One of the first panels to kick Emerald City Comicon filled its entire room, the walls lined with fans excited to see some of the coolest women in comics -- your local comic book shop Valkyries. "We are here to disassemble the patriarchy," moderator Kelly Sue DeConnick began, addressing the audience as they settled into place. "We're gonna get that taken care of by the end of the day. I don't know what we're gonna do tomorrow."
"Pizza!" shouted an audience member.
The Valkyries were founded three years ago by former comic store employee turned creator, Kate Leth. She was joined on panel by fellow Valkyries Annie Bulloch, Heather Harris McFarlane, Ivy Weir, Juliette Capra and Heather Knight.
For the uninitiated, the Valkyries are an exclusively female and non-gender binary group of comic store owners and employees. They focus on supporting one another as they navigate the challenging world of retail, sharing best practices, friendship and support. DeConnick, who moderated the panel, asked all of the Valkyries in the room to stand up. "These women are powerful," she exclaimed as the room filled with cheers.
Leth began by sharing how she founded the group. "I had worked at a comic book store in Canada called Strange Adventures, and was one of the only women working there," she explained. Leth wanted an outlet to talk to other professional women about comics and geek culture, but hadn't been able to establish a local community, so she started a Facebook group with around twelve members. Now, the Valkyries number over four hundred.
Capra and Knight have been in the Valkyries for four years. "We were members 10 and 11, I think," Capra said. Capra and Knight, co-workers at Fantastic Comics in Berkeley, California, are also the stars of a "Sex Criminals" meme that became known as "Brimpception."
Weir was formerly a shop employee in Wilmington, Delaware and is now a full-time Teen Services public librarian. Weir is an administrator for Valhalla, a sub-community for Valkyries that have moved on from their retail jobs but want to remain part of the conversations. McFarlane manages the Comics Stop, and Annie Bulloch one of the owners of 8th Dimension Comics and Games in Texas and is the social media manager for the Valkyries.
"We want to try to keep this as positive as possible," DeConnick said as she set some ground rules. "Everyone enjoys a good bitch fest, and I swear to God, no one enjoys it more than me. But what we are going to focus on here is the power of the organization, the ways you can use this network and the ways you might like to see this network expand."
DeConnick transitioned into asking Leth how the Valkyries had already expanded globally.
"Primarily when it started it was in the states," Leth explained. In the beginning, she'd reached out to people through Tumblr and Twitter, and then people in the community became part of the conversation and the word spread. While the majority of the members are still in the United States, there are Valkyries in Australia, Europe, Japan and New Zealand.
One of the most impactful things Valkyries used their network for was establishing ways to engage more strongly with their female customers -- women that hadn't felt welcome in comic book stores, or who hadn't found other women to connect with. How many of the panelists have a ladies' night in their shops for a book club or gaming?
All panelists raised their hand. Harris McFarlane explained, "We had a lot of female customers coming in sporadically and we were hearing them say the same thing over and over again -- we never have a chance to talk about comics." Harris McFarlane expands the spirit of community by hosting a Facebook group for customers who aren't able to attend the events. Her store's events are themed, with the coolest one being a BioWare sponsored event in November, where her shop was sent a copy of "Mass Effect 3" signed by all of the female developers that had worked on it.
Speaking of gaming, DeConnick shared that fellow comics writer Greg Rucka is her dungeon master.
"I played my first role playing game at 43, and I'm 44. If you're going to start late, drop the fucking mic." she said. When she was in high school, she'd longed to join a Dungeons and Dragons group but was denied admission. "The dude who ran it -- Monty -- thought I was making fun of him. Ladies were not welcome. But I wasn't making fun of him! I was really a big dork, so instead I just had the manuals and read them -- alone, listening to David Bowie."
A ladies' night was what drew Leth to working in a comic book shop initially. "I had no idea what it would become or what we would do with it. It was just a place for conversation."
All of the powerful community building that the Valkyries have done has led to an incredibly exciting new endeavor -- Valkyrie exclusive variant covers! The issues will only be available in stores that have Valkyries working in them and will all be done by female artists on books with female teams or a strong woman-friendly tone. Although Leth shared that the logistics of getting the issues to customers hasn't been fully worked out, she let the audience in on the lineup.
The first exclusive cover is for "Swords of Sorrow," a comic coming out from Gail Simone and Dynamite Entertainment with an all-female cast of characters. The cover is drawn by Leth herself. She immediately Tweeted the art out as the audience scrambled to grab their phones.
The second exclusive is coming in September on one of DeConnick's creator-owned series, "Pretty Deadly." DeConnick described Simone and herself as "the honorary tyrants of the Valkyries."
"We have to give credit to someone who is not here," Capra said. "Emma Rios approached us about the 'Pretty Deadly' cover, and she is working on it right now."
"We've had a lot of publishers and artists approach us, but we want it for comics aimed at women and featuring female creators," Leth explained.
"The Valkyries is about the power of organization," DeConnick said. "We can band together and accomplish what we can't accomplish alone."
With that, the Valkyries began taking audience questions. A line formed quickly, with several prominent creators queuing up.
Asked how can someone join the Valkyries, Leth responded, "We're recruiting all the time. You can go to bewarethevalkyries.com and get an application to fill out. If you work in or own a shop and you identify as not male, then there's absolutely no reason for you not to join. If you go into a comic shop and you see a woman working, it's fine to ask if they are a Valkyrie and if they aren't share the information with them."
The next question came from a teacher that worked with developmentally disabled kids. Only four out of her twenty five students are women, and she thought it would be so great if they could see more prominent women in any creative field -- did the Valkyries think ladies nights or gaming nights would be good for students with sensory challenges?
"That's a really good idea," Capra assured her. "The spirit of the Valkyries is focused on gender representation, but if you could see the conversations about what we hope to see and what we enjoy in comics, it is a very broad representation."
"For me, there was a group in New York," DeConnick said. "We hung out on the Warren Ellis forum, so there was that virtual aspect, but about once a month we went to Ace Bar and had an evening. To this day, a lot of those people are my closest friends. I married one of them, so that worked out for me."
All of the Valkyries expressed wanting to see an increased unity between women in comics and gaming, creating a welcoming environment for everyone. This includes working to educate customers on breaking down gender assumptions about who might enjoy certain comics, including kids.
DeConnick shared her thoughts on the attitudes she has encountered in comics shops. "A well-meaning gentleman will tell me that they have a lot of women in their store and they always give them 'Fables.' 'Fables' is a great comic, but its like saying -- you're a dude, hang on! Here's 'Punisher!' All dudes must love 'Punisher,' right? Is there a Duder comic? Men and women's tastes are broad and different."
"'Girl' is not a genre," Leth added as the audience burst into supportive applause.
"One of the things I love about the Valkyries is discovering that women will read whatever comic you make as long as it's not actively insulting to them -- and some of them will read those, too," DeConnick said.
The conversation turned to perceptions toward the Valkyries and the reception they've received in the community. "People might look at the Valkyries in a negative light might think its all us complaining about mean customers and that's not it. There's couch surfing for traveling Valkyries, professional support -- things people wouldn't even think of. Thats stuff I didn't even think of when i started it and its so cool," said Leth.
The next question was from a man who was wondering how he could support the group and be a good ally without encroaching on the space the Valkyries have created for themselves.
The answer was simple -- make an effort to shop at a store with female employees and Valkyries, buy the Valkyries variants, support creators and comics that are women-friendly and have women creators. Finally, when conversations come to people are being jerks, tell them they are being jerks. "The best thing men can do is let women speak and tell other people when they're being jerks," said DeConnick.
"There are small things you can do -- if someone says, what comics are good for girls, you tell them all comics," added Bulloch.
Writer Gail Simone stepped up to the mic next, not with a question but to shower love on the panel. "When I started commenting on comics and getting into the industry, I had dreams about what I hoped would happen, and the Valkyries are pretty much it. Thank you for everything you do for us."
Simone's words echoed sentiments from the audience, whose appreciation for the panelists was apparent through their applause.