Beware the Valkyries: Kate Leth On Organizing Women Comic Book Retailers [Interview]
Behind the scenes in comics, there are a number of shadowy groups pulling the strings of the industry... Okay, that's not entirely true, but there is a group that operates behind the scenes and affects the industry, and that group is the Valkyries. The Valkyries is a group of women who work in comics retail that have banded together. They push books that they particularly love, and work with creators, publishers, and fans to sell more comics -- to women especially. But above all, the group functions as a private support network for women in the comics retail business, and offers its members help when confronting some of the more unpleasant dimensions of the comic book business and geek culture as they relate to women.
Started by cartoonist and retailer (and ComicsAlliance contributor!) Kate Leth, the group just hit 300 members total.We chatted with Leth about the group, its purpose, and its plans for the future.
ComicsAlliance: Let’s start at the beginning: how did the Valkyries group come about?
Kate Leth: The Valkyries were an idea that my boss and I came up with when, at the comic shop one day, I mentioned how great it would be if there were a girl gang for women working in comic shops. He told me, reasonably, that the best way to make that happen was to do it myself, so I started a Facebook group with about twelve members. I knew some girls in other shops from traveling, from Tumblr and Twitter, and asked them to pass along the word. Eventually I asked my friend Lissa, who had built my website and now actually works at my comic shop and is a member, to help me make a form for people to apply.
CA: What are the requirements to join?
KL: Just two - that you are a woman and you work in a comic book shop. I'll add to this that we do welcome trans, genderqueer and nonbinary members. Also, some members don't work full-time for a store - we have Valkyries who organize events for their shops, or work for store credit. We try and be inclusive! I think, if you look at the phrase "a woman who works in a comic shop" and you feel it applies to you in one way or another, you're welcome to apply.
CA: As a woman who used to work in a comic shop, many years ago, I'm curious how shop owners feel about the Valkyries. Are many of you shop owners?
KL: No, most members are counter staff or salespeople. It's pretty varied, though. There are owners within the group, but some shop owners have actually declined to join the group so that their employees, who are in it, feel safer to talk more openly. I think that's neat! It really is meant to be a safe space. There are shops where every employee, manager and owner who are eligible are members, and others where only one person has joined. I leave it up to them.
CA: What do Valkyries do if a member feels uncomfortable in the shop they work at?
KL: The girls do talk about things like this, and do try and help each other out. There have been instances where Valkyries have felt unsafe or unwelcome in their shops and ended up quitting, and other Valkyries have helped them find new jobs. That part is pretty fantastic.
CA: On that note, the group seems like a great resource for dealing with issues unique to working in a comic shop - what sorts of things do you talk about and help each other with?
KL: It’s all over the place! From the simplest complaint about rude customers to widespread issues of sexism or discrimination in geek culture, it's a space to vent and find support. Now, the majority of conversations are positive - new comic releases, excitement about cosplay, fangirling over Sex Criminals - but when it comes down to it, it's an incredible support network. I've seen women in the group helping each other move and find new jobs or places to stay while traveling, sourcing out legal assistance, even simple things like tracking down rare back issues.
CA: One thing I think people don't necessarily understand about the Valkyries is that it goes beyond a support network - you actually have an effect on the way shops are run and the ultimate consumer experience. I know that there are a few books the group has specifically supported - can you tell me about what you do when you think a book needs your advocacy?
KL: Sometimes it's that a book might need our support, and other times it's just titles we love. Our first "campaign" was for the Lying Cat t-shirts, from Saga. It happened really organically, because we all realized we had pre-ordered them, and so we decided to wear them on the same day and post photos. It became a way to show the comics world who we were, and what we were about - supporting the titles and creators we love. Saga doesn't need our help, god knows, but we wanted to make a statement on how much we appreciate such an amazing title with a female artist and great, diverse female characters.
When we did Lumberday (we all wore plaid and tweeted photos for Lumberjanes) that was more of a push. The book is indie, and creator-owned, and we wanted people to check it out. That book was extra-special to the Valkyries because of the all-female cast not only in the book, but making it. We all bought those Batgirl boots, too. We wanted to show how excited we were that DC was taking note of and tailoring a title to their younger female audience. Also, those boots rule.
CA: Do you make plans for how to educate customers in the store about these books? Besides the clothes, which people might not necessarily recognize.
KL: Not specifically. We do talk about them, though. With the clothes, it makes more of a statement online when you see all the photos together than it does in the shop. But, on a store level, maybe it gives a customer a reason to ask why we're wearing an item of clothing, and we can bring up the book. It's a fun way to start a conversation!
CA: I’ve long felt that comic shops are part of a major issue in getting new readers into comics. Are there plans for the Valkyries to reach out and find new readership through events or things like that?
KL: Well, on a smaller scale, we really encourage events like book clubs and ladies' nights. Dozens of members only hosted their first similar events after joining the group. We have documents and threads full of how-tos and tips!
CA: That’s awesome! What other sorts of documents and threads to help each other do you have?
