Is it possible to make a good living as a comic artist?
Yes, says Sean Lam. However, you must avoid self-indulgence, he adds with a small smile.
Creating only what one desires to draw is not economically viable, explains the 43-year-old, who has penned over 20 award-winning comics and graphic novels in nearly two decades. They include such hit titles as It Takes A Wizard, Ringworld and even religious shorts such as Habemus Papam! Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
His formula for commercial success requires two elements: an understanding of what’s popular in the market and originality. “Don’t copy,” he says. “You must be creative. Try everything.”
A good example is his latest comic, the vampire-themed Geungsi which combines the appeal of the Japanese manga format with social commentary on Singapore, derived from Lam’s personal observations of life here. Sales have been healthy, he reveals, with a second book in the works.
From Singapore to Tokyo and the US
As a child of the 80s, Lam grew up watching animated cartoons. “I wanted to grab a pen and draw whatever I saw on the screen. That’s what I enjoyed,” he says. “Every time I watched an episode, I would come up with my own story on what would happen next. That’s when I realised that, besides art, I also enjoy storytelling.”
The young artist’s parents encouraged this hobby, and he won several art competitions before he enrolled in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, where he began to create his own comic strips. He bravely mailed his portfolio to publishers across Japan and America, including the world’s largest comic powerhouses such as Shueisha Inc and Macmillan Publishers, and was eventually hired by a Tokyo publisher.
Lam cut his teeth there until he was offered an East-meets-West comic by US-based Seven Seas Entertainment in 2006, which paired him with German writer Thomas Hart. The resulting work, It Takes A Wizard, catapulted the duo to fame and caught the attention of sci-fi author Larry Niven. A deal was soon made to adapt Niven’s iconic Ringworld into a graphic novel, which led to a surge in demand for Lam’s work.
Comics set in Singapore
The artist’s diverse works have taught him that comics can introduce people to new knowledge, places, and cultures. Manga, for example, is a great way for people to learn about Japan, even if they’ve never been there.
“It’s very easy to educate with comics because the form is so appealing,” Lam explains. It is for this reason that Geungsi was set in Singapore, and launched in the republic — his proudest moment. (The comic retails at Books Kinokuniya.) He says “I came full circle” in introducing his homeland to the world through art. Now, he hopes to expand the Geungsi world to South-east Asia, China, and even the US.
As it has always been Lam’s dream to develop his intellectual property, he plans to release more original titles beyond Geungsi. IPs can also open the door to merchandise, shows, music, digital art, and NFTs.
His expansive portfolio includes everything from anime-style posters for American DJ Slushii, to limited edition watch designs for Maker’s Watch Knot and a clothing line with The Yurei, featuring characters from Singapore and South-east Asian folklore horror.
Although Singapore’s comics industry is smaller and less vibrant than in places like New York, Lam is optimistic. Reading comics is a huge trend among the younger generation, which translates to an enormous new consumer base that was inaccessible to previous generations of artists.