Zen Pencils

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Original review author: oddguy
Webcomic name: Zen Pencils
Author: Gavin Aung Than
Start Date: January 30, 2012
End Date: April 24, 2018
Genre: One part Hallmark greeting card, one part faux-inspirational "Hang in there" kitty poster, 100% pretension
Defining Flaw: I'm afraid to say this webcomic has any flaws because Gav might kill me and scribble "ART" on the walls of his house with my blood

Rating Summary

Art: Wiki.png|Wiki.png|Wiki.png

The art isn't bad or great but it also isn't the problem.

Storyline: Wiki.png

There aren't many "Storylines", but when there are it just makes you wish Gavin would go back to his insipid "Inspirational" comics.

Characters: Not applicable.
Miscellaneous Details: Wiki.png

Does Gavin not make enough money from this webcomic to host it on a site that doesn't crash while loading?

Overall: Wiki.png|Wiki.png

Gets an extra point for not being drawn with stick figures. But it's really not worth reading.

Background and Downfall

What James Stokoe thinks of this comic

The background and the downfall of this comic are pretty intertwined and not very complicated so I might as well just explain them both together.

The long and short of it is simply that this comic was always bad, I never liked it and, much like in So... You're a Cartoonist? (which I also reviewed), an ill-advised change of pace for the comic made it go from bad to worse and therefore worth reviewing.

In the case of Tom Preston, the change was an attempt to write plotted stories instead of gag strips, and similarly, ZP earned the ire of internet users everywhere when its creator attempted to stop making his lazy motivational posters for a spell and try his hand at an original story. Not to get ahead of ourselves I'll just say that the topic of the new comic was his declaration of war against internet trolls in the most insane way possible.

Art review

The art is okay in my opinion. Nothing too fancy, the caricatures of historical figures are good enough for me to know who they are, the style switches up a bit from time to time and the quality has improved a bit since the comic started so I can't accuse it of stagnating.

It isn't amazing and at times is a little flat, but Than has a degree in graphic design so I can't say he doesn't know what he's doing.

The only negative thing I can really say about the art is that he doesn't know how to depict people from other cultures in anything but cartoonish racial stereotypes. I would accuse him of racism, but even when he draws his own race he ends up being just as bad, opting to draw a family of asians as literally yellow and Bruce Lee as fighting caricatures of chinese martial arts masters with long beards and ponytails. All I can say is that when a variety of races appear in a single comic is feels like I'm going through the "It's A Small World" ride at Disneyland.

Writing review

There is a lot wrong with this comic so I think it's better if I separate this into sections.

Misleading Content

A man realizes the folly of racism after traveling the world and discovering that every single racial stereotype is true

There is no real writing in this comic. ZP is just random "inspirational" quotes presented with matching illustrations. This in and of itself is not a bad idea (but less for a webcomic and perhaps more for some sort of greeting card business, which ZP is close to being), but the exaction by Gav is horrendous.

First of all, Than has no idea what he's talking about. A lot of these quotes are out of context or with misleading cartoons added to them showing that Gavin didn't really understand them. Take for example his quotes form the Dali Lama, one of which he never actually said. Or, better yet, take this this early comic where Gav interprets William Henley's "Invictus" to mean "If you are getting bullied beat the bullies to death with a hammer." This comic was later continued with another three strips, but it doesn't make things better, because at no point does the kid in the comic suffer any real consequences (besides some light teasing) and it all ends with the other kids at school forgiving him and him playing baseball with them. Yay! A happy ending! Three cheers for premeditated attempts at homicide!

This same quote was later used again in a tribute to Nelson Mandela, forgetting that Mandela's organization murdered over 130 people. And that brings me to another problem: Hero worship is stupid because people are awful. A lot of these so-called "inspirational folks" that Gavin loves quoting so much were horrible fucking people. Gandhi was a racist and believed that women who get raped secretly want to get raped, Mark Zuckerberg wasn't some poor bulling victim but rather a giant asshole all his life and so was Steve Jobs. The same goes for Muhammad Ali whom he quoted about five times.

