The Role of Internships in Comics with the Milkfed Interns

Interning is an interesting to the facet of the comic industry that I think is rarely talked about. Many creators & comic industry professionals got their start through interning and I first began to familiarize myself with the industry by interning with Archaia Entertainment.

So, I wanted to talk to some interns to shed some light on the opportunity & position. To that end, I reached out to the intern team over at Milkfed Criminal Masterminds - the business group started by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction.

The interns I spoke to are Peter Holmstrom and Sasha Bassett - from Milkfed's last class of interns - who worked with both Kelly and Matt, as well as Lauren Sankovitch - Milkfed's Managing Editor.

So, let's start at the beginning. How did you both first hear about the Milkfed Intern position?

Peter Holmstrom: Well, it was fairly straightforward: A listing through the PSU (Portland State University) comics studies program. They've had a relationship since the program first started.

Sasha Bassett: Well, I first heard about it from Susan Kirtley, the director of the comics studies program at PSU - she sent me an email directly inquiring if I'd applied and, when I said I hadn't heard of it, she insisted that I submit an application.

I think they extended the deadline a day or two so that I could get my application materials together.

Peter: Well, aren't you special...

Sasha: I did write my midterm paper for Susan's class on Bitch Planet, so it really was a great fit.

So - that kind of ties into my next question... Why were you interested in Milkfed and, concurrently, the Comics Studies program?

Peter: For me, one informed upon the other. I had already completed my Undergrad degree, and was looking for ways to boost up my resume in preparation for graduate school, and the comic studies program came up.

At first I was a little hesitant, but the prospect of getting an internship with Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick was way too enticing to pass up! That, coupled with the notion of getting to take classes from Brian Michael Bendis, and Diana Schutz, convinced me that this was a program worth pursuing.

Sasha: So I'm a rabid feminist that also happens to be a sociologist - comics just happens to be a large interest I've always had - and when the opportunity to take a course on comics presented itself, I was all for it. Needless to say, I've been following Kelly Sue's work for a long time so, when I got the email from Susan about the internship, I had a pretty big freak out over the chance to work with her in such an intimate way.

Once I got the internship, I figured formally signing up for the program wouldn't be a bad way to legitimately incorporate comics into my time here at PSU (since I'll be sticking around for 3 more years as a PhD student and my department is really concerned with legitimizing our research). Bonus - it's giving me an excuse to develop my own comics in the process.

So does the opportunity to get so involved with comics at this point in time reflect your interest in building a career in comics? Is that something you're working toward?

Peter: Before starting this program, I was fairly new to the comics scene. I had grown up with a lot of those 90s animated programs (Spider-Man, X-Men, Superman), but hadn't really been a reader. So this program has been an introductory course in more ways than one. Since I've spent time examining comics now both critically and as a fan, the prospect of getting into this industry has become my new aim. It's just so fascinating!

Sasha: I plan on teaching college-level sociology courses and want to teach classes on pop culture, narrative, and social justice. Comics are only one of the mediums I want to look at over my career, but they're a really good one to be looking at right now; the fact that I'm in Portland only solidifies comics as my focus since its such an important place for the industry (both creatively and commercially).

However, I would also really like to write comics that highlight social issues. Maybe make educational tools to help out students of social theory (something in the vein of Kate Beaton's "Hark A Vagrant" series)

I think Milkfed does this very well - most, if not all, of their titles deal with complex social issues without beating them over peoples' heads.

Just to take a second to dive a little deeper... Peter, I think your experience is one that a lot of other fans of comics can relate to. How did you start getting into comics and get interested enough to pursue the studies and internship?

Peter: Well, I approached this through screenwriting. Like many, I have aspirations to write the next Star Wars movie, but having grown up in a small town in Oregon, the opportunities to enter the industry were limited. Undergrad at PSU in Film was interesting and educational, but didn't really offer any career advice other than how to become a professor or critic. So I started looking at other options.

I cold-contacted some companies/editors in Portland, asking for advice on how to enter the comics industry, and the awesome people who got back to me recommended the program as a possibility. Writing was my preference, but I also liked the idea of working as an editor.

