“We’re in a new age of animated storytelling,” enthuses artist and creator Sam Sawyer.
“Cartoons got bland for a little while, and were much more about action than heart and soul. But now we’re in a time where there are so many more stories to tell, and they’re not just for boys who are eight years old.”
Sawyer is part of the new generation of post-millennial artists who transcend any one medium or genre: she’s an in-demand comic book cover artist, has helped create mobile games and apps, designed three new Tarot decks, and now, with her new project SALEM, is breaking into the world of animated series television.
From a young age, Sawyer was always attracted to the fantastic and imaginative world of fantasy art. “I’ve been making art since I was 15, and it was right when I was leaving middle school, that I had this idea to write a story from the monster’s perspective.” Ambitious and restless, Sawyer left her home in suburban Phoenix for Los Angeles while in her late teens, dedicating as much time as she could to developing her unique visual style, while still thinking about her idea for a story about a monster.
“Growing up I was into really edgy animation – ‘The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy,’ ‘Invader Zim,’ ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog’ – shows that had a darker, spookier aesthetic. That style dropped off a bit, but SALEM will help bring it back.”
SALEM stands for “The Secret Archive of Legends, Enchantments, and Monsters” and is also the name of a young monster (a “cryptid”) who discovers that they are adopted and NOT a Boogeyman like their guardian. Without a gender and without an identity, Salem sets off on an adventure to find out who they really are, in the process revealing to the audience the hidden world of fairies, monsters, boogeymen, chupacabras, yeti, and other creatures that lie somewhere between reality and imagination.
“I always knew this was a story about someone who was different,” says Sawyer, who identifies as queer. “Our main character identifies as non-binary, because there are so many young kids out there who aren’t included in the typical story. We’re doing better telling stories about people of color or people with disabilities, so we’re opening up that story for people who don’t identify with a gender.”
Working on her idea with friends and trusted colleagues has resulted in a partnership with executive producer Randy Abrams, a veteran marketing creative who specializes in branding animated projects. “The most enjoyable part of this experience has been watching this become a team effort,” says Sawyer. “It’s become a collaboration between me and Randy and all of these artists that I love.” SALEM also includes professional, veteran voice acting talent like Rob Paulsen (“Pinky and the Brain,” “Animaniacs”); Laura Bailey (“Critical Role” and “Dragon Ball Z”); and Adam McArthur (“Star vs. The Forces of Evil,” “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”). Paulsen is thrilled to lend his talent to such a dynamic new enterprise. “Sam did what all the folks at Comic Con love about this experience,” he says. “It’s not about anything but utter joy in expressing yourself and being creative, and being accepted for who you are. I’m really proud of her for bringing SALEM to life – it’s remarkable.”
Aiming to produce a series of 11-12 minute episodes that could eventually be packaged as a series, Sawyer has launched a Kickstarter campaign to complete the first cycle of production. “It’s really starting to feel real, as more and more people bring new life to this story,” she says. They’ve even incorporated some of the traits of the creative team into the characters: Adam MacArthur’s character Oliver, for example, has a passion for boba tea, much like MacArthur himself.
Forging ahead in a new field isn’t intimidating to Sawyer, though she does recognize that her fields are changing and evolving rapidly. “Coming from the comic book world, I’ve found that people in animation are a lot nicer, and at this point gender doesn’t matter as much. I used to get a lot of slack for being one of the few women illustrating comic books, that’s very much of a male-dominated industry. But now I’m in a field where there is much more of a mix of male, female, non-binary, and diversity in general – and a time where everyone is really eager to help everyone out.”