"Honestly, I don't know why the young don't rise up and eat us."
Updated: Mar 24, 2022
The implications of Doc Mutant’s diagnosis are starting
to sink in: no more martinis or one-night stands with virile,
shape-shifting mixologists. But there’s an even bigger problem:
my real-life adventures in alternate timelines are the only way
I can come up with stories for my comic books, which in turn
are supposed to provide material for the streaming series,
which should afford me a pretty nice lifestyle. Not just the
show itself but the merchandising: action figures, games, lunch
boxes, T-shirts, the whole shebang is in the pipeline. Not to
mention exclusive content auctioned off on Blockchain. But
the series will gobble up stories like popcorn. I am contractually
obligated to feed the beast. Good stories are precious,
and I can’t just pull them out of my ass.
When I explain this to Doc Mutant, he smiles sadly.
“I’m sorry, my dear, but your adventures in alternate worlds
are over. Too bad you don’t have someone who could take over
for you. How about hiring an assistant to help you come up with
story ideas? Maybe an intern from one of the colleges up there
in Toronto? Young creatives will work for nothing, I hear.”
From “The Sisters Sputnik” (2022)
Why would a young creative work for nothing? Experience, exposure, networking? To beef up a resumé? To try out a career without committing to it? To crush the imposter syndrome that afflicts so many emerging writers, artists, actors and musicians?
More than likely, it’s because young creatives don’t have a choice. Post-secondary students are often required to do internships or work terms in order to graduate.
Not a bad idea, but why are some interns unpaid? Is that even legal? In the Province of Ontario, Canada, where I live, the answer is "not really", but an employer (who's not really an employer if the intern is unpaid) can apply for an exception. Good luck figuring this one out, young creatives! A 2020 article in The Varsity, the University of Toronto's student newspaper, gives as clear an explanation as any.
Internships existed back when I was starting out as a writer in the early Jurassic. My first one was at age seventeen as a reporter for the daily newspaper in my southern Ontario hometown. Every high school in the city had a ‘Collegiate Corner Reporter’ who wrote a weekly column about their alma mater.
The beat was pretty humdrum: sports scores, dances, fundraisers, plays, concerts, and visits from luminaries like Elmer the Safety Elephant. Once, an up-and-coming rock band called RUSH visited my school to tape a show. I interviewed Geddy Lee (nice guy) and wrote about their performance in my column. I doubt it ever made their press kit but it was the highlight of my brief career as a reporter.
I’d type up my copy each week on the Remington typewriter shown above and deliver it in person to the downtown office of the newspaper for editing. After it was published, I’d clip it out, measure it and type up an invoice. I was paid by the column inch. (As I said, it was the early Jurassic.)
I didn’t earn much but dammit, I was paid! Here's what else I got out of it: a byline. Experience interviewing, writing, accepting editorial direction and meeting a deadline. Being able to say I was a working writer. And, last but not least, the confidence that comes with using my creative skills to earn actual money.
I should add that two students ahead of me in high school who worked as Collegiate Corner Reporters went on to J-School and enjoyed long careers as journalists. Others likely did the same after I graduated from high school.
I also did a couple of summer internships after my last two years of university (English degree, if you haven't already guessed) that required me to conduct interviews, do research and write. Neither internship was in my home town so I was covering my own living expenses. The internships paid far less than the summer job I could have had as an assembly line worker at the plant where my Dad worked as a robot technician. But they paid for my rent and enabled me to build a portfolio that proved that I knew how to meet a deadline and would not go bananas every time an editor rewrote my copy.
That went a long way toward getting my first professional job out of university as a copywriter for then-magazine publishing behemoth Maclean-Hunter (later bought and sold by Rogers). No mean feat in the stagflation economy of 1980.
My first three months at Maclean-Hunter were, in effect, an internship. I had no idea what I was doing. The production manager spoke in unintelligible production manager-ese. I was patiently mentored by a creative director and barely tolerated by everyone else. I learned to work collaboratively with art directors, something I still do to this day.
But that internship went by a different name: entry level job. The pay was lousy but I got dental insurance and had three months to prove I was worth keeping on (and get my teeth fixed). I bought some work clothes. And despite some absolutely boneheaded mistakes, Maclean-Hunter kept me on. They even threw me the odd raise, and a little praise.
Within two years, I was invited to lunch by an advertising creative director and poached by a major ad agency to work on a national account. I never looked back. In the early 1980s, women in creative departments were still rare. I was considered "a find". One likes hearing that at 23 years of age.
Copywriting is a tough gig. You need a thick skin, a fertile imagination, a quick wit, good writing skills and a strong ego. You are always being told that your work is crap, that it needs to be rewritten, that it’s too off-brief, that it’s too on-brief, that there is no brief, that the brief isn’t really what the client wanted, that it’s what they thought they wanted but their boss didn’t want, that there’s too much copy, that there’s not enough copy, that the legal department is uncomfortable with your choice of words and that you're going to have to work all night and/or all weekend.
Copywriting is the craft of writing, not the art. The compensation: you’re well paid. And, if you're lucky, it can be interesting. And fun. I've made many of my closest friends in ad agencies.
But I also wanted to be an artist. So I've also written books – four novels and one popular science book to date, plus a slew of essays and stories for literary magazines and anthologies. Plus, a close (very close) collaboration with a visual artist (my husband) on four graphic novels.
I know my worth. And even at seventeen, I was being given the opportunity to learn my worth while I was honing both my craft and my art. Why? Because I was paid.