The program at PSU offered opportunities to learn multiple sides of the industry from actual working professionals. Something that is often rare in academia.

Before that, growing up, it was a lot of Saturday morning cartoons and the occasional Star Wars comic my parents would let me read. Again, small town...

I think we were growing up at a time where comics culture was really beginning to enter into the limelight, so one could count themselves amongst the comics community regardless of where they lived, or what kind of access they had to comics stores.

I think that's a fair look on it - in some respects. It could also be argued that that's a more recent development after a decade of enduring the crash of the 90s... Regardless, does your interest in a career in comics lie in being a creator?

Peter: To your first point: definitely in the sales of comics. I suppose what I mean is, you didn't need to read Superman, to be a fan of Superman. Although you could argue the same thing from past decades (i.e. radio show, George Reeves then Christopher Reeve, etc.) the 90s offered a plethora of comics offering that weren't limited to one or two titles. And that is something kind of new. Not to mention, the quality of this auxiliary content was really top notch.

Got it. It definitely opened up the possibility of a lot more people becoming interested in comics properties - even if the infrastructure wasn't really there to help that transition.

Peter: Agreed. To your second question: I'd love to be a writer, that's the dream anyway. But I've found the work as an editor, through this internship and education from the program, to be fulfilling in other ways.

Got it. No path is more or less right than any other. I think it's great that the internship has helped make that possible for you - and we'll dive into some specifics in a little bit.

Sasha, I really admire the perspective with which you're approaching comics. It's also great to see how the medium fits into your plans. The academic standing of / interest in comics is definitely something I'm happy for that I believe can be really valuable for the medium as a whole and the topics they're used to educate on.

Why do you think comics fit into these topics well / why do you want to address these issues via comics specifically?

Sasha: Well, comics are a medium and, like any other medium, they're going to have benefits and drawbacks. I think comics are really good at allowing people to place themselves within the story in various ways - I'd say even better than television and movies in most cases.

But readers interact with comics - Scott McCloud said that readers are conscious collaborators for the story and I fully agree. We don't simply observe the story like we would on TV.

Peter: Agreed. The interactive power of comics is something unlike any other medium.

Sasha: For example: we watch Orange is the New Black and all get the same story. Details unfold in the exact same way for everyone who watches. BUT when reading Bitch Planet we get to add our own spin to the way things happen - when Penny punches someone, we all picture it going down slightly differently

In this sense, comics are more powerful because they offer us a lens to not only analyze the issue at hand, but the way we collaborate with the medium itself.

I think that offers more sociological discussion than simply watching a movie in class.

I think it's very clear why and how that's valuable to the topics you mentioned. Is there more you think creators can be doing to develop the relationship between the medium / industry and the academic world? 

Sasha: Yes and no, I don't think this disconnect is entirely the fault of creators - they've been handling tough issues for decades now.

I think the issue is largely the way academia perceives comics as a medium - it's often framed as lowest common denominator entertainment and something for the masses. Generally, it has a lot to offer but isn't seen as a legitimate area of concern for most fields.

It's the same reason the humanities are perceived as lesser within academia - unless you're creating something (through STEM fields, for example) or solving a "real" issue, it's seen as fluffy.

I think creators COULD be doing more, because networking and promoting your material is important if you want that particular audience, but it shouldn't fall on their shoulders to put their work in classrooms - it's up to us, as academics, to utilize the different mediums out there to their fullest benefit.

Peter: And I think that's something creator-owned content really affords. While Superman has been dealing with serious philosophical and ethical issues for decades, the perception of Superman = Fluff is so ingrained in the minds of some academics that it takes a bold, new work, like a Bitch Planet, to really get their attention.

Sasha: Exactly. There's also the auteur pedestal that works like Maus are placed on - Superman generally has no chance in a classroom that values Spiegelman.

Scott McCloud in Reinventing Comics has talked about how important the public perception of comics actually is and the role academics plays in that. I definitely agree and think it's a deeper conversation we should keep exploring, but I would like to dive back into the internship itself. How long did your internships last?

