GAVIN Aung Than, the Melbourne based creator of internationally acclaimed website Zen Pencils, took time out to chat to Daniel Driscoll about a day in the life of a cartoonist and the challenges he faced moving from graphic design to running a successful website.
If you’ve long been a denizen of the Internet, you may likely have seen Zen Pencils‘ comics in one form or another. Combining quotes or poems from famous figures with cartoons drawn by site creator, Gavin Aung Than, Zen Pencils has quickly found international popularity after having only been established in 2013.
Zen Pencils has cropped up just about everywhere from The Washington Post to Buzzfeed and Mashable. In 2013, Zen Pencils was named one of the top 100 websites of 2013 by PCMag.com.
The rocketing success of Zen Pencils despite its relatively short lifespan, Than feels, is partly due to the fact that he’s doing something no one else is.
“People love inspiring quotes and comics, so seeing them combined would naturally be a hit with people. I’d like to think my execution plays a part too.”
I really wanted to be a cartoonist, but everyone told me that was impossible and foolish.
For as long as he can remember, Than has been drawing. As a child, his dream was to be a cartoonist.
“I was addicted to cartoons and comic books growing up and would always try to draw my favourite characters [including] the X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, Looney Tunes… I could go on and on”.
But, coming from a relatively traditional Asian family, his parents told him the career of a cartoonist was not viable.
“I really wanted to be a cartoonist, but everyone told me that was impossible and foolish. My parents and cultural background expected me to go to uni and get a decent job, so I chose a graphic design BA because it was the closest thing to what I wanted to do. After graduating, I got a job as a graphic artist at a newspaper and pretty much stayed in that industry for the next 8 years”.
Working at the newspaper did yield a few positives though as Than says it helped him improve on the skills he’d use in his current vocation.
“The best thing about working at the newspaper was that I got some of my comic strips published regularly which allowed me to improve my cartooning skills.”
The transition was extremely difficult, involved a lot of hard work, risk and uncertainty. It was the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
However, Than eventually became “unhappy professionally”.
“I realised I couldn’t keep working like a monkey for another 35 years. I decided I had to try to pursue my dream of becoming a pro-cartoonist [and] commit myself to it 100 percent”.
And just like that, towards the end of 2011, he quit his job and started work immediately on Zen Pencils in 2012. Changing careers so suddenly after such a long period in a different industry wasn’t without its own set of challenges.
“The transition was extremely difficult, [and] involved a lot of hard work, risk and uncertainty. It was the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done”.
On the material that he produces for the site, Than believes the quotes he uses have inspired others to make similar changes in their life, giving people the encouragement to change careers or reassess their lives.
“The quotes and poetry I select are extremely inspiring and the really good ones make you think about your own life and how to change it if you’re unhappy. I just try to draw comics that make people feel good and want to do great things. I’m extremely honoured that it rubs off on some people”.
What excites YOU and what do YOU want to contribute to the world? Stop wasting time and go for it!
Since establishing the site, the biggest success Than has experienced has been finding a way to make a living from what he loved doing.
“I’m my own boss, can draw whatever I want and don’t answer to anyone. It’s the greatest thing in the world. Not only that, but people from all over the world are enjoying my work and the comics seem to be making a real difference. I could never have dreamed of this happening a few years ago”.
Despite all his international success, the cartoonist has chosen to base himself in Melbourne. Running a digital business, he says, means that there are no longer any limitations to reaching your audience.
“The great thing about working online is that you can do it from anywhere and still get your work seen – even all the way from Australia!”
And even though he has drawn acclaim for his work all around the world, Than still insists his daily routine is structured and boring.
“I wake up early, do some email or social media and then do about an hour of work followed by walking my dogs and lunch. I work throughout the afternoon then go to the gym in the evening. Before bed, I might squeeze in another hour or so of work”.
On advice he could give to international students who wish to pursue a career that everyone back home may discourage, Than had some supportive words to share to our readership.
“I know it can be a lot harder to follow your passion in other cultures, where academic careers are encouraged. Ask yourself if the degree or course you’re studying is the field you really want to spend the rest of your life in. If it’s not, it’s not too late to change your mind. It’s your life, not your parents’.”
“The working world is changing rapidly and there are a lot of exciting opportunities available that weren’t there in the past. What excites YOU and what do YOU want to contribute to the world? Stop wasting time and go for it!”
A Zen Pencils book collecting the site’s best comic strips will be released in November. To see more of Gavin’s work and to keep up to date on what he’s up to, head over to the official website for Zen Pencils.