A young Australia-based graphic artist, after eight years of being in an uninspiring job, wakes up one day, grabs his pencils and draws cartoons, making everyone fall in love with his colourful portrayals. Zen Pencils is a website where inspirational quotes and passages from famous people are adapted into unique comic strips. Gavin Aung Than came up with the idea of starting this website while browsing through the lives of the successful. Widely popular, the strips are featured in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Slate, Upworthy, Buzzfeed, Gawker, Brain Pickings, News.com.au, The Design Files and more.
Over an e-mail interview, Gavin Aung Than warmly shares his love for cartooning: animated style of cartooning, combined with insight, tickles you. The words of Rabindranath Tagore, Theodore Roosevelt, Steve Jobs and the Dalai Lama come to life when he adds a whimsical spin to it.
Than’s skillful cartooning pulls you into the story and provokes you to think, and many a time take action. The subjects, which are as varied as kindness, self-worth, abuse, or the pursuit of dreams, are treated with a sense of lightness without being preachy. In an email interview Than says, “Creating comics has always been a favourite pastime. Using a combination of pictures and words to create a story is something that I just love doing. People love inspirational quotes and some have been collecting quotes their whole lives. I just think they’ve never been presented in this way before — where they’re turned into fun, visual stories. Also, the themes of the comics are universal and social media helps the comics reach out on a global level.”
Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who captivated everyone by chronicling his life in space via social media, was impressed by Than, and tweeted saying how he enjoyed his quote being adapted into a Zen Pencil comic. Flattered by his response, Than said in an interview, “The thought of Chris reading my comic in space is so surreal and thrilling.”
In the web kingdom, the Zen Pencil following is growing, with currently 90,000 followers on Facebook. “I expected some good feedback and maybe a small following, but the huge response and the international popularity of Zen Pencils have been a total surprise. There have been so many unforgettable emails — people who suffer from depression or have lost their job or a loved one, students who are confused on what to do after school, school teachers who use the comics in the classroom — have all contacted me and that never fails to put a smile on my face.”
Cartooning isn’t all party. “If I had the power to stop time, it would help with the deadlines! Maintaining a regular schedule is the hardest part. I try to update the site on a weekly basis, but I seem to think of more and more elaborate stories, that I’m often burning the midnight oil to finish them on time. The memories I used to have in my old office job, dreaming of a career where I could draw comics all day long, is what keeps me going. Now that I’m doing that, I try not to take it for granted.”
The added meaning to his life with Zen Pencils is immeasurable. “Comics are powerful as an art form to influence people — they’re not just lowbrow entertainment for children. With Zen Pencils, I’m using my talent and craft to not only do work that is very satisfying personally, but is also bringing happiness to people and helping them in ways I didn’t think comics were capable of. Now that I’m making these comics, I know it’s what I should have been doing all along. Just having that knowledge is worth some hardship and sacrifice.”