When Jenny Blenk MA‘17 started as a master’s student in English literature, she imagined she would eventually teach at a community college. Then she took a comics theory class from Susan Kirtley, professor of English and director of Comics Studies.
“It took about a week of Susan's class to completely blow my mind,” says Blenk. “It opened my eyes to the real potential academically, socially, artistically — you name it — of comics.”
She wasn’t the first student to fall in love with comics, yet getting a job in the field can be difficult.
But when Kirtley started PSU’s Comics Studies program a few years ago, she worked hard to foster connections between industry leaders and students — and those connections have led to internships and jobs for PSU graduates.
“I'm spoiled as a comics scholar in Portland because there is this wonderful comics culture here with the publishers and the creators,” says Kirtley. “And the comics community has been incredibly supportive of our students.”
Portland State’s Comics Studies program is one of only a handful of comics studies programs in the United States, and the concentration of local comics artists and publishers — including Dark Horse Comics, founded by PSU alum Mike Richardson — makes it easy for comics professionals to deliver guest lectures and even teach courses at PSU. Just this winter term, courses will be taught by Eisner winners Brian Michael Bendis and David Walker. The Eisner awards are like the Academy Awards of comics.
“These are people who are at the top of their fields. They're juggernauts; they're giants; and they're doing it not because they need to, but because they want to give back and mentor the next generation,” says Kirtley.
Industry-university connections give PSU students a leg up when learning about careers and looking for jobs in the comics field — and these connections are further fostered with the Comics Studies internship program.
While Blenk was working on her Comics Studies Certificate, she completed two internships, one with Dark Horse and the other with Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, a small comics company led by renowned comics duo Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction.
Blenk says she learned a lot about the industry from these internships, which is important because publishing can be really opaque.
Her internship with Milkfed gave her insights into comic book publishing from the creator perspective. “It was a very small, personal operation and in that I really saw the daily scheduling and organization of an independent comics creator's work life balance,” says Blenk.
And her time at Dark Horse taught her more about production: “It was the flip side of how a comic moves through different stages of completion in order to be published,” she says.
According to Blenk there’s a misconception that in order to do comics you have to have some kind of artistic background. Doing an internship helps students realize their useful and marketable skills.
“The truth is that most people from most backgrounds have something that is insightful and useful and particular to them that they can contribute to this real organism of a department and make the whole thing stronger,” she says.
Blenk’s career path is a testament to how internships can help students form a professional network and find jobs. After graduation, Blenk started her career as an independent editor, taking on freelance work from a variety of clients. She did some freelance proofreading work for the editorial department at Dark Horse — where she’d interned — and was later hired at Dark Horse as an assistant editor.
As an alum Blenk has returned to PSU to give guest lectures and, up until the pandemic, mentored interns herself. “It has been just a huge joy,” says Blenk.
She says while not all of her interns will end up working at Dark Horse — or necessarily want to — internships can be crucial for networking, which is why she wishes all internships were paid so they were an available option for more students.
“We try and really emphasize that just because your internship ends that doesn't mean that you're just cut loose on your own,” she says. “I'm still in touch with probably a half dozen of my former interns, and we are absolutely happy to write letters of recommendation and put people in touch with job opportunities as they arise.”
For Kirtley, it’s been gratifying to watch alums of the young program shake up the comics industry while working in their dream jobs. She recounts reading a comic recently and realizing that one of her former students was the editor.
“What a great feeling that she's a part of making more diverse stories and more interesting and more inclusive stories,” says Kirtley.
“I volunteer at San Diego Comic-Con every year. To see my former students coming to the Eisner awards, working on comics that are nominated for awards, and doing amazing things in the industry that they love, it's the best feeling in the world,” says Kirtley.