The Birth of a Web Comic – Lessons from Zen Pencils

By Jonathan Goodman | Follow Him on Twitter
“When reading a comic, nothing else matters. We become children again looking bright eyed at the world with dilated pupils and open minds.”

ZEN PENCILS all started on the floor of Grandma’s house in Perth, Australia.

The creator, Gavin Aung Than, said that his first artistic memory was drawing Bugs Bunny on a low table—so low that he often knelt on the floor—an image that can still be seen frequently in his comics.

Armed with his faber-castell pencils, he was known as “the guy who drew” all through school. Like any other adolescent with artistic talent, he found himself sketching dirty pictures on student’s files.

Cartoons were always a passion for him but neither Gavin nor his parents thought that it held a future.

So Gavin enrolled in University to study graphic design. Taking the safe route, he figured that graphic design would be a good plan B if cartooning didn’t pan out.

University came and went and Gavin got a job in graphic design at the local newspaper—he later moved to Melbourne but stayed in the newspaper industry for a total of 8 years. As the minutes, hours, days, months and years sped by Gavin became increasingly complacent.

He had spent those 8 years practicing his cartooning in his free time, a period he thinks was vital to his growth. While working for the newspaper he pitched syndicates around the world with his comics but didn’t have any success.

Newspaper Comics were a dying industry—it’s near impossible to make cartooning a business nowadays—at least not in the conventional route.

But his passion never wavered and Gavin was determined. No matter how hard he tried to do the smart thing and stay safe, he had a dream; and that dream was about the become a reality.

“Some day I’m going to stop the graphic design work and become a famous syndicated comic strip artist.” – Gavin Aung Than

The Birth of Zen Pencils

Becoming increasingly complacent and unhappy with what his life had become, Gavin sought solace in reading Wikipedia bios of inspirational people.

Inspirational quotes, motivational passages, and biographies of brilliant people finally pushed Gavin over the edge and he decided that it was time to take the leap.

Gavin is a creator. Cartooning is what he does best. When we think of cartoons, we often think of puns, cheap jokes or observational humor. Zen Pencils is more than a cartoon; it’s a great display of multiple psychological theories converging into one art medium executed brilliantly.

Motivation seems to be everywhere these days or, more specifically, the appearance of altruistic motivation. It’s become impossible to open up Facebook without seeing one of those pictures with a motivational phrase crudely pasted on top.

My opinion is that these photos aren’t altruistic. The person sharing the picture is using the motivational phrase to selectively self-represent, or brag about whatever it is that they want others to know about them.

Nobody posts a picture about working out if they haven’t exercised in months and have no plans to do it. It’s considered uncouth to come out and say “I work out!” But if we share a picture of a sweaty body that says, “get after it” it appears that we’re being motivational.

Research shows that people who rank lower on a scale of emotional stability share more often.1 The response to their posts actually acts as a sort of therapy. Perceived social support received in the form of likes or “atta boy” comments increases ones well being and can even curb alcohol addiction, nicotine consumption, and over eating.2

Gavin, like many others, saw these photos and became frustrated by them. In his own words:

“I had always seen this inspiration quotes on Facebook but had always thought that they were cheesy and lame. There was always some cloud or sunset and I would have never shared that on my Facebook myself. So I decided to turn them into comics to take advantage of this trend where people are sharing these quotes.”  -Gavin Aung Than

The insight was that these motivational phrases were everywhere.

Gavin recognized that, and did it better.

Understanding that the World had changed, Gavin decided that each comic would be self-contained. He wanted something meaningful. Giving people a smile wasn’t enough; he wanted to elicit emotions from his reader—another insight that contributed to his success.

His first comic was a celebration of sorts in leaving the corporate World as he illustrated The Faithful Worker by Robert Frost.

