The state of comic book retail, 2010: Challengers Comics

I’ve been reading comic books since I was four years old.  That streak was only broken once, during high school, when I thought that by denying my Legion of Super-Heroes impulses, I’d somehow get dates with girls.  I was wrong.  

My teenage separation from comics was short-lived. The second I saw Justice League #1 (DeMatteis/Giffen/Maguire) sitting on a 7-11 spinner rack, I was pulled right back in.

In recent years, my weekly “pull list” has been whittled down to…nothing.  The combination of a toxic economy and the financial responsibilities of being a parent have made it hard to justify a monthly expense that, at its peak, ran between $150-$175.

With weekly comic obligations standing at none, I don’t haunt comic shops the way I used to.  When I do have the itch, I visit Challengers Comics in Bucktown.  I talked with store owner Patrick Brower this week to ask him a few questions about the health of indie comic shops, circa 2010.

JVO: We’ve all heard rumors and whispers that the economy is thawing.  How bad did it get for comic retail, and where are things at now?

PB: Comic books are the “comfort food” of the entertainment industry: Even while everything else is tanking, comics still seem to do okay.  They’re cheap, disposable and can make you feel good about life and yourself pretty quickly.  And once you buy one, you own it; it’s not an experience, it’s a product you can use over and over.  You can read it again and again.  And aren’t you worth $3, even on the shittiest of days?  Sure you are.  Just skip one lousy cup of coffee, and you can have a comic book forever.  Now that people are starting to have some money again, they most want to treat themselves to the things they’ve denied themselves for so long, whatever they may be.  What they’re not, is comics.  People have called comics “recession-proof,” but when the recession is over that’s when the comics industry really starts to feel it.

JVO: What does the advent of the iPad mean for the industry?

PB: I know a lot of people have been waiting for the iPad announcement and what it holds for the future of the printed page.  Rich Johnston ( as already proclaimed it the first nail in the comic book coffin, but I disagree.  First and foremost, all of my tech friends who were anxiously awaiting the announcement were left underwhelmed by the iPad, be it design or lack of function.  In fact, I know only one person who actually has a plan to buy one (JVO note:  Make that two. I can’t wait) That’s down from a good 15 friends who were thinking about it.  Call me old-fashioned, or blame it on me being a paper retailer, but I just don’t see printed comics going away.  I see the digital versions only supplementing the actual, tactile comics.  I’m only going with my personal opinion here, but the majority of comic fans read comics because they want to own comics.  You don’t own a digital copy.  You can’t put a digital copy on your bookshelf.  You’re not going to have the same memories of your “first digital comic,” as you do with real comics.  And if you’ve ever worked with graphics programs, the colors on the screen are never the colors on the page.  I applaud the decision of companies such as Marvel releasing their back catalog in digital format, I just don’t see iPad comics replacing actual comics.

JVO: Are monthly books a dying breed?  Put another way:  Are trade paperbacks taking over?

PB: Remember what I just said about physical comics never disappearing?  I don’t think they will (disappear), but their format is a-changing.  Almost all comics today are written in story arcs which are then collected in larger books called Trade Paperbacks (some people also call them Graphic Novels, but “graphic novel’ usually denotes a story that debuts in the longer, single volume, form, not a collection of previously-published work).  Single issue comics are getting to be too expensive, and if you’ve been buying for a lifetime, where do you keep them all?  Trade Paperbacks are usually cheaper then the issues they collect, square-bound for easy bookshelf display, and contain “DVD extras” not found in the monthly comics.  And with most writers writing for the (entire) story, (as opposed to) the single issue, parts three, four and five of a seven-part story are usually pretty uneventful when read as pieces.  One of the most prominent writers in the industry today, Brian Michael Bendis, writes solid, entertaining stories that read great when collected, but are boring when read one at a time.  Sure, there are still people like Robert Kirkman that master the single-issue cliffhanger, but even his stories are told in six-issue arcs.  And simply looking at the sales, trade paperbacks beat single issues, hands down.

JVO: What are the top titles for you now?

