Kate Leth is a woman on the frontier of the independent comics industry. She's the creator of the online and print versions of Kate or Die! and has contributed to various comics, such as Locke and Key and the Adventure Time spinoff series Marceline and the Scream Queens. She also works at Strange Adventures in Halifax, Novia Scotia, which is one of the best comic shops in the world. Most recently, she has spearheaded the creation of Beware the Valkyries, a professional and social group for female comics shop workers.
I caught up with Kate to talk about the group, her career, life on the Internet, and women in the comics industry.
ARI YARWOOD: What inspired you to start Beware the Valkyries?
KATE LETH: Well, I work in a comic book shop, and my boss is part of a group online for owners of comic shops. There are a lot of groups out there just like that in different retail industries. I started thinking, after a while, that there isn't really anything like that for girls that are specifically on the retail end of things. It can kind of be an isolating thing: a lot of the time there's maybe one or two girls who work in a comic book shop, and comic book shops are so spaced out. There's maybe only a couple in every city, or one. So I thought it would be a really cool idea to have a network where we could actually talk to other people that understood a very unusual retail perspective.
What do you think is best thing that's come out of it for you so far?
I think the community aspect. Once we got to about 80 members internationally and we're starting to move into Australia and the UK now, which is really cool. we had this bonding experience. When Saga, which is a comic that comes out from Image, put out their first piece of merchandise, Lying Cat shirts—which is one of the characters in the comic—we realized that almost every girl in the group had ordered one. So I thought, okay, let's all take a photo of us in our shops wearing these shirts. And I ended up getting about 25 pictures, and we posted them, and the artist and the writer of the comic ended up seeing it, and posting it, and sending it to Image, and Image posted it on their website, so we were on the front page for a day, and that was really cool. It was a really neat experience and I think we all then kind of realized that what we were doing was pretty positive.
That sounds great!
Yeah, yeah, it was really cool. And there's about 10 or 15 of us going to New York Comic Con next month and I think we're going to do sort of a more formal meet-up.
What are you hoping to do with the group in the future?
I want to keep expanding it, and do want to keep moving into areas because, you know, the downside to the internet is that you can only reach the people who are in your circle, or checking your internet presence, so if there's somebody who's living in Paris and doesn't read Twitter or Tumblr, there's no way that they're going to find out that we exist. So that's why I try to do these promotional things to get the word out there so that we might maybe reach a little further and find new people.
I'd love for us to do all kinds of different things. I'd love to have a blog running eventually with different girls posting comic reviews, talking about their shops, talking about different experiences, and have it be a collaborative project. So that I think would be a really cool thing, especially where, a lot of the time, people who may not be as into the comic shop world may not even know that there are so many girls. It's nice to have a presence, and say, "We're here, and we're doing this, and it's really cool."
That's great. I look forward to seeing that happen.
Yeah, I'd love to start doing a video blog, too, eventually. I have big plans!
So, switching gears to talking about your comics now. A lot of your comics are very personal, autobiographical stuff, including comics about queer issues, kink, and self-harm. What draws you to create autobiographical work?
I think it's that I'm personally drawn to other people's autobiographical work. You know, in the comics world, I read a lot of stuff that's autobiographical, and I love it, I love Erika Moen's DAR comics, that was the thing that really got me started, because it's so painfully, brutally honest. I think that stuff resonates so much more than a lot of other things. And sometimes it can be a little self-indulgent, I know that, but I think it reaches people on a different level. It's something you stop and think about. Maybe you think about something differently, rather than just going, "Haha, it's really funny." I can't say that I do that 100 percent of the time, but it's definitely what I try to do, because that's what I love.
Do you feel like that honesty in your work makes it feminist or political in any way?
I think because that's part of who I am, and because it's so honest, that it definitely translates. I mean, there are definitely things that I hold back and there are things that I don't write about, but I write a lot of the time when I'm feeling passionate about something, when I'm angry, or when I'm really happy, and those emotions are a lot stronger, so yeah, I think it comes across that way. And I definitely write a lot of feminist stuff, not intentionally to be like, "This is a feminist comic!" but because I'm a feminist and these are the things I care about, and I write what I care about.
In the same vein, you publish these personal comics over the Internet, which is a very public venue. Is there a way you try to handle the public/private divide? It seems like it'd be difficult.
It definitely is. My problem is that I'm very emotional and I will write a comic just to get it out there, to exorcise the demon, when it's there.
