Kitaab’s Interviews Editor Felicia Low-Jimenez in conversation with Gavin Aung Than, the creator of Zen Pencils
Australian cartoonist Gavin Aung Than was in Singapore in February 2014, where hundreds of his loyal fans attended an event held at Books Kinokuniya. It was a spectacular turnout for the creator of Zen Pencils, an online comic that has been featured in The Washington Post, Slate, Buzzfeed, and The A.V. Club. A freelance cartoonist based in Melbourne, Australia, Gavin has an “aw, shucks” demeanour that belies a determined, risk-taking nature that compelled him to give up his day job, sell his house, and embark on a career as a full-time creator of comics and cartoons. Zen Pencils is an interesting take on how a single idea can manifest itself in many different forms. However, on occasion, Gavin has run into copyright issues while using quotations or content that were attributed to other people. For example, he was asked by Charles Bukowski’s publisher, HarperCollins, to remove a cartoon he did based on Bukowski’s famous poem, Air and light and time and space.
Tell us how Zen Pencils came about.
I had finished working on two long-running comic strips without much success and was eager to think of an idea for a new webcomic. I wanted to do something quite different from what I had previously done, which were more traditional humour strips. At the time, I was reading a lot of biographies and saving some of my favourite inspirational quotes from historical figures. I had also noticed that a lot of people were sharing their favourite quotes on social media. That’s when I got the idea to base an entire website around these quotes and combine them with my cartooning to produce something new.
What are some of the comic books or strips you read growing up and how have they (if at all) affected your style?
Looking back, I read comics from all over the world. I read Beano and Dandy comics from the UK, Asterix and Tintin from Europe, Australian comic strips like Ginger Meggs, and of course, a lot of American strips like Garfield, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes, and also MAD Magazine. I collected superhero comic books seriously when I was a teenager. All of these definitely affected my style—as a kid, you soak it all up like a sponge.
Do you think you would have been able to achieve all that you have without social media?
Definitely not. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr have been a huge help in getting my work seen all around the world. Sharing content online is now a part of life, and comics are perfect for that.
Why do you think people have responded so well to your work?
The comics are very sharable—as I said, people love to share content with their friends and family on social media. My comics are quick to read, easy to understand, and create an emotional response. The comics help people get motivated or just put smiles on their faces. Plus, inspirational quotes are very popular today, and my comics present them in a unique way.
The online platform is very dynamic and malleable. Have you ever taken any piece of artwork down and then reposted it with amendments after receiving feedback from your online audience?
Yes, I have. It’s mainly when readers spot a mistake I made. I don’t really have an editor or proof-reader so there’s been a few times when I’ve made mistakes. I’m always waiting anxiously when a comic is first posted, checking the reader comments to see if I’ve screwed up.
Do you prefer working on original stories or adapting quotes by other people?
They’re both very satisfying. I love the challenge of adapting a quote or poem and trying to do something unique with it. Not taking the obvious approach, but trying to adapt faithfully, and yet, creating an original story from it. I’ve only done a few original Zen Pencils comics so far, and they’ve been just as fun. I hope to do more in the future.
If you could collaborate with any comic book writer/illustrator of cartoonist, who would it be?
Oh wow, that’s a tough one. There are so many comic writers I admire. I think Neil Gaiman would be at the top of the list.
When will your next book be out and what will it be about (if you don’t mind sharing)?
The next book is another collection of Zen Pencils comics and will be out for Christmas this year.
Zen Pencils: Cartoon Quotes from Inspirational Folks is available online and in all good bookstores.
Learn more about Gavin and Zen Pencils at his website: zenpencils.com