The story of a dreamer: Sam Hepburn, copywriter turned cartoonist

Copywriter turned cartoonist Sam Hepburn. — Pictures by Choo Choy May
Copywriter turned cartoonist Sam Hepburn. — Pictures by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, March 12 — “There’s this idea that artists are misunderstood,” says comic creator Sam Hepburn. “I don’t think that’s really accurate. What is true, however, is that most artists are inward looking and that’s a good thing when you’re trying to tell stories others can relate to.”

Writing and drawing comic strips others can relate to is certainly something Hepburn understands. She created Welcome to Agency X, a comic strip that has recently been collected as a book, based on her early days in the advertising industry as a copywriter.

Hepburn’s first collection, Welcome to Agency X.
Hepburn’s first collection, Welcome to Agency X.
Expanding the strip and the stories contained therein beyond that insular world, though, has expanded Hepburn’s own viewpoints.

“My subject matter has changed over time,” she explains. “When I first started, people would send me links to other artists’ advertising comics. I don’t like being told what to do therefore I hardly look at other people’s comics unless they are very different from what I do. Now that I have broadened it more, people relate more easily to my work.”

Case-in-point: A fan letter Hepburn received a couple of years ago. “This girl told me she wasn’t in advertising but she could relate to being awkward just like the characters in my comic. It’s no longer just about advertising but about very human characters. For example, one wants to be a poet while another dreams of becoming a photographer. Like so many of us, they have their own cynicism and fears.”

Currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Hepburn was born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland till her late teens. Growing up, she was always keen on drawing and dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. She recalls, “I was so obsessed with the anime Sailor Moon that I had my Dad tape it off the TV station so I could watch it after school! Then I became enamoured of Caroline from the sitcom Caroline in the City... and she was a cartoonist.”

Yet a career as a cartoonist didn’t materialise overnight for Hepburn. Whilst not entirely giving up her dream, she found herself entering the workforce with a “sensible job like so many of us.” She became a copywriter but kept doodling about her life, often deriving inspiration whenever something silly or frustrating happened at work.

A look inside Welcome to Agency X.
A look inside Welcome to Agency X.

“I’d been drawing and posting my doodles online, and I felt that I could do something more comprehensive — a story, or a series, with characters and meaning. Beyond just funny scribbles, I wanted to say something more, about society and about following your dreams. So I started drawing and experimenting with Welcome to Agency X as a multi-panel comic strip.”

Hepburn is inspired by Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, famous for his pop artwork featuring girls with large, staring eyes. She says, “Like him, I try to go deeper. In his work, there is multi-level programming: children will enjoy the art but so will adults though they may see a deeper meaning, another level such as of loneliness. I love that and try to incorporate it in my own work, so that the jokes work on different levels for everyone.”

Coming up with jokes isn’t a breezy process, something Hepburn admits she used to believe. Now she realises a good strip involves hours of hard work. She adds, “I spend a lot of time organising my thoughts and opinions into one-liners and bits and pieces of scripts that I can use in my comics. I love when I can open up the notepad app in my phone and there are four or five ready-to-use ideas in there. Especially when I’m running late!”

Old newspaper clippings of early Welcome to Agency X strips.
Old newspaper clippings of early Welcome to Agency X strips.

Writing is the most important part of Hepburn’s process; her background in copywriting is a great plus when it comes to editing. In this area as a cartoonist, her great muse is Scott Adams of Dilbert fame.

She says, “I think he is the master of ridiculously funny one-liners and of deadpan humour. I like that his comics are about office life... in the same way Welcome to Agency X is about the lives of creative people, but I would hope that anyone outside of advertising and the creative field would get a laugh from them.”

Ultimately, Hepburn hopes that her work has a classic, timeless tone: “I’ve never liked being topical for the sake of it, or jumping on the bandwagon. People often tell me, ‘Oh such-and-such a topic is gaining momentum right now, you should do a comic about that.’ And while that is a very good way to ‘go viral’ and even get famous ‘overnight’, that kind of quick success has never appealed to me.”

The artist in her may not be misunderstood but Hepburn is wary that she may come off as a little idealistic. However, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

She says, “I am much more interested in the long game, building characters that readers become attached to over time, updates that people wait for because they are genuinely invested in the story.”

The story, in final analysis, is one of dreamers striving to make their dreams come true. It’s not hard to see why Hepburn’s readers and fans are so invested in her work: they are all dreamers. In fact, aren’t we all?

Read more about Welcome to Agency X at www.welcometoagencyx.com

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