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Make Good Art

A day in the life of Gavin Aung Than, Melbourne-based cartoonist and creator of the popular webcomic, Zen Pencils.

--Courtesy: Gavin Aung Than 2012

On most days, Gavin Aung Than finds it hard to believe that he took the plunge. It’s not incredibly wise, he says, but for the quote-adapting, Carl Sagan-loving cartoonist, it wasn’t incredibly unwise either. Now, if he hadn’t decided to quit his dead-end graphic designing job and start illustrating beautiful quotes for us, grown women like me wouldn’t have the chance to get misty-eyed and lumpy-throated on reading and re-reading his strips on particularly uninspiring days.

If you haven’t heard about Zen Pencils, the only smart move for you to make would be to go and look it up. It’s two years old, and a complete goldmine. Gavin illustrates inspirational quotes – from poets to politicians, artists to astronauts, spiritual leaders to scientists – in a way no one has done before. “To cater to an audience who wouldn’t usually read comics”, he tells me over a Skype call. “Or who have really short attention spans (like myself)”, I add guiltily. It’s almost 10pm in Melbourne, and Gavin is in his pyjamas. (I know not because I can see him, but because he cites this very reason to stop me from setting up a video call.)

Over the next 40 minutes, we talk about a wide range of subjects, from books (he’s a big Neil Gaiman fan) to TV series (might be binge-watching Parks & Recreation and House of Cards now but one classic he will always go back to is The Simpsons) to his childhood fantasies (was convinced at one point that professional tennis was his true calling) to some very philosophical questions about life. What made him leave his job after eight years, with almost nothing as a back up? Pent-up frustration? Boredom? Guts? Turns out, it’s all of the above.

““I worked in a newspaper as a graphic designer and I was bored, to say the least. Then there was the recession, and people around me were losing their jobs, and that’s when I started thinking of a way out.”

Reasonably young and justifiably frustrated, he took, what he now calls, “the biggest risk of his life” and sold the property that he and Jessica, his then girlfriend (and now wife) were living in and started his own website, Zen Pencils. His Carl Sagan comic, Make the Most of this Life (one of the first he drew), was his ‘eureka’ moment in comics. “This was the first to capture the combination of inspiration, thoughtfulness and humour that I was trying to achieve and it gave me some confidence about the decision I had made,” he says. Zen Pencils, was by no means a rash decision but Gavin can’t seem to emphasise enough on how lucky he got.

“I wouldn’t advise anyone to chuck everything away on a whim – I doubt a lot of people own a property or a house they can sell. Honestly, sometimes I still can’t believe I did it.”

But he better believe he did because there is nothing unreal about the number of fans he has on his Facebook page (110,396 when I last checked), his 1,725 followers on Instagram, 12,600 followers on Twitter and a string of comments which run into thousands on every new comic he creates.Two months ago was Gavin’s first trip to Myanmar, the country his family migrated from in the 1930s. He had a Zen Pencils meeting there with ten enthusiastic fans showing up. “Undoubtedly, a modest number but that’s understandable,” he says with a laugh, “I’m just happy that my art reaches somewhere as far away as Burma.”

In spite of Zen Pencils having gone viral over the past couple of years, Gavin remains disarmingly modest.

“How does it feel to be famous?”

“I’m not famous”, he interjects, “I answer all my emails myself.”

However, let me add at this juncture that the “not-so-famous” Gavin Aung Than will soon be a published writer. His first book deal has been signed and Zen Pencils, the book will hit the stands in September later this year. A compilation of 40-50 of his best cartoon quotes, from Theodore Roosevelt’s The Man in the Arena to Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art, the book is a dream come true for Gavin, who is evidently excited about the months to come. He plans to go to Portland, Oregon later this year for a conference and has the San Diego Comic Con on the top of his agenda.

In the mean time, he’s sketching away at a new comic, The Artist Troll War series, a four part story (three of which have already been published) is an original, “It’s been brewing in my head for a while now, and I also wanted to see if I can generate an original story without having a quote as a safety net.”

At the end of our conversation, I ask Gav (are we friends now? I hope.) what his plans for the next day are. He will wake up at 7 tomorrow, he says, and check his inbox: that’s the first thing he does everyday. “I got a wonderful letter earlier today from someone who was having a rough time. Apparently my comics saw them through this patch. I had no idea comics could do that, let alone my comics.” He tries not to get too distracted by his emails and mulitiple notifications, and concentrates on the work at hand. He will spend all morning, and most of his afternoon drawing. His new passion is Crossfit – “a cartoonist needs his exercise!”, Jessica will be back for dinner, and they will eat, under the watchful eyes of their two miniature schnauzers, Vayda and Jimmy. It’ll be almost midnight before Gavin retires to bed, and thankfully, not after being pestered on Skype by journalists all the way from New Delhi.

(Courtesy: Words by Neil Gaiman; Artwork by Gavin Aung Than (2012))
Tora Agarwala

A former Features Correspondent with the Indian Express, New Delhi, Tora Agarwala now lives vicariously through the travel books she edits at Dorling Kindersley (Penguin-Random House Group), where she is currently employed. She has a Bachelors in History from St Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and likes to believe she is skilled at copying illustrations from the web.