Zen Pencils

Photo Credit: The Faithful Worker

While the artistic style has changed since his first comic, the idea was immediately popular and it was the start of something special. What Gavin didn’t realize is that he was creating a Trojan Horse with each comic. In Jonah Berger’s words, a Trojan Horse is “a carrier narrative that people will share, while talking about your product or idea along the way.” 3

I love Gavin’s work and had been studying it for some time before contacting him. There are few better examples of art being transformed beautifully to spread within an entirely new medium.

In reading the 6 reasons why Zen Pencils has been so successful, try to think at how you can implement some of these concepts into your own business to get more of a spread.

The 6 Reasons Why Zen Pencils is So Successful

1. You Always Leave With a Dopey Smile.

Finish strong. The final emotion that a person leaves with after dealing with you forms his or her memory of you.

A conclusion is never a simple wrap up of the previous minutes or writing and Gavin understands this. Perhaps the best example is a comic illustrating Carl Sagan’s Make the Most out of this Life in which the tenuous subjects of war, death, and religious dogma are examined all in one.

The comic progresses as a cliffhanger as the reader moves from one panel to the next. Then, in a moment of beautiful simplicity, the opposite gunman throw down their arms, reach into their coats…

Zen Pencils

… And take out Ping Pong paddles.
Photo credit: Make the Most out of this Life

I love this picture for two reasons.

  1. The idea that play democratizes us and if we all just chilled the fuck out the world would be a much better place.
  2. The intense concentration on the face of the soldier with his tongue sticking out.

2. The Comics Are Perfect for Selective Self-Representation

Social media is a perfect avenue for people to communicate or even boast about themselves. The main reason why information spreads online is because the node that it shares from (the person sharing it) believes that it shows something to his or her audience that’s considered an important trait.

Generally, people share information because it shows that they are one or a combination of intelligent, intellectual, attractive, interesting, or funny. The comics that Gavin produces help people increase their perceived social equity (whether or not it actually grants them an increased social equity is irrelevant for our purposes. Perceived value is what drives action in social media.)

So people want to share material that shows they are interesting, intelligent, and have good morals. Zen Pencils is perfect in that it’s a beautiful visual representation of the things we want others to think we believe.

3. Symbols

A grasp on symbols is pertinent for success in today’s over-information world. The feed moves quickly and there’s too much information for anybody to read. A symbol has the ability to say a lot in a short period of time and, perhaps more importantly, elicit an emotional response in the reader.

Zen Pencils uses symbols exceptionally well to make a point and place the reader in the exact scene and mindset that Gavin wants them to be in. Take what’s perhaps my favorite comic from the site called An Educational Journey (Mark Twain). Below is the first strip of the comic but I implore you to read the entire thing. In the first panel alone there are the following 5 symbols:

  • A KKK uniform
  • Mein Kempf
  • Musket
  • Swastika
  • Iron Cross

No words are needed—everything about this scene screams hatred. Then we see the same man at the end of the comic in the same room but all of the symbols have changed to things we identify with as being peaceful, worldly, and humane.

In this same comic, I’d also like to point out the use of silence. I’ve stated before that silence                                            is part of the music. Silence is rare and underutilized. Silence is controlling. It’s more powerful than words could ever be when used properly. This comic has words that only appear on 3 of the 20 panels. It’s a journey and one that’s impossible not to smile at.

What are you trying to say and what symbol has become ingrained in us that communicates that message, elicits an emotional response, and, if possible, triggers us to think about the material at some other point in our day (ideally at a time when we’re in a buying position for the product or service in question)?

4. Everyman type drawings

I’ve always found web comics to be an interesting study both because I love the Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and Garfield but also because of the resurgence they’ve had throughout a new medium. One thing that I’ve noticed as a commonality to some popular web comics has been the appearance of the simplistic “everyman” drawing.

For some of the Zen Pencil strips, Gavin includes more detail. This is done more for symbolic reasons like he’s trying to show a certain race or culture. Looking at the more motivational strips about getting out of the rat race, overcoming adversity, and paving ones own path there is an interesting difference.

The motivational strips almost always feature large dilated pupils and characters that a large percentage of the population can connect with. If you read Matthew Inman’s brilliant comic The Oatmeal you’ll notice the appearance of dilated pupils as well and it seems to be a feature that’s common amongst many popular comics.