You know, I wrote a comic—which is the most successful thing I've ever done—about rape culture, and just being so incredibly frustrated with the underlying misogyny in the everyday, you know, not just the big things but just the little stuff, all the time.
So I wrote that, and it was super personal and super passionate, and I drew it and I put it online the second it was finished, and I had no idea the response it was going to get. I didn't know it was going to get huge.
So that was really intense, and I had to step away from the internet for a while because the backlash from that, from people on the other side of it, was really, really intense. I mean, I got emails from people sending me rape threats, people sending me death threats, and that happened within the course of 24 hours, where I was immediately the target of some very, very intense – not just criticism – but genuine, malicious hatred.
So it's a struggle sometimes, because you want it to have that honesty but also, you have to be careful. So I've definitely gotten a little less ballsy, and I fight with that all the time.
Do you feel like the fear of backlash is a barrier for female creators, particularly?
I think it can be. I think it's a barrier for a lot of creators, because it can be a barrier for trans people, it can be a barrier for queer creators, for people of color, anyone who is in any way perceived as a minority or is a minority. I think that can definitely happen, because people are going to target you, and they're not going to target just your comics, but they're going to target you as a person.
And it can be – because as much as you want to be brave and be honest, some days you don't want to wake up to like 45 emails telling you that you should get raped with a knife or something. Like, not everybody wants that! That's not something you want to have in your life. And that sounds insane, but I can joke about it now because it's happened to me so many times, because it's happened to so many friends of mine so many times. And it's weird that you become a little more dulled to it, because you shouldn't have to.
So it can be. There are days when you just want to make something funny and cute that people are going to laugh at and no one's going to get incensed about.
I feel like indie comics, like the stuff that you put out, that get distributed via the internet, is a place where female creators can find a venue and an audience that they wouldn't otherwise have access to, but it also makes them very vulnerable to the kind of attacks you described.
Yeah, it's weird, because you will reach a lot of people that you wouldn't otherwise reach. I mean, I always come back to it and say, "I would not have a career in comics if it weren't for the internet." You know, I didn't have it in print, it's all through Tumblr, it's all through Twitter, it gets spread throughout Reddit, things like that. So it is great, and it can be incredibly positive. There is an amazing breadth of female creators online, and that have become print creators because of the exposure online. I don't mean to say that it's all bad, because it isn't—the positive definitely outweighs the negative. I've met so many amazing people through doing it. But you always kind of feel, as a female creator putting stuff out there, that the comments are, a lot of the time, going to be about the fact that you're female and not about your comics.
Do you feel like there's a big difference in how women creators and characters are treated in mainstream comics versus indie comics?
I think it's vastly different. And some people will say that it's not, but the fact is that when it's the big two—Marvel and DC—and you're writing and drawing female characters, they're going through a panel of editors, every time, and that panel of editors has certain things in mind, commercial-wise, and you're writing to an audience that they perceive.
But when it comes to indie creators, you know, you're writing for yourself. You're not writing sexy superheroine women the majority of the time. A lot of people want to write what they don't see in mainstream comics, so they write a lot more three-dimensional characters. So I think that's really awesome.
And the statistics are that Marvel and DC have, at any given time, around 10% female creators in the whole corporation. In indie comics, every time I go to a festival, it seems about split half and half, and there's all kinds of female creators, female and male creators working together to create comics, it's all over the place. And a lot of men writing more interesting female characters. So, that's where I feel a lot more comfortable. And people will ask me every once and a while, what's your dream? Do you want to work at DC? I'm like, no. I don't want to do that. I will happily write indie comics forever.
So, just to wrap it up: can you suggest any comics for Bitch readers?
Yeah! Oh god, there's so many! I'll go by people I met at SPX this weekend.
Lisa Hanawalt just came out with a book called My Dirty Dumb Eyes, which is amazing. She's really funny, she does a bunch of movie reviews. Her one for Drive is unbelievably good.
Lucy Knisley's book Relish that came out earlier this year is an autobiographical story of her growing up in a foodie household. It's filled with recipes and things like that, it's really great.
And I'm in part of an anthology that has just come out which is called Anything That Loves, which is about non-binary sexuality and deals with romance or relationships in term of not just straight or gay, but all the gray areas in between. It's got some really great people in it – Erika Moen's in it, Ellen Forney's in it, and they are awesome queer lady creators.