Sometimes the internet can be an intimidating, and even a grumpy, place to be. That is when comics like Zen Pencils come along and put in sufficient effort to redeem the negativity of the internet with an incredibly uplifting comic.
Zen Pencils is one of my favorite webcomics because of its intrinsic value of trying to make the world a better place through art and media. Zen Pencils creator, Gavin Aung Than, does this by further immortalizing inspirational quotes by famous people through his fantastic illustrations. Keep in mind that these are not just your run-of-the-mill quotes that you see on a regular basis. Gavin carefully chooses quotes by people such as Maya Angelou, the Dalai Lama, John Lennon, and Bill Watterson, (among many others), which, together, essentially create an inspirational doctrine for individualism, being true to yourself, ethics, and following your dreams.
As a talented designer and artist, Gavin’s composition and layout brings forth an ebb and flow to the quotes, building suspense and adding the imperative visual elements needed to connect the quote with the viewer. The result is a fantastic display of why illustration was invented in the first place: to give weight and bring understanding to the content being read. Gavin successfully does this throughout his hundreds of quotes through Zen Pencils.
Gavin is a busy cartoonist so I am very grateful that he took the time to give me this exclusive interview:
Interview with Zen Pencils creator, Gavin Aung Than:
Q. At what age did you know that you wanted to become a cartoonist and how did you nurture your creative side at that time?
A. There wasn’t a particular age I can remember when I first said to myself “I want to be a cartoonist!” I’ve just always loved comics and cartoons and I’ve been drawing comics since I was a teenager. As a kid, I never really thought being a cartoonist was a possibility, especially living in Perth, Australia. There weren’t many opportunities for that kind of thing where I lived. Around age 19 or 20, I got more serious about it. I was in university studying graphic design but in my spare time I decided I would be a comic strip artist, so I began drawing samples to send to the big American syndicates, which all got (deservedly) rejected. For one of my uni projects I made my own comic book and got a few hundred copies printed. That comic actually helped me get a job at the local newspaper, where I worked as a graphic designer. So I guess I nurtured my love for cartooning by practicing it all the time!
Q. You quit your job in the graphic design industry in 2011 to pursue your life-long dream of being a cartoonist. What was the tipping point towards making such a bold decision?
A. Again, there wasn’t one eureka moment – I had been coasting at my job for a number of years. Thanks to working in the newspaper industry, I was getting two of my comic strips published and I kept telling myself someone important (I don’t know who) would notice my strips and say “That kid’s the next Charles Schulz, give him lots of money so he can do comic strips full-time!” (Like that’s ever happened in the history of cartooning, sheesh.)
My job was comfortable and I would go home and work on the strips – that just became my life for a few years. Meanwhile, as the newspaper industry was collapsing, the job was getting worse and worse (budget cuts, layoffs, etc.) and I wanted to leave. I had also been following the most successful web cartoonists and bloggers and getting into the whole online entrepreneur thing. So the only question was would I leave the newspaper job to just go find another graphic design job, or try the cartooning thing one last time. Obviously, I chose the latter.
Q. You launched Zen Pencils in February 2012, starting with more shorter strips featuring quotes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hellen Keller, Robert Frost, and Benjamin Franklin. Since then, your strips have increased in size. What helped inspire this change of length?
A. It’s been totally organic. My stories, and the number of panels I need to tell them, have just gradually gotten longer and longer. There’s no reason behind it. I sometimes tell myself to try and layout a shorter story, like how I used to, but I can’t do it. My storytelling is evolving, for better or worse.
Q. Your behind-the-scenes process photos are well documented and provide awesome insight for the budding cartoonist. You mention one comic may take you about a week, saying inking is the “fun and relaxing part.” What stage is the one you look forward to the most?
A. I like the tight penciling stage. That’s when the basic rough layout is done and I can just go in over the top with more detail. You know, work on the facial expressions, body gestures and overall ‘cartooniness’ while still not having to be precious about it, because it’s not the inks yet. Yes, inking is more relaxing, the drawing is done and I’m just making it look pretty. I’m usually listening to music or podcast when I’m inking.
Q. After you quit your job and sold your house, you mention that your website was getting little traffic for the first few weeks, which invoked doubt in your mind about your new life path. Yet, soon thereafter, your comics quickly gained international attention. Phil Plait wrote a post about you for Discover magazine, you had some influential people (including Chris Guillebeau, Hugh Macleod, and Scott McCloud) tweet your comics, and the Washington Post did a story. What was your reaction to getting “instant” notoriety after previously questioning your decision?
A. It was extremely satisfying knowing that the risk I had taken to start Zen Pencils was starting to pay off (not literally, I didn’t start making any real money until at least a year in). It was kind of like validation that all the years of hard work I had put into cartooning was worth it and that I hadn’t been deluding myself the whole time.
Q. I absolutely adore your 4-part Troll comics. Hilariously enough, the comments posted on your site are priceless, proving that comics like this are needed. Did this satiate the need to educate people about trolling?
A. Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. Yeah, I got it out of my system. It showed me that trolls are like the mythical Hydra – cut off one of the heads, and another two will grow :). I realized that the best thing to deal with it is to just keep creating and not worry what others think.
Q. Bringing light to these inspirational quotes from important people is amazing. Yet, besides the Troll comic, do you ever have ideas that fit outside of this format? Any plans for creating/publishing those ideas?
A. No plans for a longer story at the moment. That Troll comic was a good experiment for me to see how I could cope handling a longer story and I realized that I’m much happier doing the short, standalone quotes. It allows me to do something different each comic, change styles if I feel like it and pretty much do whatever I want and not get bored. I might come up with some epic story in the future that I just have to draw, but right now I’m very happy with the Zen Pencils format.
Q. Your Zen Pencils “Reader of the Month” section now has over 15 interviews where you share a reader’s story about how your strips or a quote that was featured helped prompt them to make a life change. What was the inspiration behind featuring your readers?
A. I had been receiving emails from readers who had some amazing stories that were just too good to keep to myself, so I decided to share them with everyone else. They were so inspiring that I knew my readers would benefit from them. I’ve featured a space-loving comedian who’s on the shortlist to be one of the first humans to visit Mars, an explosives expert who served in Afghanistan, and a couple who quit their jobs to give away free pie across America (yes that’s right, free pie). It doesn’t have to be someone doing ‘big’ things either – one of my favorites was a teenage girl who was suffering from depression and told me that my comics helped her get through the worst of it.
Q. 2013 was your second full year of being a full-time cartoonist and to cap off the year, you signed with Andrews McMeel for a publishing deal (congrats!). How have your expectations for Zen Pencils changed since your launch, given your wonderful success? Anything that you thought would be different about being a full-time cartoonist?
A. Nothing’s really changed – I didn’t set myself any long-term goals when I started the site. You know, like a 5 year plan (I probably should have). The only goal I had was to make a living cartooning, so of course a book deal was very exciting and I still won’t fully believe it’s happened until I hold a copy in my hands.
Although I knew it going in, the constant balance between art and business has been a bit difficult to manage. The amount of time I spend on the business/merchandise side of things seems to be growing and growing. You really have to wear a few different hats, not just focus on the cartooning part. It’s been a good learning experience.
Q. Your first book of 40-50 of your best strips published is due out in November 2014. How has the process of compiling your strips into book format been going for you? Are there any surprises we can look forward to with the release of your book?
A. I personally haven’t had to reformat the comics; it’s been designed by the publisher. Nothing drastic has been changed; the comics have just been split up among a few pages. I had to get permission for most of the quotes to be used in the book and unfortunately, a few of the popular strips won’t be included. But I’m still really happy with the selection and there will be a big exclusive pull-out poster which I think the readers will dig.
Q. You just got back from San Diego Comic Con and a trip in the US, went to Myanmar and Singapore for meet ups before that, and have attended numerous panels and other conventions since the launch of Zen Pencils. What did you do to prepare for transitioning from being an in-the-house-cartoonist to an extremely sociable public speaker? Any tips for helping introverted cartoonists to become more comfortable in meeting their fans face-to-face?
A. Whoa, whoa you’re making me sound like a hotshot globetrotter (which I definitely am not). I am extremely introverted, and am way more comfortable drawing by myself. One of the main incentives about being independent is that I get to travel more. It was something I really wanted to do, so I’ve been traveling a bit and thought, “Since I’m going to be in the US or Singapore, why not see if any Zen Pencils readers wanted to meet-up?”
I’m always really nervous before a meet-up but then meeting the readers is such an enjoyable experience. It’s just nice to meet face to face, instead of always communicating online. My advice is to just go for it, it’s never as scary as you think it will be. I totally recommend cartoonists try it; it’s helped me get out of my shell a bit more and breaks up the monotony of working alone. The public speaking thing: that’s been another learning experience. It’s something I’m getting asked to do more and more and I’m slowly getting better at it.
Q. Most of your fans appear to be extremely supportive, submitting quote ideas and reader-of-the-month stories, attending panels and meet-ups, and even creating animations and short movies based on your comics and their featured quotes. Has this support helped shape the direction of what you do next? What has been the most surprising show of support that you have received so far?
A. I know, my readers have been incredible. I don’t think it’s shaped what I do on the website particularly (except the Reader of the Month section), but it has definitely encouraged me to keep doing what I’m doing. Honestly, I started Zen Pencils purely as a vehicle to stay at home and draw full-time. The fact that so many people find comfort in the comics is just icing on the cake. I can’t single out one show of support… there have been so many. Having a few of the comics adapted into short films and animations by the readers is a highlight. There’s a reader currently adapting one of the comics into a 3D animated short film. A reader in Malaysia just bought a heap of my posters and will be decorating his new café with them. Stuff like that is so cool and I’m extremely grateful for all the support.