Webcomic Wednesdays: Zen Pencils

Putting inspirational quotes by famous, infamous, semi-famous, and unknown people is nothing new.  But Gavin Aung Than, or Gav, does more than slap a quote on a poster.  He creates cartoons and comics, breathing new life into an old idea.

While some comics are literal interpretations of the quotes, the adaptations can vary.  At times the comic is a re-imagining of the words, such as a quote on persistence from Calvin Coolidge narrating a small knight defeating a dragon.  Sometimes the quote is incorporated into the comic itself, recited by one or several characters.  The quotes are from multiple sources:  poems, speeches, films, memoirs, stand-up routines.  The topics covered range from questioning authority, seeking happiness, and building self-confidence to fear, science, and finding joy in small moments.  The originators of the quotes are varied as well, from presidents to bloggers; for every quote used, Gav presents a small biography on the person and includes links for further reading.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights poster

Part of the fun is the different art used.  While Gav has his own distinct style, he often matches the art to the tone of the quote.  A comic featuring a quote by Robert Frost is drawn in with thick, simple lines and shapes, placing emphasis on the message of avoiding overwork.  In another featuring a poem from Christopher Logue, the comic has a Disney-esque style with bright primaries, matching the modest yet hopeful moral.  For his own designs, he draws realistic characters with slight exaggerations in anatomy and  proportion, fitting for a contemporary cartoonist.  But when a comic calls for a more surreal bent, such as the cartoon featuring a quote by poet Rumi, he makes extensive use of shapes, drawing a menagerie of characters from complex to simple.  If anything, his ability to draw in different forms only highlights his talent as an artist.  Recently, he has begun writing his own material for the comics as well, although he still largely adapts quotes.

While many comics feature new people and worlds, Gav has a small circle of recurring characters.  Be they one-shots or frequent guests, his characters reflect a diverse group of people who constantly break society’s rules and expectations.  There is Rising Phoenix, a female pro-wrestler; the Ballet Boy, a short boy who defies expectations to become a dancer, with support from his tattooed father; and Eddie Chong and his daughter, two talented artists who just need some encouragement.  His characters are not perfect.  Two popular characters, the Love couple, experience the full cycle of a relationship.  The Running Man has trouble rebuilding his self-confidence after a depressive episode.  Most especially, The Kid starts off getting revenge on bullies by becoming one himself, leading to a journey of self-learning to rise above the tyrants.

A gathering of the recurring Zen Pencils characters
A gathering of the recurring Zen Pencils characters

The most recognizable of his characters is the Shaolin Monk, who doubles as the site’s mascot.  In recent comics, the Master has taken on an apprentice, the Little Kung-Fu Warrior.  As of last month, Gav has announced a spin-off webcomic starring the Little Warrior, to be released at a later date.

Promotional art for "Little Warrior"
Promotional art for “Little Warrior”

Gav’s comics run the gamut from everything inspirational, be they funny, wise, or sardonic.  The comics are available as posters or in two book compilations.  Read the latest at ZenPencils.com.

SJ Pendergraft

SJ Pendergraft is a writer who enjoys webcomics, so she decided to combine the two and became a webcomic reviewer.

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