Bold red lettering and mini Marvel characters run, jump or fight along the sidewalk off North Western Avenue until I reached the main door of Challengers Comics.
Bells softly dinged as I pushed the door open and a “hello” came from someone behind the welcome desk at the front of the store.
The main counter was bright red and displayed pins with designs like Rick and Morty, Marvel and DC logos and a pin that had knuckles with the word “COMICS” written on each digit. Behind the counter was a white wall with almost a hundred hand-drawn illustrations and cartoons from guest artists or children who were regular patrons.
An employee came from around a red shelf and said, “Welcome to Challengers Comics” with a firm and polite voice.
Patrick Brower had a short haircut and a beard that stretched down to his chest. He wore black glasses with a red tint at the top that matched the store’s color palette. He wore black pants, a black vest over a nice white shirt, black nail polish and had “COMICS” tattooed across his knuckles.
So that’s what inspired that one pin, I thought to myself.
Patrick Brower owns Challengers Comics with his business partner and longtime friend W. Dal Bush.
Brower recalled reading comics for as long as he’s been able to read, or at least since his brother first showed him Captain America issues. Brower said Captain America is still his favorite, even though he doesn’t necessarily know why.
Brower attended Northern Illinois University, where he received a degree in illustration and art history, and returned home to find a part-time job after he graduated. He began working at his local comic store, which eventually became a full-time job, and has continued working in comic retail for 28 years.
Brower met a younger W. Dal Bush when they worked together processing comics for three hours a week one summer. Eventually Bush worked his way up to becoming a manager at a different store, quit, and approached Brower about opening their own comic book store.
“When one of your best friends approaches you with a ‘what if,’ how could you not?” said Brower.
Brower and Bush brainstormed about their new business and knew they wanted a theme or visual look that could resonate with their shop. They chose red because it wasn’t really associated with anything at all, but it’s now had a huge impact on their brand and shop.
Traditional views of comic book stores come from the ’90s with slatwall wood across the walls, floor to ceiling product, promo posters everywhere, tight cramped spaces and just piles of junk. Some people love that, Challengers Comics just doesn’t.
“One of our best compliments that someone gave us and didn’t mean it as a compliment was, ‘You’re lacking comic book store funk.’ That’s what we’re trying to do, we’re not trying to have comic book funk,” said Brower.
Bold cherry red lettering welcomes any visitor who stops by, crimson counters with displays of pins, white walls proudly showed off mahogany red-framed printouts that artists had signed. Tall wire shelves with comics were alphabetically organized along the walls; scarlet red shelves in the middle of the floor created easy movement around the building and featured international comics. Faded red carpet like wine wrapped around the main floor towards the all-ages room where there were comfy ruby red lounge chairs under the windows for anyone who wanted to relax, read or hang out for a little bit.
Red is the color visitors mostly see, but what people remember is the warm atmosphere that Brower, Bush and Challengers employees created for every visitor when they came in. Challengers Comics has been awarded with titles celebrated across the nation, such as Best Comics Shop by the Chicago Reader in 2010 and the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award in 2013.
“Winning the Will Eisner Award was a downright honor,” said Kent Raymond, a longtime worker for Challengers Comics. “It’s a legacy award so you can only win it once. It’s the Academy Awards for comics.”
When I spoke with Raymond he mentioned that he was one of the only male employees that worked at the comic book store besides Brower and Bush; everyone else was female.
“We almost never hire anyone who just walks in asking if we’re hiring,” said Bower. “We like to get to know who comes into our shop and who’s working with us.”
Behind the main counter are plastic containers with separation folders and comics in them. Those containers are reserved for regulars who come into the store to purchase specific comic books that come out biweekly or monthly.
A man walked up to the counter and exchanged familiar hellos with Brower and Raymond. As Brower talked, he moved up the sleeves of his shirt and revealed illustrative tattoos up and down his arms. Brower moved over to the plastic containers, flipped through the folders, pulled out several thin comics, rang up the man, stacked the comics together then handed them over. They chit-chatted for a moment more as Brower and Raymond both stood behind the counter with their arms crossed. They laughed along with the man as he told them a story. Afterwards they waved goodbye, and then Brower and Raymond turned back to one another and started a different conversation.
