Sam Hepburn: The journey from copywriter to comic artist

Sam Hepburn finds joy in drawing witty but meaningful comics . – Pictures by Choo Choy May and courtesy of Sam Hepburn
Sam Hepburn finds joy in drawing witty but meaningful comics . – Pictures by Choo Choy May and courtesy of Sam Hepburn

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KUALA LUMPUR, May 3 — For Sam Hepburn, drawing has always been a serious matter. Even as a child.

“In school, I had this rival. We would bring our drawing books to school and compare. Sometimes, we would accuse each other of copying the characters!” recalled Hepburn. In college she studied mass communications, and realised that she wanted to be in the advertising industry.

“My mother bought me this book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads by Luke Sullivan,” said Hepburn. The book inspired her to pursue a career in advertising. “I was really into it because it had funny jokes.”

Being young and idealistic at that time, Hepburn thought she could invoke laughter by creating clever, witty yet meaningful ads. She spent seven years working at an advertising firm as a copywriter. Over time, she soon became disillusioned by the industry.

No! A Lesson in Love is Sam Hepburn’s first picture book
No! A Lesson in Love is Sam Hepburn’s first picture book

“As a copywriter I did advertisements on banks, baby formula, sodas and cars. I did like it but I couldn’t be as creative and humorous in the advertisements,” said Hepburn. In the advertising world, as related by Hepburn, most creatives are often frustrated because they cannot express their artistic flair especially when the clients have the final say on what goes into an advertisement. Some creatives will insist and negotiate their way around it but at the end of the day, it is a tough job if you want to have freedom.

“In advertising, creative people hope to do fulfilling things. We are a bunch of artists and poets trying to make money. Otherwise, we will be broke. In the industry, it takes time before you can actually live comfortably,” said Hepburn who decided to chase after her dreams. She still does copywring on a freelance basis to put food on the table.

Today Hepburn draws comics based on the world she used to live in: advertising. The characters are amalgamations of real life people she used to work with. Situations that happened in the advertising world are turned into funny, dramatic comics that make people laugh. In the comic titled Welcome to Agency X, you get a grumpy boss (who rides on a flying unicorn), a marketing executive, a deadline robot, an egoistic guy and an overly enthusiastic intern. Oh, and Sam is also one of the characters!

Some of Hepburn’s posters and comic strips
Some of Hepburn’s posters and comic strips

“The comic existed in the form of scrappy doodles since October 2013. When I joined a new agency for a freelance stint in May 2014 and got back into that office environment, all the old jokes and thoughts came flowing back stronger than ever!

“I decided at this point to turn the doodles into a proper comic strip and to grow it properly as a full-fledged project. The comic was originally based on agency life, but I am quickly moving it into a wider territory of people who feel stuck in their day jobs and are hoping for a time they will ‘escape’!,” said Hepburn.

Before Welcome to Agency X, Sam used to create webcomics of her life. While everyone was getting on the blogging bandwagon, she illustrated her life in cartoons. “I know it sounds like I’m really self-absorbed but I liked to design comics based on my life, my dog and everyday life,” said Hepburn. Welcome to Agency X is an evolution of her work. But why focus on advertising?

“Agency people like to talk about agency life,” explained Hepburn. People working in advertising can also relate to her Welcome to Agency X comics. However, she plans to steer towards the direction where she can draw comics for the masses to enjoy. So far, her illustrations have been featured in three books, one of which was self-published.

No! A Lesson in Love is a picture book Hepburn illustrated, wrote and published singlehandedly. Featuring the relationship between her and her dog Gunnie, it is a book about positive reinforcement. The easy to read book is perfect for readers of all ages because her illustrations tell the story.

Hepburn’s comics encourage people to chase after their own dreams
Hepburn’s comics encourage people to chase after their own dreams
The enthusiastic intern from Welcome to Agency X
The enthusiastic intern from Welcome to Agency X

Hepburn likes to draw comic strips that are not just funny but tell an important message. At first, she planned to have a series but she realised that picture books are not easy to fund. “It is a niche market. Already, not many people buy books here. Picture books are less popular.”

After that book, Hepburn collaborated with her friend, a cancer survivor to come up with Even The Most Positive Person In the World Gets Cancer: Love, Laugh, Live with Cancer. She did the illustrations for the book. As a cartoonist and illustrator, Hepburn has also been asked to do other forms of art such as a sticker mural for a cafe, video animation for music videos and a shopping mall calendar.

The multi-talented woman also enjoys acting in musicals, reading, writing short stories and learning new languages. “It is hard to focus on just one thing because I want to grab at everything.” On top of her freelance copywriting work, illustrations and commissioned projects, Hepburn also sells her artwork in different forms online. Posters, T-shirts, mugs and a laptop sleevse featuring Hepburn’s hilarious cartoons can be found on her Etsy site (https://www.etsy.com/shop/hepburnco).

There is a misconception that artistic people are introverts who like to work behind-the-scenes. She is the opposite of that. Hepburn loves speaking at “live” events, hosting reading sessions for her readers. Last Christmas she even did a “live” drawing for children where she did storytelling and used a whiteboard to illustrate the story.

This illustration by Sam Hepburn makes you go “Awww...”
This illustration by Sam Hepburn makes you go “Awww...”

“The message I want to share is integral to who I am. I want to be able to share meaningful yet funny stories,” she said. The whole idea is to encourage people and let them laugh. “I like stories that talk about the meaning of life and the importance of chasing your dreams. And the courage to do that.”

Some of her favourite comic strips and cartoons are Dilbert by Scott Adams, Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson and Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis. These comic strips play on the slice-of-life theme, using a witty and sharp way to send a message while being very meaningful at the same time. Matt Groening of Simpsons fame also did a comic called Life in Hell which is also one of Hepburn’s favourites.

“My long-term goal is to be able to get syndicated by the newspapers, hopefully internationally,” said Hepburn who writes pitches and proposals in hopes to get syndicated. Instead of drawing comics that are trendy for that moment, she wants to be able to write jokes that are timeless and universal.

Sam Hepburn is also a comic character in WAX
Sam Hepburn is also a comic character in WAX

Her next project is an online magazine where readers can also find practical information, short stories, Hepburn’s music playlist, webcomics, how-tos, advice column by Agency X characters and more. Named WAX Courageous, it is intended to encourage day jobbers not to give up on their dreams, and will provide inspiration and practical advice in this direction. It will be written in the voice of the comic strip characters with a lighthearted tone and manner.

The process of coming up with a comic starts off with Hepburn writing a script, then deciding how many frames it would be. “The timing and pacing of the storyline is very important to determine when to deliver the punchline.”
After that, she will pencil in the characters and speech bubbles, making sure the look and composition is perfect. One thing that differentiates Hepburn from other cartoonists is she paints them! Most of the time, cartoonists line their pencil work with markers but Hepburn takes the time to paint them with a thin brush.

Although this is time-consuming, Hepburn enjoys the process. Now you know what it takes to be a good cartoonist!

Take a look at Sam Hepburn’s work at www.samhepburn.com and www.welcometoagencyx.com.

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