By Alyk Russell Kenlan
Two sleeves of superhero tattoos make Patrick Brower, 51, look like a comic book. Twelve years ago, he and co-owner Dal Bush, 41, opened Challengers Comics and Conversation in Bucktown. Then last November, they opened a second store in River North. They also curate a selection for Chicago Board Game Cafe, which opened near Challengers’ first store in February.
Brower’s childhood love of comics inspired him to study art in college. Though he didn’t expect to go into retail, he found his first job after earning a bachelor’s degree in art history and illustration at his local comic shop. He never left the industry. Nearly two decades ago, he started mentoring Bush, who, as a teen, spent three hours a week selling comics with him. Seventeen years later, the friends opened a store of their own. The two wanted to remove the stereotype of their field as “only being for Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons.” Brower recently discussed how they designed Challengers Comics and Conversation to be a welcoming space and a community center.
How did you get into comics?
A brother who’s six years older than I am was reading comics before I was around. Comics have been part of my life since I have memories. It was weird for me to find people who didn’t read comics when I was growing up. I’m like, “How? Weren’t they just in your house?”
After I’d gotten out of school, I was at my local comic shop, and the owner said, “Did we ever talk about you working here?” I’m like, “Do you want me to? I do need a job while I’m trying to build my art career.” That part-time job immediately became a full-time job — and I’ve been in comics retail ever since.
What makes comics special as a medium?
There is nothing that comics can’t do as far as telling a story. There’s an unlimited budget — the special effects are as intricate as the imagination of the creator. There are so many great stories that can only be told in comics. And if you try to adapt it, it would be too hard or wouldn’t make sense, or would lose what makes a comic a comic.
Comics have had the luxury of being on paper for the majority of their life. If you look at the music industry, it went from records to cassette tapes, CDs and then digital MP3s. The music industry has continuously had to reinvent itself. Comics, for the longest time, have just been a paper pamphlet or a hardcover book. It wasn’t until digital comics came out that people thought it might kill the industry. It didn’t, though, and we were never scared of it — because if digitalization gets comics in front of people, that’s a good thing.
How did Challengers come about?
I had worked with Dal for years, and one day he came to me and said, “Do you want to open a store?” I never, ever wanted to own a store. I saw how hard it was and how much work was involved. But when one of your best friends comes to you and says, “Hey, what if…” I don’t want to spend my life regretting not trying it.
What did you want to do differently with Challengers?
There is such a visual idea that people have of basements that are crowded and smelly, and we wanted a bright, well-lit open space.
We realized that a lot of people didn’t know other people who read comics. We want the name “Comics and Conversation” to let people know that they can talk about the really nerdy stuff with us. You don’t have to hide it.
Nowadays, nerd culture is mainstream. “Joker” was up for an Oscar, “Avengers: Endgame” is the highest-grossing film ever, “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse” won Best Animated Film. Has this shift helped your store?
No. The only times that the comics sales have gone up based off of a property were the original Batman movie with Michael Keaton and the first trailer for the “Watchmen” movie.
Comics themselves are what change the nerd perception. Comics can be anything. While the movies increased exposure, it’s the advances within the art form itself that make it more socially acceptable. People use phrases like “geek” and “nerd” as pejorative. Still, you can be a big geek about anything: sports, comics, video games. Look at how many tournaments are being televised on sports networks for video games.
What’s next for you?
Trying to figure out what’s the next trend in comics is ridiculous because you can’t plan it. It happens, and you react. Challengers was a reaction to all the things we wanted to change.
What I want for comics is just more people, more readers. That’s all, just more readers. I believe comics will always be around the same way that record stores are still around.
Who’s your favorite superhero?
A: I love all of them. My favorite superhero has always been Captain America. I can’t tell you why anymore; it’s been inbred with me forever. My brother loves Spiderman so much he named his son Parker.
This interview has been edited and condensed.