would be going away, just that I would. My reasoning was that at that point I would have been a full-time comic book retailer since August 1990, so I’ll be at the 27 ½ year mark, and I would question my ability remain the guy to tell you what’s new and good and exciting. Why should the 22-year old comic fan listen to my tastes or opinion? At what point do I stop being looked at as someone who can still tell you what’s cool? So that was going to be my retirement. Only, comics right now are better than ever, and I get MORE excited each month! I mean, have you seen the preview pages for Mister Miracle?
That book is going to be AMAZING! And I realize I can’t possibly miss out on things like that, and if comics can still get me this excited, there’s no way I can leave. So, to answer your question, A + B. Dal has always wanted multiple storefronts, and we have a neat way to designate them if that happens (that I will not tell you now, sorry), so we’ll see. I always said when we can afford to open the second store we won’t need to open a second store, but it really isn’t about “need.”
In terms of running your store optimally, how have you leveraged analytics to create efficiency? Do you constantly analyze sales data by different factors (e.g., publisher, genre, price point) and do you think smarter analysis leads to sustainable competitive advantage?
Let me tell you about the timing of this conversation…We just completely rearranged our comic shelves. For the first time ever we have condensed everything into a straight alphabetical structure, giving each title only 1 space, and we now have a dedicated “New Release” wall. This is not a groundbreaking plan; probably half of the comic shops in the world have a “New Release”wall or table, but it’s new for us. Our single issues are basically at the point where 90% of their sales come in the first week. Up until now we gave each title 2-4 spaces. Now they get one. We can no longer justify giving, say, Green Arrow three spaces when after the first week no one looks for anything older than the new issue. We still have those issues; they’re just not spread out. And doing this should make it a LOT easier for people to find titles. So many regular readers don’t necessarily know who publishes the comics they read. And we’ve taken all the space we’ve freed up and used it for more all-ages graphic novels for Sidekicks. So yes, we do use analytics regularly to maximize our selling space. Every store is different but it’s extremely important to know what is working and what is NOT working, and to adjust accordingly.
As a fellow wrestling mark, here’s the most important question of the day…most likely to be WWE Champ in a year: Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura or Finn Balor?
Interesting. I want to say Finn, but the WWE machine is intent on making Nakamura a huge star. However, Joe has been in to buy comics at Challengers, so I’m going to say, Samoa Joe! He specifically bought Kaijumax because he overheard me pitching it to someone else and liked the concept. However, I have not had the chance to follow up with him about it, but of course, I assume he loved it.
You heard it here first! I love all three guys so as long as they’re all involved in big programs, I’m a happy mark.
Do you have any events upcoming at the store we can tell our Chicago-based readers about?
Oh man, do we!! Our summer is full of wonderful, different events!
- June 1 (Thursday, 6pm): The Rick and Morty Rickmobile is stopping at Challengers!
- June 3 (Saturday, 11am): Wonder Woman Day featuring Jenny Frison, Stephanie Mided and Ali Cantarella
- June 10 (Saturday, 1pm): “Tethered” graphic novel signing with creator David Precht
- June 22 (Thursday, 3pm): All-Ages signing with “Pix” creator Gregg Schigiel (and more TBA)
- June 24 (Saturday, 11am): “Voracious: Feeding Time” Signing with Markisan Naso and Jason Muhr
- June 22-26 (Thursday-Monday): We’ll also be set up at ALA Chicago (American Library Association) hosting a slate of European creators
- June 30 (Friday): “Chronicles of Fortune” Q&A/Signing with Coco Picard (and others)
- July 21 (Friday): “Curse Words” Van Tour with Charles Soule and Ryan Browne (our 2nd van tour of the summer!)
- August 26 (Saturday): Jack Kirby’s 100th Birthday Art Jam
- August 30 (Wednesday): “No Plan B” Art of Michael Avon Oeming Release Signing with John Siuntres.
I should have expected nothing less from you guys! It’s been great catching up with you, my friend. Hopefully we’ll get to spend some time together at C2E2 in 2018, if not before. In the meantime, anyone in the Chicago area (even if you’re just visiting), be sure to stop by Challengers and partake in one of the best examples of comics retailing I’ve had to good fortune to experience.