In the winter of 2016, Brower and Bush went into Block 37 after visiting the Christkindlmarket to warm up and do some more shopping for the holidays. They walked around the mall when they came upon an advertisement for Women’s History Month coming up in March.
Brower said his first thoughts were, “Why isn’t there more things like that for comics? Why isn’t there a women’s comic month? Then I immediately thought, No way, there’s going to be and we’re going to do it.”
March 2017 marked the first celebration of women and nonbinary creators who contributed to Challengers Comics. The goal was to have different women or nonbinary creators everyday of the month of March. In that first year, Challengers comics had 23 or 24 artists.
In 2018, two or three creators came in every Saturday or Sunday, which are the busiest days for foot traffic at the store, to give the creators the best platform to showcase their work.
“Because of stuff going on politically and other stuff coming out about women from other entertainment mediums, we thought as two guys who own a comic book store there’s not a huge amount of influence one might have. The thought was that there’s a lot of great women and nonbinary creators in Chicago and why not shine a light or give a platform to their stories,” Bush said.
The first Saturday of March started the celebration off with Isabella Rotman and Rachel Bard. When the store opened at 11 a.m. and there were already people outside the door.
Isabella Rotman is a young woman with hair dyed a relaxed blue and a smile that spread from ear to ear when I interviewed her.
Rotman’s work is split into two avenues: “This Might Hurt” and a series of educational comics. “This Might Hurt” broadens upon feelings and dreamy nature scenes that explore concepts and thoughts about one’s self that expand upon symbolism. Educational comics are designed and distributed with colleges in mind that talk about difficult things like opening up discussion about safe sex, relationship violence intervention or bystander training.
“I started to become the person my friends would go to if they had any questions about birth control and at the time I didn’t know a lot of resources. I was never afraid and always thought sex education is too important to not talk about and that sex should be destigmatize as a conversation topic,” said Rotman.
One of Rotman’s comic books, “You’re so sexy when you’re not transmitting STI’s,” was inspired from a grant during her senior year in college when she was about to graduate.
“You’re so sexy when you’re not transmitting STI’s,” explores conversations around safe sex and pregnancy prevention. A bold addition to this comic book is that there’s usually a condom taped on the back, but that tends to be a pushback when she approached religious universities or colleges.
“I talked to DePaul about handing my comics out and they seemed really progressive! They can’t give out condoms on campus, though, and they didn’t know if they could get the funding for something edgy,” Rotman explained.
“Not on my Watch” is an informational handbook that talks about consent and bystander information on how and when to intervene on something you might think is suspicious, which is also a popular sell for colleges or universities.
“During research for my book, one of the universal and best ways to combat sexual violence is through education and bystander training, but then no one was pretty much telling you how to do that? There’s a lot of research on why bystanders don’t intervene which the websites would talk about, but then websites wouldn’t talk about how to get past that. I wanted to make a handbook that could have a script, smaller things about sexist comments, and educating others,” Rotman said.
A current project Rotman is working on is a full deck of Tarot cards. Rotman said her best of way of learning things is to draw and create images for her to remember lessons. While drawing Tarot cards Rotman makes sure to include diversity and updated fashion while still connecting upon nature.
Tarot cards are in Rotman’s future, but her past was at Women and Nonbinary creators month in 2017. Rotman had a table on a Tuesday last year, which ended up being rainy and didn’t help bring in a lot of foot traffic.
“It was still a lot of fun. I brought stuff to color and got to hang out with Patrick most of the day so it was really cool,” Rotman said.
The tables for the artists were set up off to the side of the store against the wall, and whenever Brower was assisting a customer at the main counter, people could usually hear his voice as it carried throughout the store. When there were slow periods at the store he would walk over, check in, and communicate with the artists about sales and ask about work they’re busy with.
Rotman continues to sell and modify her educational comics accordingly with colleges or universities who are interested in selling them on their campuses. Her biggest advice for anyone who is interested in writing or drawing comics is to continuously practice and start small.
“You’ll look back at that time as a learning experience, and you don’t want to waste this creative idea and energy on a saga while you’re going through learning experiences. Plus, if you start small you’re proving to yourself you can do it. You can do it! You can make the thing. Do that! Starting something on something huge is daunting and that’s not going to aspire you to keep going,” Rotman said.
