Discover more from New York Cartoons
#13: Gavin Aung Than
Someone You Might Like under a different name you might recognize...
On my trip back to Perth I had a meeting with my old professional cartooning pals. One of which was the very talented (and insanely hard-working) cartoonist and author, Gavin Aung Than.
I have enormous respect for anyone who leaves the safety of a salaried job to take the plunge and pursue their dream job. I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting a handful of people who did this and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and Gavin Aung Than is one of them.
Gavin left the safety of a full-time position as a designer and sold his house to pursue his dream of being a cartoonist, and he went on to have his book debut on the New York Times Best-Sellers list.
His latest book is an absolute killer of a concept, and once again he’s working insanely hard to get the word out and share the book with the world: (The following is a brief cliffs notes version of his story. More at his website.)
My first exposure to Gavin’s work was when I was a young scribbler in Perth. I saw his work in The Sunday Times, the only Sunday paper in town. Gavin worked for News Ltd. as a designer, but he also had a comic that ran in the paper called Dan and Pete, the artwork of which was really impressive— and the jokes were just as good.
Years later we both moved from Perth to Melbourne. It wasn’t until we were there that we got to know each other through the Australian Cartoonists’ Association, and by around 2012 he mentioned to me that he had the support of his partner to make the ballsy decision to sell his house to fund his new online endeavour: Zen Pencils.
The following is an excerpt from this post that originally appeared on my blog.
Brian Fies famously said, “Words and pictures combined are more powerful than either one standing alone”, and in this case, it really rings true:
Gavin started sifting through some of his favourite sayings, passages, stories, and quotes from the likes of everyone from Einstein to Roosevelt, to Malala Yousafzai and began turning their words into comics. He did this without an editor, and always checked the copyright on any of the work first.
Some were single-panel compositions, some were sequential art, but every one of them was done with Gavin’s trademark line economy and expert colour treatment, with just enough texture to draw in the eye, but nothing too flashy as to distract from the message behind the quote. For some of them, he would do two versions; one single image to share on social, and another with sequential comic art for people to read in full.
(Above: In my first New York “studio”… with one piece of art on the wall.)
Below is one of my all-time favourites, and one that was almost identical to that of Gavin’s own journey. It is by his biggest creative influence, Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, complete with a deft, stylistic homage.
Soon enough, the comics started going viral on Social Media. Zen Pencils was taking the world by storm. Poster prints were made available for people to buy in his online store*, which is where the gamble paid off: Within 3 years of leaving his job, he’d finally started making the same income he was making at his old full-time job, and then some. He got signed to the same syndicate I’ve been with for 13 years, Andrews McMeel syndication (the same as Calvin & Hobbes, Garfield, The Far Side, Cul De Sac etc.), and eventually had several books of his work published by Andrews McMeel Syndication.
I got to see Gavin at Comic-Con in the US in San Diego and New York, not attending as a fan but as an artist. It was a really happy moment to see someone who worked so hard and sacrificed so much to see him succeed in his dream.
*On the note of successfully monetizing his creative art: I always had a lot of respect for Gavin’s decision to stave off the temptation to put ads on his website, instead opting to monetize the venture with sales of merch and prints instead. This, despite enormous traffic to his website, was one of many wise decisions Gavin made in building the business and respecting his readers.
(I’ve written before about how I think the advertising model on the internet has ruined everything from news to art, music, podcasts and anything creative that needs to be sold online. It is more worthwhile to monetize by selling your creative work through merch than to tack ads on to everything, making you bow to an algorithm to maximise eyeballs/clicks. I lean heavily into the Jaron Lanier ethos on this …But I digress.)
You can see more on Gavin’s successful journey above on the 7:30 Report on ABC here (with a goofy cameo from one of his biggest fanboys ;)
You can read all about his working process here.
Fast forward to today: Gavin is now a successful author with his own house, two kids, and has now published several books including his new middle-grade graphic novel series “Super Sidekicks”. If anyone ever asks me if pursuing a career as a cartoonist is a foolish move, I point to people like Gavin and show them that it just takes a bit of inventiveness, resilience, and following your passion for the thing you enjoy the most. Gavin also visits schools and does talks for all kinds of audiences with his work.
On a recent visit to Kansas City, I visited Andrews McMeel syndication HQ. I was wandering around the halls when I turned the corner and got goosebumps: it was a gigantic mural of Gavin’s art in pride of place on one of their main walls: a comic with a quote that read: