Despite how integral comics are to modern pop culture, stepping into a comic book store for the first time can still seem like a daunting task — in no small part thanks to the pervasive stereotype that all comic book retailers are unwelcoming and dismissive (see the Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons” or Stuart from “The Big Bang Theory”). But for many young women, who traditionally have not been seen as the target demographic of the comics industry, it's a stereotype that still holds true.
Annie Bulloch is one example of a woman whom traditional comic retailers once tried to reject. Like many modern young comic nerds, she got hooked on comics via an already existing interest in film, having picked up “Daredevil” because director Kevin Smith was writing it at the time. When she felt ready to read more, her first journey to a comic book store was not a particularly welcoming experience.
“I went into one that was not too far from where I lived and as soon as I went in, they looked at me weird and asked if I was looking for something for my boyfriend!” she told Revelist. “Then I started getting the Gatekeeper quiz, where the idea is, I suppose, that you’re supposed to prove you’re a true fan before you’re allowed to ever read any comics.”
Now she co-owns the 8th Dimension Comics and Games with her husband in Houston, where her woman-friendly events have resulted in a 50/50 gender split among her customers. But like all good superheroes, she also has a not-so secret side job — she’s also a member of the Valkyries.
First founded in 2013 by Canadian comic creator Kate Leth, the Valkyries is an online group where women who work in comic book shops can swap stories and strategies, offer advice, recommend new titles to each other, and, most importantly, make connections with other members of their industry. As of June 2016, the group has now grown to over 600 members from all of the world.
“I started it while working in a shop, mostly because I wanted a girl gang, partially because I didn't have many people in the business to talk to who were women,” Leth explained to Revelist. “It actually started to gain momentum pretty quickly — there was a need there that a lot of people didn't realize until it existed. We work in a very unique industry and deal with challenges that other retail spaces don't, and the group began to evolve as more people embraced it.“
Although the group is private and you have to apply to become a member, the Valkyries also has a public face; their Twitter account, which Bulloch manages almost entirely by herself as the group’s social media administrator. Every day she picks a new question to ask the Twitter’s followers, and engages in fun, positive discussions with them about their favorite comics.
From the outside, the Valkyries can seem like a mysterious group with unspecified amounts of power; it’s been suggested that their public interest in certain comics, like the all-girl summer camp series “Lumberjanes” — which garnered so many fans within the Valkyries that many of them decided to wear plaid shirts to work on the first issue’s release date —has actually boosted the sales of these titles.
While it’s true that publishers and creators often send the group previews of their work, as an organization the Valkyries never promise public endorsements, nor do they go out of their way to campaign against comics that are unpopular with their members.
“We encourage people to think for themselves and read what you like,” Bulloch said. “You can’t interpret that as a seal of approval, but there are definitely books and certain creators who consistently put out comics that a lot of the membership really likes.”
There have been a few exceptions, in the case of several of creators who sought out the Valkyries publicly to work with them on projects. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick approached the group for an issue of “Pretty Deadly,” which eventually featured an essay about the Valkyries in the issue’s backmatter and an alternate variant cover by Emma Rios that was available exclusively at Valkyrie-backed stores. Gail Simone did something similar for the release of a variant of “Swords Of Sorrow,” and even commissioned founder Kate Leth to draw the cover.
What happens if a member of Valkyries quits their retail job? For them there’s also Valhalla, which in November 2015 was expanded to include librarians, employees, and other women who work with comics outside of comic book shops. A full-time librarian and lifelong comic fan, group administrator Ivy Noelle Weir was one of the first 20 people to become a Valkyrie before she switched to Valhalla, and told Revelist that the new group opened up comics to a whole new world of readers.
“Most of the people in the group do have experience with comics, but a lot of them in their applications say they’re just starting out,” she said. “A lot of the questions people come to Vahalla with are about programs, ways they can incorporate comics and graphic novels into encouraging literacy in their communities. Getting problem readers to try reading, because it’s not a ‘real’ book, so it’s not scary, right?”
