Rise of the Valkyrie
Kate Leth talks women in comics and fake geek girl phobia
9:00AM, Mon. May 26, 2014
Comic readers exploded in fury this week when podcaster Craig Mazin called She-Hulk "Slut-Hulk." The good thing is that he was quickly called out for it. The bad thing? That he even thought to say it in the first place. That's the kind of casual sexism that pervades the medium that Kate Leth loves.
Leth works both sides of the comics industry. As the writer/artist for web strip Kate Or Die, and a contributor to Adventure Time comics for KaBOOM! and Bravest Warriors for Boom! Studios, she's a comics creator. But she also knows the retail side, working at Strange Adventures in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
It's her experiences behind the counter that lead her to found the Valkyries, an international assemblage of women working in comic stores. Leth, as founder, is their Brünnhilde of sorts, but their shared purpose is to show that comics really are for everyone, and that readers (and the industry) need to accept and embrace that. Part of that comes from raising the profile of all members, like through the Valkyrie of the Fortnight column at Austin-based geek web site weird-girls.com (read more about them in this week's cover story, Girls Gone Geek.)
Leth took a break from her busy schedule to talk about role of the Valkyries in battling sexism and changing minds in the industry, the importance of being seen, and the insidious ailment that is fake geek girl phobia.
Austin Chronicle: What were the origins of the Valkyries, and what was the original aim of creating the group?
Kate Leth: The Valkyries were created out of a bit of a selfish desire – I wanted a girl gang. I saw a number of groups and forums dedicated to specific kinds of readers or retailers, but nothing like what I had in mind. I wanted a place where girls and women working in comic shops could talk openly, to discuss the business and the medium in a safe space.
AC: How much was it about tapping into an existing community – or even just giving it a name – and how much was it about bringing a community together?
KL: It was a bit of both. Some girls who join the group are the only ones in their town, some work for massive shops employing dozens of women. Some Valkyries were already running ladies' book clubs, others had trouble even convincing their bosses to stock girl-friendly titles. It definitely forged a community, a sense of not being alone. It's become empowering for a lot of us, myself entirely included. There's power in numbers.
AC: I've talked to Danni Danger about Weird Girls, and how the site has publicized the Valkyries as individuals and as a community. How important is it to just be seen?
KL: Very. I want the Valkyries to be known. I want publishers and creators to be aware of a massive network of women in the business, not just as fans but as the ones on the front line, selling and ordering the comics. I want fans to see us support a new title or speak up against an issue as a whole. The Valkyries talk, we share, we're on top of announcements and news in geek culture. Announce a great creative team or do something incredibly sexist; either way, your move is seen by over 200 women who have power over how your books sell. I think that's important.
AC: Do you see the Valkyries as being simply a way for women in the industry to connect, or is there a more pro-active component to this?
KL: There are so many elements to it. We have a couch-surfing network for women traveling to different cities. We organize meetups at conventions with female creators (and occasionally Chip Zdarsky.) We have want lists, for girls looking to find variant issues or specific titles other shops might have. We like to organize events, like when we all wore our Lying Cat shirts or all wore plaid for the release of Lumberjanes. It keeps expanding, and it's always exciting.
AC: The Valkyries are international now: Are you seeing more similarities or diversity as the membership expands?
KL: It's diversifying, and I hope it continues to do so. It's still mostly North American shops, but I hope for it to ripple out and spread further. We have members in Australia and the UK, and we're always adding new people!
AC: What's been the impact of the Valkyries, and what would you like the impact to be?
KL: I think the impact is in the visibility. It's a strange and tumultuous time for women in comics; sexism is being talked about more openly, but only because the sexism is so rampant. I would like the Valkyries to change the way comics are marketed, to show that acting like the only audience you need to reach is white men in their forties is absurd. I would love for publishers to start unabashedly marketing to women. It does happen – we have Loki, Agent of Asgard, after all – but there's room for so much more.
AC: You're a published comic creator yourself, both through your website and through publishers like KaBOOM. How has straddling that line influenced your view of both the publishing and retail side of the industry?
KL: It gives me a more well-rounded view, I think. At the very least, I see a whole bunch of sides – how comics are made, how they're purchased, how they're promoted. I see how comics are sold and what sells, which influences (and, I think, helps) how I write and discuss comics.
AC: There's been a lot of discussion about the term 'fake geek girl.' Clearly, there're issues of misogyny in many historically male-dominated areas. What do you think the roots of these gender issues are in comic culture, and are there any that are specific to this field?
KL: The roots are deep, just as they are in most industries. Comics, as a business, was not started by women. I can't speak for everyone or for the history of the industry, but it's always been an issue in one way for another. The idea of the "fake geek girl" seems particular to geek culture – that a woman is somehow damaging fan culture by being casually interested in something, and isn't welcome unless she's entirely obsessed with it. Can't name every character in the Star Wars universe? You're not a real Star Wars fan. I hate that idea. I don't know everything about Adventure Time or Bravest Warriors, and I write them for a living. I think comics should be welcoming, but there's a long way to go.
Find out more about the Valkyries at www.bewarethevalkyries.com.
You can also find more of Leth's comics at www.kateordiecomics.com.
Also, read about the Weird Girls in this week's feature, Girls Gone Geek.