Rachel Bard is a young woman with brown hair down to her shoulders, relaxed and laughed often, plus was surrounded by watercolor illustrations.
Bard needed encouragement when she first started drawing and writing comics in high school because she felt like she couldn’t finish making them. That would change after she graduated college where she would produce about 1,000 tiny comics in 2017.
“I was always interested in drawing, and got serious around 11 or 12. I drew all the time, and then in college got very into realistic drawing, illustrations and watercolors. After a long time I hit a point where I got too bored, but then wanted to focus on writing and illustrating,” Bard said.
Bard went to CAKE (The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, where comics is spelled with a K just for the acronym) for inspiration. CAKE is a weekend-long celebration of independent comics inspired by Chicago’s legacy as home to many underground and alternative comic artists. Comics are for sale, workshops, exhibitions, panel discussion and more are all dedicated to the community among independent artists, small presses, publishers, and readers.
While Bard was looking around at CAKE, she noticed they weren’t selling what she was looking for specifically. Bard was looking for comics that were interactive and creative.
“I felt like if I don’t do this idea I currently have then no one else is going to and I’m never going to see it,”Bard said of walking around at CAKE. “That mattered more to me than doing something that was easier, cheaper, or was made specifically to sell.”
Bard attended School of the Art Institute in Chicago where she learned how to schedule her own time and follow through on projects successfully. Since she graduated she’s had large gaps in between ideas and projects that actually helped her be more creative in her work.
A comic by Bard titled “Burning Out” is a matchbook with eight pages, and a story inside of it that shows a flame character who’s upset, attempts to push a friend away, but allows themselves to be vulnerable and comfortable expressing their feelings with that friend. This idea originally formed when Bard was in a class in 2016 and tried to find a narrative that would fit and go along with a matchbook. A year later Bard would be getting ready to present at CAKE for the first time, looked back at her assignment that was “Burning Out,” modified it, then brought it to CAKE where it was successful.
“I never realized that Chicago is a huge place for independent comics because in the suburbs this wasn’t a thing until I went to college. I was so blown away by how close this community was, which would be easy to go unnoticed unless you’re surrounded by it,” Bard said.
A tool Bard uses for her comics is a Cricket machine that helps her proportion out and cut her comics into the shapes she wants them to be in. Bard is continuously looking for shapes that will be sustainable and folded correctly.
Since Bard’s comics tend to fit in the palm of someone’s hands, Challengers comics got a separate little plastic container that separated Bard’s comics accordingly and under the “Local Artists’” shelf, where Rotman’s work is also on display.
“Challengers has been so welcoming and enthusiastic about my work, and a lot of more mainstream comic book stores look at my work and go what is this, we don’t know what to do with this, we’re going to lose this, we don’t want to deal with this. I’ve been so blown away by how the owners were so accepting of my work,” Bard said.
A young woman came up to Bard and Rotman after I was done interviewing them and told them she appreciated their work. She was excited to see Bard’s work, and enthusiastic to see Rotman again for this year’s celebrations.
The young woman was Issa Saldana, a frequent visitor at Challengers Comics and a student at SAIC.
Saldana reflected on last year’s celebration and how she heard about it. “Challengers Comics is a pretty popular comic stop and I came in one day and saw that it was Women’s and Nonbinary creators month, which I thought it was a really cool way to meet and get to know Chicago artists,” she said.
This year Saldana heard about the year’s celebration through Brower and Bush, then she looked up some of the artists and wanted to meet and see their work. “From all the comic artists I’ve met, it’s a tight community in Chicago and it’s up there in popularity and growing throughout the city. Hopefully for next year they’re be newer artists for the comic month,” Saldana said.
The following Sunday, Stephanie Mided and Vickie “Vixtopher” Perez-Segovia presented at Challengers Comics along with a Girl Scout troop selling cookies. I bought Samoas and Thin Mints.
Stephanie Mided has bright blue hair and was sketching a figure before I interviewed her.