PB: The immediate comic market is dominated by events and tie-ins to those events.  “Blackest Night,” DC Comics’ story of the emotional spectrum of the DC Universe against all that is dead and resurrected, is still a huge seller as are all of its sister books.  Not to be outdone, Marvel is ending its eight years of “grim and gritty” with “Siege,” which promises a return to the “Heroic Age” of Marvel Comics.  The core three Avengers characters, Thor, Iron Man and Captain America, have all recently undergone major changes and hurdles, getting them to a place where they all can be on a team together and have people care…the biggest events of the summer look to be the reforming of the Avengers–along with the Secret Avengers and the New Avengers, two of which are normal Avengers, as well–and the immediate sequel to Blackest Night, “Brightest Day.”

JVO: For someone walking into a comic book shop for his or her first time, what title would you recommend?

PB: I often get asked what I would recommend to someone coming into the store for the first time, but I have to say there’s no one easy answer.  Anyone who has a set answer is doing that potential comic fan a disservice.  The best way to answer that question is on an individual basis and that entails asking questions of your own.  Usually I’ll ask what episodic television they watch, and that’s a great guide as to what they might like in comics.  Into Lost? Try “Y The Last Man.” Crazy about Gossip Girl? Here’s “Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane.”  And on.  People looking for a straightforward super-hero book, I’d say “Invincible.”  Have kids who are reluctant readers?  We’ve had great success getting kids interested in books such as “Amulet” or “Jellaby.”  And you’ll notice I’m not giving descriptions of each book here.  That’s better done in person. This always reminds me of a great story we were told by one of our regulars.  He was on a trip to San Francisco; and, as we all seem to do, he checked out a local shop.  He asked the owner to recommend something out of the ordinary.  Without missing a beat, the store owner started rattling off a list of titles, but our guy felt like it was a generic list that he gives to everyone.  He never asked what (our guy) liked or didn’t like, and when (our guy) said, “Oh, I have that book but I didn’t like it” the owner just said, “Well, it’s not for everyone,” and moved on the the next book on his mental list.  I’m not saying what that store owner did was wrong, but you just can’t recommend the same books to everyone.

JVO: Iron Man 2 and comic movies in general:  Do they help bring in business?

PB: Did you see Iron Man?  Pretty sweet, right?  Do you want to see Iron Man 2?  Sure you do.  Do you want to read an Iron Man comic book?  Well don’t feel too bad about saying “no” because you are not alone.  Batman and Batman Returns brought a tremendous amount of new readers into comic book stores.  Thousands and thousands.  Pretty great, right?  Well that was almost the only time the comics market saw that kind of an influx.  I could list for you a dozen movies you saw that were originally comic books and while you’d say, “I didn’t know that was comic book!” you still wouldn’t want to read it.  That’s just the way it works.  Here are a few: A History of Violence, Surrogates, Road to Perdition, Men in Black, Art School Confidential, 300, Persepolis, From Hell, Constantine, Whiteout.  And there are many, many more.  More every day.  But a hot comic book property does not translate into comic book sales for the same character.  “Iron Man” (comic) sales did not go up when Iron Man (the movie) came out.  Toy sales did, sure–I even bought some Iron Man action figures for myself–but the comics did not.  Part of the reason may be that there was no comic out that looked or read like the movie, but a bigger part of that is that people just don’t care.  Which is too bad, because the current storyline for “Invincible Iron Man” is amazing.

JVO: How competitive is the Chicago market?

PB:  Challengers has been open for just about two years, and before that I served my time at other stores for 17+ years.  So I’ve been a full-time comic book retailer since 1990.  In that time the market grew, grew, grew, saw heights it hadn’t seen since the 1940’s, and then crashed.  Hard. At one point, there were almost 7,000 comic book stores in the country.  Now there’s not even 3,000.  And it feels like most of that 3,000 are right here in Chicago;  Chicago has a very large number of comic book stores.  In 2008, four new stores opened in the city alone. In 2009, at least 1 more.  And it’s been years since a store closed in the city.  The one-time comic store Kings of Chicago, Joe Sarno (Comic Kingdom), Larry Charet (Larry’s) and Gary Colabuono (Moondogs) have all moved on, leaving Chicago Comics as the comic book store people in the industry associate most with Chicago, but there are plenty more.  Some are dank, dingy and remind you of your Mom’s basement after a flood.  Some are packed so tight with stuff that you get claustrophobic.  Some are more card and gaming stores than comic stores.  And then some are open, airy, bright and comfortable.  Just as every neighborhood of Chicago has its own personality, so does every comic book store.  And I bet you can find a store and a comic you like.  Hell, I challenge you to. 

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