Artist Tuesday: Gavin Aung Than

You may already be familiar with Gavin Aung Than as the creative genius behind the website Zen Pencils, and if not, I am telling you now that you should go and correct this egregious oversight on your part. It’s alright. I forgive you. I too was once unenlightened.

Gavin is a freelance illustrator living in Melbourne, Australia, and his own creative journey could really be featured alongside the rest of his inspirational cartoons: At the end of an eight-year stint of working as a corporate graphic designer, he quit his job and started making cartoons full-time.

Love is the awkward silence

While corporate, Gavin still drew; his Boys will be Boys and Dan and Pete comic strips were run in mX (an Australian magazine), and The Sunday Times in Perth, respectively. Both domains he has listed on his portfolio seem to be defunct; Boys will be Boys is about the adventures of two guys and is concurrent with the type of humour I associate with college-aged guys (tinged with misogyny that runs from clueless to deliberate), but Dan and Pete is an adorable and hilarious superhero comic that I was hoping to read more of.

Stockhate syndrome

It’s in Dan and Pete that Gavin’s imagination shines through; in Calvin-and-Hobbes-esque space adventures, monster-fighting, and time-travelling heroism. Even his art style is similar to Bill Watterson’s, with the same sketchy line drawings of cartoony, bobble-headed characters, drawing us in with overemphasized physical attributes and overstated emotions contrasted with simple primary colours and an absurd scenario. This cartoon style resurfaces in Zen Pencils, but alongside a range of different visual adaptations of quotes in various different styles.

Never Give Up

“Never Give Up” – quote from Calvin Coolidge

Zen Pencils are cartoons adapted from the quotes of famous people and hosted together on a website. I’m not sure I can call it a webcomic, because it feels like more than that — in part because the cartoons do not convey a cohesive storyline (although there are some recurring characters), and in part because the art does more than just tell you something that’s happening: it evokes powerful emotions and different interpretations in each person by taking quotes and developing them into an illustration of a worldview. No two are the same.

"Sympathy for the Devil"

“Sympathy for the Devil” – quote from Seneca

When I first discovered Zen Pencils, I spent more time than I should have going through the archives, the about, the blog, and all related material. I couldn’t get enough. Zen Pencils is inspiring — and not just in a general human way, but in a way that makes me feel personally inspired. Though Gavin’s choice of quotes and his illustrations feature men and women alike as both the narrators and the protagonists (as well as people of differing ethnicities and sexualities) he has admitted that there’s a disparity between the gender representation in the comics (and sexist tropes do tend to crop up from time to time); the overwhelming amount of quotes and illustrations feature men or male characters, while women either a backseat or a victim role. Not purposefully; historical bias is overwhelmingly in favour of dudes and their dudely wisdom writings, and thus quotes from women — and stories of quotable women — tend to get buried and are harder to find. Gavin’s written that he is trying to work towards balancing this out, and he takes suggestions.

"Freedom from Fear"

“Freedom from Fear” – quote from Aung San Suu Kyi

Zen Pencils is updated every Tuesday (Mondays, for those of us who don’t live in the future or Australia) and I look forward to it every week. If you’ve browsed the gallery a bit, tell me what your favourite is! Mine is a tie between Malala Yousafzai and the Litany Against Fear from Dune. Just kidding; I can’t pick a favourite… but those are the two that make me ugly sob in my soul. What quote would you want to see featured? Tell us, and then tell him!

Ariel enjoys reading, writing, Tumblring, and long hikes in the woods.