Gavin Aung Than (Zen Pencils)by GoComics
We're back with another "Meet Your Creator" post. One of the joys of working for GoComics is getting to know the people behind the ink, characters and storylines. It's a primary motivator behind this ongoing segment - we want you to hear from your favorite cartoonists and storytellers, in their own words.
This time around, you'll hear from Gavin Aung Than of Melbourne, Australia. Gavin's work has truly taken the world by storm in the past 18 months, with people around the globe expressing the inspiration provided by his cartoon, Zen Pencils. The concept is brilliant: some of history's greatest quotes are brought to live in a vertical comic layout. It's made history and deeper thinking approachable to younger minds and reminded classic comics fans about the true wonder of following your dreams. Here now, is Gavin. Enjoy!
You see, I've always wanted to be a comic strip artist - it just didn't happen the way I thought it would. Instead of doing it the old-school way of getting syndicated in newspapers, I've found success through webcomics, which seems to be the easiest way for a new cartoonist to get their work out there these days.
I've been hooked on comics all my life - my uncle used to collect Mad magazine (Spy vs. Spy was my favorite) and Beano and Dandy comics (they were popular in the UK and Australia), which I devoured every day after school. Soon I was hooked on Asterix, Tintin and Garfield. By the time I had discovered Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, I was also collecting superhero comic books - X-Men, Wolverine, Batman and many others. Not only did I read all of them obsessively, I also drew all my favorite characters obsessively. My dad was a printer, so there were always stacks of spare paper lying around the house, and I would just read comics and draw all day.
I eventually went to university to study graphic design (because "cartooning" wasn't a real job, I kept being told), all the while continuing to practice drawing comics in my spare time. After I graduated, it took me about six months to find a job. During that time, and in a last-ditch attempt to avoid working in the "real" world, I sent off a few comic strip submissions to the big syndicates in America. My favorite submission was about two housemates - one was a regular joe and the other the greatest superhero in the world - and they would get into adventures. Of course, at the time I was nowhere near ready to be a pro cartoonist and my submissions were pretty terrible. I've still got the rejection letters somewhere.
As fate would have it, I found work as a graphic designer at my local newspaper. I kept practicing my drawing and eventually managed to convince the editor of the paper to publish the previously mentioned comic strip about the two housemates. It was called Dan and Pete, and was published every week for five years.
During those five years I moved cities, found ANOTHER graphic design job at ANOTHER newspaper and managed to convince ANOTHER editor to publish ANOTHER one of my comic strips. That one was called Boys Will Be Boys, a more risquн© dating and pop culture strip about two bonehead brothers. That was published every week for more than three years.
Having to write and draw those two strips every week for a long period of time was my cartooning apprenticeship. Cartooning is just like any other trade - you have to put in years of constant practice to become "qualified." I thought having two strips published in big-city newspapers would magically launch my career, but as each year passed with no change, I realized that the comics would always be something I did as a side project. After years of working a soul-crushing job as well as doing two different comic strips every week, I had burnt myself out and decided to re-evaluate my life. Was it time to give up the crazy cartooning dream I had had since was a kid? Hell no, I wasn't ready to do that! Soon, I had quit my job and retired both of the comic strips and decided to put all my hopes on this crazy new idea I had for a webcomic - a strip that took inspirational quotes and adapted them into comics.
Zen Pencils is my dream cartooning gig - it allows me total freedom to do something different each strip, change styles, not be constrained by any format or length, not be tied to the same characters all the time. It keeps me from getting bored or falling into a rut, which is what happened with my previous strips. Not only am I having a blast, but readers seem to genuinely appreciate the message of the quotes, and younger kids are discovering great historical figures through the comics. The response has been overwhelming.
I work from my home office in Melbourne, Australia. The comics are a mixture of traditional and digital techniques. I pencil and ink all the strips traditionally, scan the linework, then color and letter the strips in Photoshop and InDesign.
I'm really excited about 2014 - there'll be a Zen Pencils book collection published by Andrews McMeel Publishing later in the year. I'm hoping to attend San Diego Comic-Con for the first time - an event that has been a mecca for me that I've always wanted to visit at least once in my life. I'm in the middle of working on a longer story spread out over many weeks, which I haven't done before - it's proving to be a wonderful challenge.
Looking back, it seems things were meant to work out exactly like they did. I'm glad I worked that graphic design job, because I developed an eye for good design and learnt how to use Adobe Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator like the back of my hand, which comes in really useful now. Being in the newspaper industry allowed me to get my comics published regularly. Having my work published regularly for years improved my cartooning skills enough so that when the time came, I would be competent enough to make Zen Pencils a success.
So maybe what you're doing right now isn't ideally where you'd like to be, but perhaps it's just practice for your dream job in the future. It's funny how things work out sometimes.