MELBOURNE, Feb 22 — One of my favourite comic stories is an adaptation of novelist Neil Gaiman’s 2012 keynote address at the University of the Arts. Gaiman ends his speech by advising the fresh graduates to “Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”
The artist behind the aforementioned comic adaptation seems to have taken this to heart. Gavin Aung Than, a former corporate graphic designer left his job of eight years to become a full-time freelance cartoonist in 2011. By the next year, he had launched Zen Pencils, a popular blog where he posts comic stories that are adapted from inspirational quotes. Everyone from Confucius to Henry David Thoreau have been given the Zen Pencils makeover, transforming their wise words into heart-warming, funny and stirring stories.
Based in Melbourne, Than has been drawing comics since his childhood years. He recalls, “I was a cartoon and comic junkie growing up, obsessed with Looney Tunes, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turles, The Simpsons, and whatever other animated shows were on TV. I would always try to draw the various characters. From there, I discovered comic books and became mesmerised with the artwork and haven’t stopped drawing since.”
In the early days of the Zen Pencils website, Than would find quotes from various books he read or Wikipedia pages he stumbled upon. These days, he gets most quotes from his readers, who submit their favourites online. “There’s no rhyme or reason on how I pick them, I just choose quotes that I enjoy or those from a person I want to learn more about.”
One of the first quotes Than adapted was Teddy Roosevelt’s “Daring Greatly” speech, which struck a chord with the young cartoonist. He says, “It was really the first quote I memorised and stuck on my bedroom wall. It forced me to ask myself tough questions — ‘Was I really trying hard enough to achieve my goals?’ and ‘Was I a man in the arena or a critic on the side-lines?’ That quote led me to buy a Teddy Roosevelt biography and I learnt all about his remarkable life.”
Over the years, Than has developed a specific process to adapt quotes into comic stories. “I almost always start with the quote. Sometimes it’s a single image that comes first, and then I build the story around it.
Sometimes I find the ending first and work backwards. I begin with very rough sketches in a notebook where I work out the panel layout and pacing of the story. Then I do pencil sketches on A4 paper which I then scan and print out very lightly on A3 board so I can do the final pencil drawing over it. Next I ink over all the pencils with a black pen and brush, and then scan those into the computer. Finally, I add colour and special effects in Adobe Photoshop.”
Just like any other creative person, Than is no stranger to artist’s block. His solution is simply by working through it. “If I can’t generate an idea from a particular quote, I move on and choose another quote. Or if there’s a day when it’s really not happening creatively, I’ll work on something else — answer a few emails or work on some of my merchandise designs — and come back to the problem later.”
While Than doesn’t have strict deadlines like many other comic strip artists, he tries to produce a new comic every one to two weeks. He says, “I find that having a deadline really forces my creative juices to keep flowing!”
Serendipitously, Than can thank one of his own comic strips for his book. He says, “A former book editor of the film critic Roger Ebert saw my comic tribute to him after he passed away. She contacted me, which led to me signing a book deal with her company. That was something very unexpected!”
Zen Pencils’ online following has grown organically to become an international community. It’s “viral” without being a flash-in-the-pan, but rather building entirely by word-of-mouth. Than believes it boils down to how shareable comics are. “My comics are quick to read, easy to understand, and create an emotional response. Comics help people get motivated or just put a smile on their face. Sharing that smile with a friend is a powerful thing.”
Given the presence of Zen Pencils until the recent publication of Than’s book has been online, the cartoonist inevitably spends a lot of his time on the internet. He says, “It’s definitely tricky balancing the creation versus the promotion of the work. I probably spend more time online than I should! However, creating the comics is the priority; if the content isn’t good then no matter how much online marketing I do, it won’t help.”
Than has since left his 9-to-5 job and is now living arguably every comic creator’s dream of writing and illustrating comics all day. Than says, “Like most people who ‘make it’, what’s behind is a lot of hard work and effort. I’m working much harder and longer hours than my old job, which is probably something I didn’t expect. At the same time, the work is so much more fun and rewarding that I’m happy to put in long hours. Building something from the ground up is not easy, but so far it’s been more than worth it.”
These days it’s seen as a badge of honour to have one’s quote — for those still living, at any rate — adapted into a Zen Pencils comic. Than is still flabbergasted by this development. He says, “It’s wonderful to get positive responses from some of the people whose words I’ve adapted. Hearing from people like John Green, Chris Hadfield, Taylor Mali and Brené Brown has been such a thrill and honour. Sometimes I do pinch myself.”
The biggest challenge for Than these days is simply keeping up a high-quality of work. He says, “After every comic is done, I feel totally drained and exhausted, but there’s always another piece of blank paper waiting for me to start a new one. There’s always a feeling of despair knowing that I have to start anew, telling a completely different story. Once that initial period is over, however, it’s a joy again.
The constant balance between art and business is also a new trial for Than. “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.”
Zen Pencils: Cartoon Quotes from Inspirational Folks by Gavin Aung Than is out at all good bookstores now. To learn more, visit www.zenpencils.com.