Sasha: Internships are 10 weeks long - the length of an academic quarter.

What were your expectations of the internship going in and how did that match up to the work you actually ended up doing?

Peter: Well, I never did get my Captain Marvel comic signed...

Sasha: I had no expectations going in other than feeling awkward and fangirly (which both happened). I was mostly just happy to be there, I didn't really care what they had me doing.

Peter: Agreed. I had had a couple of other internships in the past with magazine companies, so I kind of knew the internship game going in. Though, comics are obviously a different medium.

So what kind of work did the internship entail?

Sasha: I participated in a lot of social media stuff.

Peter: Background research for the creative process, formatting certain editorial tools, and social media. Milkfed is still a fairly new entity, in the 'official' sense, so organizing their respective properties was a big part of it. Background info and the like.

Sasha: Building databases for individual books - reading comics, making character lists and such. Also emotional maintenance of all the pets. #claudesquad #dailypablo #beardabomb

I started out as an intern, myself, for Archaia - a while before it was acquired by BOOM! - so I definitely recognize the value of being an intern. But what is the value in your eyes? What have you learned from and gotten out of it? 

Sasha: I learned that if I REALLY devoted myself and focused, I could probably make it in the comics industry. Maybe not be a big name, but survive and put out decent work. It's all about keeping on top of lots of small tasks, and making sure people are all on the same page.

Those are strengths I already have, and if I had a good team behind me, it seems doable. This kinda took the mystery out of the process and makes it seem like a tangible option I could pursue.

Peter: Experience was a big one. But also, demystifying the creative process. I think there is a tendency to hold creatives up on a 'larger than life' pedestal. And, don't get me wrong, Matt and Kel are geniuses! But they're also people. People devoting themselves to a task, much like any other job out there. It just takes hard work.

Same goes for the editorial work with Lauren Sankovitch. It's a process. It runs on caffeine and stress and all the other things people associate with work. 

All that said though, comics is way more fun than an ordinary job! Ha ha!

Those are great takeaways to have. For the creators out there that are considering hiring interns or think it might be useful, do you have any recommendations? A lot of internships are unpaid - what are your thoughts on the paid vs. unpaid argument? And regardless of pay how can creators make the internship a valuable, worthwhile, and beneficial experience for everyone involved?

Peter: Yeah... That's a tricky one. Like I said, this'll make internship number 3 for me, and all were unpaid.

I think a big one is having the interns perform tasks that are genuinely enriching and educational. Don't just have them licking stamps (I've never done that).

Pay is always great, but we also live in an era where, to make your resume stand out, you need multiple internships/degrees.

Sasha: We got tuition remission as compensation for our internship with Milkfed, which was nice, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't negatively impact my finances to drive across town three days a week (because gas is expensive).

I think the experience itself was worthwhile though, even without hourly pay.

For those looking for a way into the industry do you recommend interning as a way to go? I know it can be hard to manage for a lot of people because so many comic internships are unpaid.

Peter: Absolutely.

Sasha: I think it's helpful because you get the connections and exposure, but I don't think its necessary.

Peter: It's a testing ground. Allowing you to get hands-on experience so you'll know what you're getting into before you spend a bunch of time/money on a degree. Or pursuing a job you'd rather not have.

Sasha: Yeah, but if you've got something good, by all means skip the intern process.

Peter: Sure. I don't think Lauren (or Matt, for that matter) had any prior experience before going for the deep end.

Sasha: Everyone has a different entry point for the industry, though. Internships are only one way in.

Peter: Exactly. We live in a time where there's no 'one way' into anything.

I think that makes a good point to end!

Thanks for taking the time and dishing out advice on both ends. I appreciate it - and I think the people reading this will, too.

Hopefully this interview will be useful to those of you considering hiring interns - or becoming interns yourself. A lot of opportunities within the entertainment industry, generally, can be quite predatory, but good opportunities like Milkfed's do exist and can form a solid foundation to involve yourself in comics.

You can find Peter Holmstrom on Twitter, here.

Sasha Bassett can also be found on Twitter, here.

And if you want to stay up to date on all things Milkfed you can sign up for their newsletter.