KL: We’ve got one for comics and books that members are looking for, one for the online info of Valkyries so we can follow each others' twitters and tumblrs, some threads on recommended comics in different categories (all-ages comics, LGBTQ+ titles and creators, etc), which cons we might be attending... There's a bunch!
CA: Speaking of cons - you do Valkyrie breakfasts at any con where there's a group of you attending, and you often have special guests, correct?
KL: Yeah! I can't even remember when the first one was, but it might've been Emerald City Comicon [in Seattle], because I know Kelly Sue DeConnick was there. She's done maybe a half-dozen of them - ones I'm not even there for. It's awesome. She's been insanely supportive of the group since we told her about it last year at NYCC. Gail Simone has come to at least one, and Babs Tarr! We also had Chip Zdarsky, once. He's an honourary member.
CA: Do you work with creators at all - beyond the breakfasts and general book-selling - in your work as Valkyries? Like, do you ever give creators advice or receive information from them to promote books?
KL: Yeah, we have! We do get advance copies and promos from time to time. We actually have a girl in the group now who manages all of the previews and promotes them when we get them. We've had some creators run things by the Valkyries for feedback, which is really, really cool.
CA: If a creator wanted to do that, how would they go about contacting the group?
KL: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org! We're always on the lookout for things that are lady-friendly, all-ages, and/or feature things like LGBTQ+ and POC representation.
It's neat. There's a Valkyries logo in the background of the first issue of [the new] Batgirl, and members have shown up in the back matter of (at the very least) Sex Criminals, Saga and Rat Queens. Image, specifically, gives us a lot of love.
CA: So your group has pull with creators, publishers, retailers (obviously) and fans. What's next - world domination?
KL: Basically, yes. Haha. My next two major endeavors with the group are thus:
1) We're working on a Valkyries summit, something like a convention to gather as many of us as possible to have an awesome weekend of workshops, discussions and a Josie and the Pussycats slumber party screening. It's a huge undertaking, but it's slowly coming together for 2015.
2) I want to organize an international ladies' night - where all the shops with Valkyries host one on the same night. I think it would be really great way to get the word out even more, and it would be so much fun.
CA: If a reader wants to specifically patronize a shop with a Valkyrie in it, is there a list anywhere of what those shops are?
KL: We’re actually just working on that. We had one before but we've had such a huge influx of new members that we're having to reorganize, and find a way to highlight shops without putting any of the girls specifically at risk (because you and I know the internet). What you CAN do is follow the Tumblr, where we will definitely post all relevant info.
We just put up the shop of Valkyries merch that friends, fans and supporters can buy from, which goes to help fund the summit - thevalkyries.spreadshirt.com.
Publishers are welcome to try and woo us. We love to be wooed. We're powerful! We're the people actually at the counter, selling the comics. Publishers focus on retailers because they buy the stock, but Valkyries are usually dealing directly with customers.
CA: I think that's why so many women in particular have negative feelings about the Direct Market, as some of the people they encounter at the cash register are terrible. It's an important point that the reverse can actually affect sales positively. If there are good, smart, welcoming people at the counter, that changes the interaction drastically. That's something that should be worthwhile for publishers.
KL: We work really hard to be those people. That's why our shop started doing ladies' nights - to show that we were a welcoming space. It's what made me start shopping there, and how I got into comics. I'm just really focused on the idea of geek women empowering each other.
CA: I feel the same!
KL: Things can suck so much and GamerGate is the worst but frig, I got an army 300 strong of women who support each other and geek out about Batgirl together, and that's something.
CA: I’m really glad the Valkyries are out there, making shops safer and more welcoming. And I think things like GamerGate are why we also need groups for women in comics.
KL: We gotta keep print alive, man.
CA: Having a safe space to talk about our experiences - which are unique, truly - is really important. I hope that the retailers that employ the Valkyries appreciate the importance of what you're doing.
KL: I hope so! There was a lot of joking and snide comments I heard about at the beginning, but I think maybe we're taken a little more seriously these days. We're doing something positive!
CA: I don't think the industry can afford to ignore the growing number of female readers or the ways that the old guard can alienate those readers. It's hard to ignore the fact that the Valkyries do have pull on various areas of the industry.
KL: It’s really exciting how many creators and publishers have started addressing us directly and marketing to us.
CA: I don't think they'd be doing that if they weren't seeing actual results from the work you do.
KL: Well, I mean, as a creator or publisher you're reaching 300+ women and their stores, plus whatever their social media pull is.
CA: That is definitely valuable. Especially so for smaller publishers, who probably often feel they're publishing into a vacuum - having the support of the retail frontline can make or break a book.
KL: Exactly. When people send us things, I always say I can't promise it'll do anything, but all it takes is a couple Valkyries checking it out and liking it to make a difference. It means they'll recommend it to customers and get the word out.
CA: Which may not change much for Marvel or DC, ultimately, but if we're talking a couple hundred more copies that is a huge difference for a small publisher.
KL: Yeah! Exactly. As we grow, we become only more of a force to be reckoned with.