Surely you’ve seen Gavin Aung Than’s work. His comic strips are the kind that get forwarded by the thousands across social media, the kind you can’t help but share because there’s nothing like it. Than’s strip, Zen Pencils, takes inspirational quotes from famous people across the world (from JK Rowling and John Lennon to Tagore and APJ Abdul Kalam), and turns them into highly detailed, narrative comics with a contemporary twist.
Zen Pencils is more than cute pictures. It’s more than a dose of hope. Than’s own success is a tale of inspiration. A corporate graphic designer and a freelance cartoonist in Australia, he quit his job and sold his house to fund a year of full-time cartooning in 2012. His life now is perhaps summed up by his own bestselling poster — it features a mountaineer braving the elements with the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Always Do What You Are Afraid To Do.
And surely you’ve seen Abhijeet Kini’s work. It’s graced the cover and inside pages of some of the best issues of Brunch. Mumbai guy Kini is a full-time cartoonist too. He’s created, among several characters, Angry Maushi, an angsty, ass-kicking Mumbai woman out to change the system and finish the bad guys. His mantra: Do What You Love And Love What You Do.
Obviously they’d be kindred spirits. Who better to discuss cartooning? Excerpts from the conversation.
Abhijeet Kini: Right from childhood, I knew I wanted to turn my hobby of drawing, cartooning, into something that would earn me my daily bread. How did it begin for you?
Gavin Aung Than: Cartooning has always been my dream career. I was obsessed with comics and cartoons as a child, scribbling on everything! But honestly, I never thought it was a realistic goal. Growing up in the isolated city of Perth, there were no opportunities for cartoonists, so a career seemed impossible.
AK: In India, and I’m sure in many other parts of Asia, unconventional career paths are hard. Being anything other than a doctor or an engineer is seen as a big risk. My parents were a huge support. They let me do what I wanted to, so I was never in two minds about this. How did your family react to your decision of becoming a professional cartoonist?
GAT: I can definitely relate; having Asian migrant parents, I was always pushed towards an academic career. My cartooning talent was viewed as a nice little hobby, but I was never really encouraged to pursue it as a career. It was expected that I’d go to university and get a stable job. This was so ingrained into my upbringing, that’s exactly what I did. I chose the safer path of graphic design, studied it at university, and then got a design job at a newspaper. I spent eight years doing this, never really happy or fulfilled.
In my spare time, I was always practising my cartooning and after nearly a decade of practice and small cartooning success, I got fed up and finally decided to pursue what I had always dreamed. By the time I made the decision to leave my job and launch Zen Pencils, my parents were pretty nonchalant about it. As long as I didn’t have to borrow money from them, they were fine!
AK: Your style truly differs from the mainstream, especially the philosophically and spiritually driven themes you choose. What made you go with it?
GAT: My conscious decision was to do something different. I had created two webcomics before Zen Pencils and they were never very popular, mainly because they were similar to the thousands of other humour comics online. I wanted to create something unique.
AK: Many readers have loved my comic, Angry Maushi, because it delivers a social message in a fun way. Your work spreads hope in a similar format. Do you think an entertaining medium like cartoons works better than preachy paragraphs?
GAT: Yes, comics are a great medium to communicate difficult and serious themes. They are a universal language and can be enjoyed by all age groups. I try not to get too preachy or too heavy-handed with Zen Pencils. The main thing is that they are fun, the theme is secondary. I definitely think there is a growing appetite online for thoughtful and intelligent comics, as opposed to the typical punchline gag variety.
AK: How do you produce a Zen Pencils comic?
GAT: I almost always start with the quote. There’s no specific criteria for choosing one — I just have to like it. Once I’ve got something to work with, I do very rough sketches in a notebook where I work out the panel layout and the pace of the story. Then I do rough pencil sketches on A4 paper, which I then scan and print out very lightly on an 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 scan those on to the computer. I then add colour and special effects in Adobe Photoshop.
AK: Which artists, comics and thinkers have influenced you?
GAT: I’ve done tribute comics featuring quotes from Bill Watterson and Chuck Jones, who are probably my two biggest influences.
AK: You’re visiting India for the first time. What’s on the agenda?
GAT: I can’t wait to visit India. I know there is a large Indian Zen Pencils readership, so hopefully there will be a positive reaction to my visit. I’m looking forward to meeting the local fans, seeing the local sights and eating the local food. See you soon!
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From HT Brunch, December 20
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