Writing for free, in exchange for the dubious payback of ‘exposure’, is constantly being dangled in front of writers. It’s something I do less and less, but I do still do it. But that’s my choice – to sit down and write a story or essay on spec because I like the publication. Or sometimes because it’s fun. Or it's a passion project. Or on behalf of a good cause.
For a student whose program of study requires an unpaid internship, there is no choice: if you want to graduate, you must work for free for a few weeks, months, maybe a year. Then, maybe (or maybe not) have a future with the company sort-of employing you. And if you have to support yourself while doing this, then you'll need a second job, too.
I’ve heard of large employers who use unpaid interns as a source of free labour with the potential for future employment held up as a shiny reward, only to replace all their graduating old interns with new ones. A revolving door of free labour. The message to the intern: your work isn't really worth anything. Neither is your time.
There's a word for this: exploitation.
My early out-of-town internships would have been impossible, had I not been paid at least enough to cover my living expenses. Not everyone can afford to work for nothing, especially if they have to live away from home.
In my new novel, The Sisters Sputnik, I brought that gap in expectations to the relationship between my martini-swilling quantum voyager Debbie Reynolds Biondi (creator of an autobiographical comic book series called “Sputnik Chick, Girl With No Past”) and her unpaid intern Ariel Bajinder Hassan, better known as Unicorn Girl for her sleeve of tattoos.
Debbie isn’t hurting for money. But it never occurs to her to question Doc Mutant’s suggestion to take on a young creative as an assistant, but pay her nothing.
Why? Because I wanted to show that Debbie, as heroic as she sometimes is, carries the biases of her generation (and mine).
She’s willing to exploit not only Unicorn Girl, but sentient robots like Cassandra the Predictive AI (which Debbie threatens to deactivate for its smart-ass wisecracks). Debbie also looks down on the junksters, an underclass of young people who fall through the cracks during the pandemic and now spend their lives labouring in ghost kitchens for robot chefs. The junksters are paid, not in money, but in computer games and accommodation in empty office buildings.
But Debbie's primary relationship, unequal as it is, is with Unicorn Girl. Here's how she finds her:
I have taken Doc Mutant’s advice to get myself some help. Not being motivated to do any of the legwork myself — in fact, not being motivated to do much of anything these days — I put Cassandra in charge of sending out a call for applications to Toronto’s institutions of higher learning. I dictated the criteria from bed:
Intern to assist in the conceptualization,
scripting and storyboarding of
GIRL WITH NO PAST
volume 39, issues 1 to 10 of the acclaimed
comic book series and spinoffs.
This fast-paced twelve- to twenty-four-month
apprenticeship offers no
financial remuneration but
promises to be rich in valuable work experience.
The successful applicant will have:
ADVANCED PROFICIENCY in reading and
writing the alphabetized text of at
languages (English and one other), not just that
PICTO system that is currently
ruining literacy and bringing our once-great
education system to its knees;
Strong storytelling skills;
A rich imagination (evidenced by at least
TWO childhood imaginary friends);
Lack of bias toward so-called objective
reality and linear time;
MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL:
the successful applicant will be an AVID,
KNOWLEDGEABLE and OBSESSIVE
reader and cosplaying, geeked-out FAN of comic
books, cartoons, comic strips and graphic novels
including, but not limited to, SPUTNIK
CHICK: GIRL WITH NO PAST.
Within twenty-four hours, Cassandra boiled a very short list of applicants down to a single candidate, a student in her senior year at George Brown College’s Faculty of Virtual and Augmented Reality. An interview is arranged for six o’clock this morning.
“I have to meet this kid before the sun is even up?”
“Given the small number of applicants, it seemed expedient to accommodate the schedule of the one person who met your criteria,” explains Cassandra. “She’s juggling a full course load and plays goal for the college’s varsity hockey team. She’s fitting us in after a four a.m. practice.”
And so, here I am, still in bed, trying to motivate myself to meet the one overachiever willing to take on an unpaid internship with a dying comic book artist who hasn’t been out of her pyjamas in a week.
Unicorn Girl brings skills, insights and experiences to The Sisters Sputnik storytelling partnership that Debbie simply does not have. Unicorn Girl is the goalie for a varsity level hockey team who is also carrying a full course load in virtual reality game design.
Unicorn Girl deeply loves Debbie's comic book series, Sputnik Chick: Girl With No Past. Which is why she’s the only qualified candidate for the job of assistant storyteller. Ultimately Unicorn Girl joins Debbie on her ongoing adventures as a storyteller-for-hire in the 2,058 words in the multiverse, one for each nuclear detonation in Earth Standard Time (or what you think of as reality).
Yet Debbie sees Unicorn Girl as something of a neophyte, even an upstart. Debbie hates Unicorn Girl’s manga drawing style and thinks her storytelling is too derivative. Debbie’s judgment is blinkered: she can’t see past the fact that this young twenty-year-old graphic artist is not only her equal but her successor. Which is why it never occurs to Debbie to actually pay for her time. She also sees her intern as too politically correct for treating Cassandra the digital assistant like a human being.
Unicorn Girl makes a huffing sound, like a bear trying to
decide whether to attack or retreat. “Ms. Biondi, please don’t
call the digital assistant a slave. It’s offensive.”
I frown. “Robot is just another word for slave,” I point out.
“Which is why I don’t call them robots either,” answers
Unicorn Girl. “Synthetic people. Artificial beings . . . but please
not robot. And certainly not the s-word.”
I sigh. This growing sensitivity to the feelings of “artificial
beings” is a bit much for me but I don’t want my intern to
accuse me of the sin of humancentricism and storm out before
she even has a chance to work for nothing but my so-called
mentorship. She’s almost as much of a slave as Cassandra.
Honestly, I don’t know why the young don’t rise up and