When trying to appeal to a very specific population, the more you can make the protagonist in your story appear and feel like your main demographic the better. If you’re trying to appeal to a wide variety, everyman drawings with dilated pupils seems to work well.

5. A Bit of History and a personal touch

A nice addition at the bottom of each comic is both the personal touch and a brief history lesson. People don’t base their buying decisions off of the 99% we have alike but the 1% that makes us different. Gavin shows some weakness. Take the example of the Neil Dyson strip below where he talks about how difficult he finds it to draw planets. He shows that he’s human in this section and also adds in a little humor about the movie, “the tree of life” which, for the record, I hated.

Zen Pencils

Click the photo to view full size.
Photo credit: The Most Astounding Fact

From a viral standpoint, the history lesson at the bottom of the strip adds to the intelligence quotient. I believe that it lends itself to more sharing. The reason is that it allows the sharer to feel as if they are sharing something educational and not just a comic. Also, at least for me, it’s interesting. He provides just enough information to whet my appetite and includes links if we want more info.

6. Controlling the Eyes

In a 1967 study called An Unexpected Visitor, Russian psychologist Alfred Yarbus showed that you can control where somebody looks with your words. With an eye tracker he was able to measure where the participants were looking.

First, he asked them to view a painting. The eyes darted all over the image seemingly randomly. He then asked the participants how wealthy the people in the painting were and their eyes now scanned the clothing. Last, he asked how old the people in the painting were and their eyes scanned on the faces in the painting.4

Our brains cannot possibly process all available information. Instead, it tells our eyes what specifically we need and, often using previously built associated connections, our eyes seek only that information.

Zen Pencils does a beautiful job of guiding our eyesight. It’s for this reason that, even though the comics are sometimes quite long, we always know exactly where to look and read the entire thing (which is rare on the Internet).

Take A Human Being is Part of a Whole (Albert Einstein) for example. Here, our eyes are continually brought down to the technology that has become so many peoples prison.

Whether through Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or any other visual marketing materials the image is important but it’s the words that dictate how people perceive your image. Think what connections we’ve already made and how to take advantage of them to guide your readers eyes to your most important offers or your calls to action.

From the age of 6 drawing Bugs Bunny at his Grandmothers house Gavin always wanted to be a cartoonist. Everybody told him that he couldn’t do it—so much so that he believed them. He got shut down at every turn but kept perfecting his craft.

Then came the day to take the giant leap and all it took was one great insight and one brilliant idea—people love inspirational quotes, so why not make them more meaningful?

There are a lot of lessons that we can learn in viral from Zen Pencils but perhaps the most important lesson at all is to not be dissuaded because people say no. In this day and age, the gatekeepers no longer hold all of the power. There’s always a way so long as you’ve got your trusty set of faber-castell pencils.


All images featured in this comic are owned by Zen Pencils and are used with permission.

Connect With Zen Pencils

The Zen Pencils Website

The Zen Pencils Facebook Page

Zen Pencils on Twitter


1Buechel E.,Berger J., (Under Review). Facebook Therapy? Why Do People Share Self-Relevant Content Online?

2Wethington, E. and Kessler C. 1986. Perceived Support, Received Support, and Adjustment to Stressful Life Events. Journal of Health and Social Behaviour. 27 (March) 78-89.

3Jonah Berger, Contagious: Why Things Catch On

4A. L. Yarbus, Eye Movements and Vision. New York: Plenum Press, 1967. (Translated from Russian by Basil Haigh. Original Russian edition published in Moscow in 1965.)

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  1. I like a lot Zen Pencils, the style is great and the messages in comics really make you think about things. I have to say that I also like this website so I had to subscribe. :)

  2. Great post, Jon. I’ve been on an information diet lately, and I’m glad I took the time to appreciate this. Zen Pencils is awesome!

  3. Great analysis. I’m a big fan of Zen Pencils!


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