View this post on Instagram
Inktober day 1 🦇 ( SOLD) IT’S HERE! My self-imposed theme this year is “Spooky boudoir” or BOO-doir 👻So every day I’ll be drawing some sexy sexy monsters! Starting things off with a seductive little vampire 🧛♀️ All drawings will be for sale at 30 dollars each! #inktober #ink #sketch #inktober2018 #vampire #monstergirl #noctart
Mided attended an art high school that structured their curriculum around formal training, such as life drawing or figure drawing that later helped Mided develop a style.
“I always take body type into consideration and when drawing multiple people I try to vary it up and even if it’s different nose shape, jawline, weight, skin tone, hair types. It’s more fun that way because I think what can be that stand out feature on them,” Mided said.
Mided originally attended college at Columbia College Chicago for animation, but would find more interest in storyboarding and the storytelling aspect of drawing. Supportive parents and comic book mentors have encouraged Mided to keep creating stories that represent her style and voice.
“When making comics it can feel like a solo journey — you’re just in your own head writing and drawing and working by yourself so I make it a point to self promote and meet other people and talk more. It’s been really great because it’s made my comic book journey more open and positive,” Mided said.
Mided drew the header artwork for the advertisement on Facebook and mentioned Brower and Bush being supportive and inviting. “This store always has events and different themes with different creators that make it more inclusive in general for women. Families were bringing their little daughters in capes and getting excited about comics, and that wasn’t my reality while growing up.” Mided has been approached by friends saying she has to come out to see the L.A. or New York comic book scene, but reassures with comics you can take them anywhere and Chicago is already a really great scene.
Vickie “Vixtopher” Perez-Segovia loves including Dungeons and Dragons aspects and integrating intersectional feminism into her comic books.
View this post on Instagram
#Inktober DAY 4. The Empress. (I got so caught up in the composition I forgot to include the sword element from the gothic prompt list) . . . #vixtopher #inktober2018 #illustrationccc #illustration #ink #dnd #fantasy #skeleton #bonedevil #fiend #fiendish #devil #tarot #tarotdeck #theempress #spooky #goth #gothic #pawio #projectartworkitoff
Vickie grew up in Chicago but always considered herself an indoor kid with protective parents. Vickie lived in a neighborhood with gang activity outside, but always had plenty of books inside.
“I grew up in a lot of diversity but it wasn’t until I was older that I learned about how segregated Chicago really is. It’s been more of an effort in the last several years that as an adult trying to understand other communities, understanding where my friends come from, their upbringing, and embracing our differences because we have such different upbringings. Yet, we make an effort to emphasize and try to connect with one another, and see things from each other’s perspective,” Vickie said.
Books were a huge influence on Vickie while growing up and remembered seeing illustrations on the covers of the books. Other influences included Steven Universe, Adventure Time, and Dungeons and Dragons. Vickie described her style as a merge of darker concepts with softer styles.
“When my husband and I met each other, we bonded over the exchange of nerdy things with one another. He was into games so he got me into games; I was into comics so I got him into comics. He was playing D and D with his friends, and I started to pick it up. At class I noticed that other [female and nonbinary] classmates were interested in playing but didn’t know who to play with. I have this huge group of people who are non-male who are super into D&D and I want to keep building on that community but there are only so many games I can run,” Vickie said.
Besides running D&D games, Vickie has also been involved with Comics Pencils to Panels, which is a showcase at Columbia College that explores artists’ concepts, process to creation, and a richer understanding of what it takes to produce a comic book, as well as a podcast called “Dangers Untold” following the years after she graduated from Columbia College Chicago.
Vickie emphasized that she wants to leave the idea of being more inclusive. Knowing that people are listening to how she could push people in the right direction is enough for her.
“As we grow as artists our process is super important, especially as female creators, we definitely don’t have enough visibility yet and I think we’re getting there and building towards it and being more proactive, more aggressive, and demanding representation is what’s going to help us. The younger we can get people to do it the more lasting it’s going to be.”
As the door continued to ding as people would come in and out of the store, the atmosphere in Challengers Comics remained warm. People laughing, or having focused conversations about art or plot lines continued throughout the afternoon, and can be found there any day. Learning and seeing part of the community that Brower and Bush have been a part of has been comforting and encouraging. I sometimes imagine the poster that first inspired Brower and Bush to create their own event to celebrate Women’s History Month, but now I and others look forward to the next poster saying who will be celebrated next at Challengers Comics.
Header photo by Lauren Taylor, 14 East.