A potent combination of word power and cartoonist simplicity, Zen Pencils is that rare concoction of heady inspiration and beautiful art that will have you craving for more.
by Nikhil Sreekandan
Gavin Aung Than is a Melbourne-based cartoonist who worked in the graphic design industry for eight years, during which he also maintained two comic strips week in week out for two different newspapers. Having burnt himself out and being fed up with his unfulfilling job, Gavin quit by the end of 2011 and decided to pursue this crazy new idea that he had for a webcomic – a strip that took inspirational quotes and adapted them into comics.
Named one of the best 100 websites of 2013 by PCMag and featured by the likes of The Washington Post and National Geographic ever since, Zen Pencils, now available in the form of two New York Times bestselling book collections, has come a long way since its inception in 2012.
The very first comic on Zen Pencils was a quote by Ralph Emerson and last month No. 205 was an excerpt from an interview with David Bowie. From old school heroes to the modern day messiahs, Gavin illustrates quotes from anyone that inspires him, challenges him or just makes him laugh.
In one of the many interviews out there on the internet, Gavin explains how he used to waste his time in the office reading Wikipedia pages and biographies of people who led far more interesting lives than his and that ultimately it was they who inspired him to quit his job and chase after his genuine passion.
Now as he makes a living illustrating the quotes that pushed him to quit his job, sell his house and take the big scary jump, Gavin hopes to motivate the rest of the world through his art, to follow his footsteps and live their dreams.
Apart from the unique idea of reimagining inspirational quotes into comic strips, what really works for Zen Pencils is how Gavin builds upon the source material. He does not simply annotate the quotes with pictures, he improvises and augments, as he adds another layer to the text with his detailed artwork.
For example, take the Isaac Asimov comic. The excerpt taken from an interview Asimov gave back in 1988 wherein he predicts how in the near-future personal computers will help anyone learn anything ‘that strikes their fancy’ in the privacy of their own home and at their own leisure. Of course, the prediction came true with the advent of the internet.
But what Gavin does by adding his own characters and telling his own story is that he makes the textual excerpt far more engaging, at the same time simplifying the core idea of the quote through empathetic storytelling.
Every frame drives us to the next, as Gavin gives us his interpretation of the quote and he makes sure to finish strong every single time. In the Asimov comic, the sudden jump in the timeline midway withholds information which gets delivered in the last frame, giving you a sense of satisfaction and more importantly empowering what Asimov is trying to convey.
Gavin also follows every strip on Zen Pencils with a nice addition at the bottom, a brief history lesson and a personal note on the themes and ideas touched upon in the comic. Ultimately what forms the whole package is a beautiful piece of art that at once is a crafty piece of storytelling, an engaging history lesson, a beautiful re-imagination of a quote/excerpt from a book and most importantly a simple comic strip that can be read in leisure.
Zen Pencils also has several original comics featuring similar motivational and inspirational themes, like the action poem My spirit is a roaring sea, written by Gavin himself.
With sales of prints and other merchandise such as mugs and apparels flourishing and of course the two best-selling book collections, it is certain proof of Zen Pencil’s success.
In an age where artists are finding it difficult to survive on the internet, filled with more than its fair share of pirates and imitators, Zen Pencils has found a successful formula for a cartoonist to not just survive but create something truly unique and beautiful.
Nikhil Sreekandan is a journalist with a desire to explore life through the stories he chases. An engineer who found recluse in the world of words, he is a journalism post-graduate from Cardiff University. He works as a content editor at Nature inFocus, India’s leading platform for nature and wildlife. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature or his earphones — there is a genuine attempt at ‘giving chase’, and it is beautiful.