Libraries are also an especially good resource for reaching children and young adults who wouldn’t have access to comics otherwise – in which case, it’s especially important for librarians to know what’s on their shelves. “There are a lot of libraries that have volume 7 of the new ‘Green Lantern’ series, but no other ‘Green Lantern,’” Weir noted. “Or they’ll have ‘Saga,’ but because they don’t know what it is they’ll put in the graphic novel section, which is in the young adult section.“
“Saga,” for the uninitiated, is a book that starts with a naked woman cursing while she gives birth, and gets progressively less family-friendly from there. “I had a great interaction with a parent the other day who said,’ I checked this book out for my 8-year-old because I thought it was a comic book.’ And I was like, it is a comic book,” Weir laughed. “Yeah, that poor 8-year-old got their sex-ed from ‘Saga.’”
In addition to providing a space for retailers to talk shop, the Valkyries have also connected many women who are interested in creating their own comics with one another. It's how Weir met her creative partner, Christina "Steenz" Stewart, who's comic series “Archival Quality” is coming to Oni Press in 2017. (It is, appropriately, about librarians.)
“I think the internet has changed the game in ways I don’t think the comic book industry was necessarily ready for. They weren’t ready for the fact people can have a voice and say no to this and they could collaborate,” she said. “I think we’re going to see more books like [ours] coming from online communities that are focused on diversity and inclusion and it’s going to be exciting to see new comics come out with different perspectives.”
“I think it's a supportive environment, and can be a safe place to experiment and showcase your work. We're all nerds, after all,” said Leth. Although she’s currently writing two ongoing series — “Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat” for Marvel and “Vampirella” for Dynamite Comics — she keeps her career a little more separated from her presence in the group. “I try not to use the Valkyries to my own advantage, aside from sharing previews of my books with them. It's just a bonus when they like what I do.”
While it’s hard to say quantitatively what kind of influence the Valkyries has on comics, the group is certainly already beginning to make its mark. Earlier this year at the annual ComicsPro retail event, Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson directly pointed to the group as a positive influence on the industry:
“There’s a not a publisher in this room that hasn’t benefited from the hard-working support of the Valkyries, of women all over the country enthusiastically handselling comics and graphic novels they read and love.”
Bulloch agreed with Stephenson’s remarks, noting that the Valkyries’ success primarily comes from their enthusiasm for new and diverse kinds of comics. “When you have people who are actually engaged and reading the comics and they care, that makes a big difference in the industry. You can move mountains with that kind of feeling and enthusiasm and caring. If you don’t, the industry stagnates and you don’t get new things at all, and you see the same retreads of the same stuff over and over again.”
“The Valkyries shows that hey, if there’s not a handbook for being a comic book retailer, we’re a group of women who say at least there needs to be a standard for representation, for diversity, and for progressivism and inclusion,” Weir added. “I think even if we’re not directly influencing sales, we are directly influencing people’s thoughts about how they interact with comic books.”
So what’s next for the Valkyries? Hopefully, even more growth — and more diversity among its members, of course.
“I want to see more women of color in the group, but for that to happen, shops need to be hiring them,” Leth admitted. “I'd also like to see it grow, to have more of a presence at conventions, and for all the major publishers to talk with and listen to us.”
Already, their presence at conventions is growing. Last year, Emerald City Comicon invited Leth and some of the group’s other administrators to start their own panel, "Rise Of The Valkyries" (which in 2015 was even moderated by “Pretty Deadly” writer Kelly Sue DeConnick.) Thanks to the tight concentration of Valkyries member who live on the West Coast, ECCC has since become the unofficial con for group meet-ups — at least until they’re able to start their own convention, which sadly isn’t likely to happen anytime soon considering the time and resources such an endeavor would take.
In the meantime, the group is content to keep chugging along and doing what they love: getting comics in the hands of more and more people. This past Saturday (June 25), Valhalla hosted a panel at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida, and members continue to participate in Ladies Nights and comic book events all across the world at their respective shops.
"Other than that, my hopes are simple," Leth explained. "I want to take over the world!"