Gavin Aung Than Inspires the Internet with "Zen Pencils"

A freelance Australian cartoonist, Gavin Aung Than has been adapting quotations into comic stories since 2012 for his webcomic, "Zen Pencils." Often, the quotes are inspirational, including words of wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt and Lao Tzu along with more recent ones by Shonda Rhimes, Jim Henson, J.K. Rowling and Bill Watterson. Than has adapted poems by Shelley and Cavafy, quotes from Carl Sagan, Amy Poehler and J. Krishnamurti, and in four parts depicted the epic Artist-Troll War.

As great as the concept behind "Zen Pencils" is, it wouldn't work nearly as well as it does if Than wasn't as talented as he is. Though he has a style, he varies his approach to great effect, depending on the subject matter he's tackling. In late 2014, Andrews McMeel released a collection of many of his comics, even as Than continues to produce new installments. We spoke with the cartoonist about the inspiration behind his strip, and his aspirations beyond the world of "Zen Pencils."

CBR News: Where did the initial idea come from to draw quotations like this?

Gavin Aung Than: It was 2011, and I was trying to think of a new project. I'd decided to stop my two long-running humor comic strips that were being published in Australia and was looking to start a new webcomic. I was going through my own 'quarter-life crisis' at the time and had begun saving some motivational quotes from heroes of mine just to help me get through the day at my cubicle job. I also noticed that lots of people were sharing their favorite quotes on social media. That's when the idea came to use those quotes as the basis of the website. It was like a light bulb moment, I guess -- I knew I was onto something.

You must have done a few quotes to start, but what inspired you to say, "Let's keep doing this?"

I did about five test comics, showed them to friends and they all said it was a good idea. From there, I basically went "all-in" on the idea, because I resigned from my job so that I could dedicate myself to the new website, 100%. I gave myself six months to see if the website could get any traction. If it didn't, I would crawl back to my old job, hat in hand.

Sometimes you take a quote and you adapt it, but other times you use it as a launching pad and have to build a story based around it.

Yeah, it really depends on the quote. Sometimes a quote like Neil Gaiman's "Make Good Art" already have visual cues in it that give me a starting point. Whereas something like the Roger Ebert quote about kindness requires that a whole story be conceptualized. The latter are much more difficult, but ultimately are more fun and rewarding to do.

Similarly, you use different styles and approaches depending on the strip. I'm thinking of the Robin Williams strip a little while ago, which you did in the style of an 8-bit video game, but you're always changing things up. How much freedom do you feel you have from strip to strip to do something completely different?

Well, that was one of the criteria I had when thinking of a new webcomic idea. I wanted a concept that wouldn't allow me to get bored, and the quotes fit perfectly into that. I feel like I have complete freedom to do whatever I like from comic to comic, and thankfully my readers don't seem to mind. I have a pretty standard "style" but sometimes I can draw a comic in a very cartoony style, then switch to a more realistic style in the next comic or do something completely difficult like a flat vector style. I'm not consciously telling myself to switch it up all the time, but it's wonderful having that flexibility.

How did the book come about? Had you been trying to collect the comics into a book?

The book idea was always something I had in mind, but it was never a huge goal or anything. I actually had some publishers interested early on, but the deals always fell through so I forgot about it for a while. It was only after the Roger Ebert comic I mentioned earlier was posted that serendipity struck. Roger's long time editor actually saw that comic and sent me an email just saying that she enjoyed it. I noticed that her email was from Andrews McMeel Publishing and asked if they would be interested in publishing a "Zen Pencils" book collection. That email eventually led to a book deal. So yes, I was very fortunate that the right person saw the right comic at the right time.

You've used the strip to tell your own story in a way that is really interesting, when you've adapted the Jim Henson or Bill Watterson or Ira Glass quotes. Is this something you were interested in doing for a while or had any intention of when you started?

I choose quotes that resonate with me personally, so I guess it was natural to make some autobiographical comics based on those quotes. Those two you mention, the Henson and Watterson quotes, were especially relevant to my own life and the reasons behind starting the website. It's funny, because the more personal the comics are, the more readers respond to them. The Watterson comic is by far the most popular on the website. 

You have done some interesting experiments like the Love series or the four part Artist-Troll War. The latter, I would imagine, is something you'd been thinking about for a while, but how did you decide to do it like this?

Yes, that was a fun experiment, to try and tell a longer original story. It was meant to be a normal quote adaptation about online troll culture but grew into something bigger the more I worked on it. 

You sometimes adapt quotes that aren't so inspirational. I mean, Marc Maron's or others aren't necessarily what we think of inspirational, or even positive. You don't try to make them into anything they're not, but how do you think of those pieces as relating to the overall goal and tone of the strip?

Well, there is no overall goal of "Zen Pencils!" I'm just adapting quotes week by week. Most of the quotes are inspirational, but I've done quotes about science, art, education, advertising and other non-inspirational topics. I don't want every comic to be have the same theme, as that would get old fast.  

You recently adapted the great Shelley poem "Ozymandias," which is something different, and I was wondering if you could talk a little about how you approached it.

I've done quite a few poetry adaptations, and again, it was a chance to change things up. Some of my favorite adaptations have been poems, such as "Ithaka" and "Phenomenal Woman" and they break things up from the regular inspirational quotes. "Ozymandias" was a chance to do a straight adaptation without the need of thinking of a unique story, so I could just focus on being true to the poem and have fun drawing more of a classical story.

Do you have a favorite comic or quote that you've done?

Probably the Bill Watterson quote. It was very personal to me and I really enjoyed paying tribute to one of my biggest artistic influences. I had no idea so many other people would react so positively to it. 

Are there other things you want to do, different things you're interested in trying?

Sure, I would love to do a massive original story in the future. I'm a huge fan of "Bone" and am loving Kazu Kibuishi's "Amulet," so they are big inspirations to me. Obviously a project like that would require years of dedication, and I don't think my cartooning skill level is up to that task yet. I'm very new to this, and right now I'm having lots of fun with "Zen Pencils" and don't plan on stopping anytime soon.

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