State of Zen: Cartoonist Gavin Than on how Zen Pencil’s came to be

  • Poorva Joshi, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Dec 21, 2015 14:24 IST
Gavin Than left his job as a graphic designer in 2011 and started Zen Pencils in January 2012

On August 18, a few weeks after former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam passed away (July 27, 2015), a comic strip tribute by online portal Zen Pencils surfaced on social media. Taking inspiration from Wings of Fire, Kalam’s autobiography, it depicted a young girl embarking on an uphill journey with a sledge, while battling social conventions. At one point, she pauses to study her sledge and realises that it is full of possessions she doesn’t value. She decides to take charge of her life and skis downhill before dunking in the sea. The comic is based on Kalam’s quote: “Life is a difficult game. You can win only by retaining your birthright to be a person.”

Conceived by graphic artist Gavin Aung Than, this was one of the most heart-warming tributes accorded to the missile man and has clocked over 11 thousand shares on Facebook. The online portal is famous for converting proverbs and inspirational quotes into comic strips. And over a span of three years, it has managed to garner more than a million followers on Facebook and publish two books. We speak to Than ahead of his Mumbai visit for Comic Con 2015.

The future is yours

Back in 2011, Than was a graphic designer in a corporate firm in Melbourne. Having worked there for eight years, he admits that he was “miserable by the end of it and wanted to do something different”. “I was frustrated with my job. My 30th birthday was approaching and I felt it was time I took control of where my future was heading,” he says.

Than left his job in 2011 and started Zen Pencils in January 2012. He found inspiration in the social media traction that motivational quotes received. “I decided to base an entire website around these quotes and combine them with my cartooning to produce something new,” says the 34-year-old.

The first comic Than uploaded was based on an essay by American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. The two-frame comic strip illustrated the quote: “When you were born you were crying and everyone else was smiling. Live your life so at the end, you’re the one who is smiling and everyone else is crying.” Three years on, Than’s comics have evolved into longer works of art that go up to 16 to 18 frames and dwell on the story behind the quote as well.

The first comic Than uploaded in 2012, based on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote. It has clocked nearly 2,000 Facebook shares

With an infinite pool of quotes to choose from, Than relies on his loyal fan following for suggestions. “My readers submit their favourite quotes, which is fantastic. I have discovered fascinating historic figures through them,” he says.

Once the quote has been decided, Than gets to work.“I do rough sketches in a notebook to set the pace of the story. Then pencil sketches are finalised and then I fill ink into them. Finally, I add colour and special effects in Photoshop,” he explains. Despite the long process, Than manages to release a comic every three weeks. After all, he is aware of how eagerly people await the strip: “I want Zen Pencils to be a destination where people can go to escape and find inspiration to make a positive change in their life. I’ll be satisfied even if the comic simply puts a smile on their face.”

Inspiration centre

Zen Pencils today has 186 comic strips to its name and covers a wide spectrum of authors and artists, from Frida Kahlo to Theodore Roosevelt and even current stars like comedian Amy Poehler. For instance, its 159th comic strip was a tribute to actor Robin Williams. A 16-frame strip, it uses William’s quote “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it”. The comic reads like a Nintendo game with Williams (who loved video games) as the protagonist, appearing as his characters from Dead Poets Society (1989) and Aladdin (1992).

Than’s personal favourite, however, is the one on Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Waterson’s quote: “Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement.” Taken from a speech Waterson gave at Keyton College, Ohio, USA, Than personally relates to it. “He had a similar story of a corporate transitioning to stay-at-home cartoonist. Plus, Calvin and Hobbes was such a huge influence on me growing up,” he says.

Zenpencil’s comic on Rabindranath Tagore’s quote

Toon in

What: Gavin Aung Than will be in town for the Mumbai Comic and Film Convention on December 19 and 20, 11am onward on both days.

Where: Bombay Convention and Exhibition Centre, off Western Express Highway, Goregaon (E)

Passes available on

For Gavin Than’s complete comic collection, visit:

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