Cartoonist draws a (semi) real life in ‘Welcome To Agency X’

Cartoonist Sam Hepburn in her home studio in Malaysia.

If you

have been following Sam Hepburn’s Welcome To Agency X comic strip that ran for a whole year in The Star from September 2015, it might just be a walk down memory lane to pick up her book, now available exclusively at Popular Bookstores throughout Malaysia.

Published by Keropok Comics, the 156-page compilation features comic strips that appeared in The Star, with brand-new character art and mini-comics created specially for this book.

Hepburn is a cartoonist who has dabbled in many different things – from working on a picture book about her trying to be a better pet owner, to a comic blog about being a mixed kid in Malaysia (Hepburn is Scottish-Chinese), and a series of paintings about her first time eating durian.

But before all these, she was a copywriter who left her day job in pursuit of art.

Welcome To Agency X, the book, focuses on Sam, Percy and Russell, the colourful trio who first met in a rather old strip, even before their debut appearance in The Star.

str2_ouhepburn_ou_2_bookcover_mustuse“Sam was assigned to a job in the office, and her partners were Percy and Russell. The three of them were such a quirky bunch together, that I just had to make them friends,” recalls Hepburn, 31, in an e-mail interview.

Percy was the first character she drew specifically for the comic strip, with wide-eyed Russell developed as a natural “enemy” to him; the antagonist Hepburn constantly pits against the jaded and cynical Percy.

“From the moment Percy was ‘born’, his character just flowed right onto the page, I knew exactly who he was: the sarcastic exterior hiding a vulnerable heart. I always enjoy creating the strips that play off the chemistry of these two, they are loads of fun,” she says.

Interestingly, Sam is the cartoon version of Hepburn, complete with the occasional messy hair and her love for junk food very much evident.

“Her look hasn’t changed much since she was first created in 2010. In fact, it is me in real life who has changed!” shares Hepburn, who was born in Scotland and is currently based in Kuala Lumpur.

The “awkward dorkiness” about Sam, for instance, is a huge part of who Hepburn is, and she has embraced it whole heartedly.

Cartoonist Sam Hepburn in her home studio in Malaysia.
Cartoonist Sam Hepburn in her home studio in Malaysia.

“In the past I was very closeted about it. I thought being awkward was embarrassing, it was so uncool. As I grew up, I realised that embarrassing moments only last a moment, so it’s fine to be a dork and embarrass yourself – and hey, now I get to write funny comics about it!”

Lots of burgers, cookies, pizza and doughnuts feature in her comics, which, she confides, is a reflection of her “huge sweet tooth”.

“I love a bit of junk food now and then. As I developed the character of Sam, this somehow started to become central to her personality. So since I draw her, yes, now all of this food is a big part of my life, too.”

Food aside, all her characters are deeply personal and reflect a lot of “inner weirdness, turmoil and insanity” in her.

It so ends up being a common occurrence that friends insist they see themselves in the characters too!

“To an extent, they are right. I pick out people in my life that I find weird or who make me laugh – it is a compliment! But essentially, my characters are all different facets of me: my cynical side, my optimistic side, the part of me that doubts myself. In all my work since I began drawing in 2010, I’ve been essentially talking about myself, my own life, my memories, my experiences,” she shares.

And it has been a colourful life indeed, at least when it comes to chasing her dreams.

In Welcome To Agency X, Sam has a quirky poster in her room that says: “You can probably do it!” But was being a cartoonist something that Hepburn, who, like many of us, went through a string of ambitions as a child, always knew she wanted to do?

“I wanted to be a fashion designer, a cartoonist, a copywriter ... I followed that last one for a few years! I knew I was going to be doing something creative, that’s for sure. When I was a copywriter, for a long time I did think I was living the dream already,” she shares.

But Hepburn always had strong opinions and wanted to do things exactly how she envisioned them, which wasn’t always possible when working in a team and dealing with clients. So somewhere along the way, being a copywriter in the advertising industry stopped being “the dream” and seeking a new path in the road naturally became the next step.

“I felt that I wanted to try and break out of that structure and do something that was all me, my voice, my message, unfiltered. I had a bit of a revelation, I guess, so I did all kinds of things from handicraft to paintings. I didn’t really have a direction, I think I kind of grew into this career. The reality of, ‘Hey, I think I’m a cartoonist!’ was something that crept up on me over a few years as I got to know myself creatively,” she muses.

str2_ouhepburn_ou_5The journey, though, has been an incredibly rewarding one.

“It was more rewarding than I had imagined, to have my voice, nobody telling me to revise this or that. I love being able to finish a piece of work, review it, and say that it is done and not have anyone challenge my decision,” she says.

But the life of an independent artist is no bed of roses, she adds, pointing out that many people, including herself, have romantic ideas about living the “art life”.

“There is a lot of hard work you need to put in so that you can sustain this kind of career, and it is not just about creating good art,” she says.

To Hepburn, cartoonists set out to make people laugh – or think.

And the best feeling of satisfaction, to her, comes when she gets the perfect balance of both in a reaction to her work.

“It is also cool when people start relating my characters to themselves, when they want to buy one of my T-shirts because that character is ‘so them’. That is always nice to hear!”

Welcome To Agency X retails at Popular Bookstores nationwide at RM29.90. Follow Hepburn on Facebook (samhepburninreallife) or Instagram (@samhepburn). More details can be found at

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