But it's not just about him quoting people he had no way of knowing aren't worth idolizing (except, you know... doing a simple Google search), it feels like he doesn't know who any of the people he quotes are or what they stand for. Going so far as to quote Ayn Rand, the inventor of "Objectivism", in one of her many musings on the value of pure selfishness as some inspiring message about not giving up. And this extends not only to mere ignorance of the person's background, but all the way to blatant misrepresentation. Gavin has the gall to quote comedians like George Carlin and Louis C.K and paint their words with a rosy brush when all their works have always been brimming with contempt for their fellow man (I'm confident that's true for other comedians he quotes but I am not familiar with their work and, unlike Gavin, have no intention of pretending to be). He even quotes Carlin's bit on recognizing bullshit, oblivious to the fact his comics all contain exactly the kind of bullshit Carlin wanted to warn people about. And just to add insult to injury, he quotes Hunter S. Thompson (twice), illustrating his famous "Take the ride" quote as a happy little girl taking a fun little ride on a roller coaster.

I think it's important to point out that his Carlin quotes were all fired in rapid succession, and the same is true for his quotes from Ali. This leads me to suspect he would just pick out whatever famous figure he knew and would look up their page on wikiquotes. What reaffirms my suspicion is that, as time went on and the comic got more popular, he started drawing from source material that was more obscure. This can be explained by there being more submissions from his fans who were only slightly less pretentious than him, at which point he would do the same thing in reverse and, instead of looking up quotes to match the figure, he would read up a little bit about the person he just quoted so that he can pretend to know what he's talking about in the comment section at the bottom.

However, this problem has even more layers. It isn't only that Gav misunderstands quotes and misrepresents intentions, nor is it only that he fails to research the people he misquotes; he also fails to research the events surrounding them. Take for example this comic where he perpetuates the myth that in the 1936 Olympics, Hitler refused to shake Jesse Owens' hand because he was mad that a black man won. In reality, Hitler didn't shake the hand of any of the contestants and, unlike president FDR who didn't even call to congratulate him, waved at Jesse and sent him a gift. So history rarely conforms to people's spiteful fantasies.

You see what I'm saying? A lot of the cults of personality around these people are undeserved, a lot of what we think we know about them isn't true, a lot of the events didn't unfold the way we were told and people regarding everything they hear as deep and profound based solely on the source without ever looking into any of it are idiots. After all, even Mother Teresa was reportedly a giant bitch.

The real issue is this: It is really easy to make people accept things as true without thinking about them if you only cite someone noteworthy as their source or say them with a sufficient air of gravity. There is one saying I think illustrates this better than anything with its vapidness and faux depth and, surprise surprise, Gavin has already made a comic out of it. The saying in question is that old tale about the Indian boy and his grandfather telling him the story about the two wolves. First of all, the original saying probably involves two Eskimos and is an allegory for keeping the faith in Christianity. Gavin admits he knew this but went with the Native American version anyway because, hey, what's a little casual racism between friends? However, that's all besides the point. The point is: What does this proverb even mean? The wolves are a metaphor for anger, feeding them is a metaphor for getting angry so... if you allow yourself to be angry you will be angry? Fucking brilliant! And yet people repeat this vacuous nonsense like a fucking mantra, never once stopping to think how devoid of meaning it is.

Still, a hollow shell of wisdom is the best you can hope for in these cases because it can just as easily be a moral that is toxic and misleading. Take this comic for instance where the person is quoted as saying "No creationist ever cracked the genetic code", which can be taken to mean "Ha ha! religion is so stupid! No one who believes in some silly 'God' has ever contributed anything to science!", which is grossly untrue. But you have to believe it! After all, it has some nice pictures and it was said by Phil Plait! Wait, who the hell is "Phil Plait"? Oh right, he's just some guy who runs a blog.

See how simple it is to get people to believe in anything if you attribute to the right source? (or just to some nobody and hope now one bothers to read the comments) Zen Pencils hardly promotes the kind of free thinking it harps on about. And, since we've now arrived at both the issue of bad advice and the issue of this comic's main topic, let's move on to the heart of this comic: The central message.

ZP's Underlying Moral

There is one prevailing, central point this comic often comes back to, but first, some background:

Gavin Aung Than wanted to be an artist, studied graphic design to play it safe, worked 8 years at it before quitting his job and selling his house to pursue his dream. And, amazingly, through a combination of appealing to the lowest common denominator and shameless pandering, he became a "The Oatmeal" style success story and now dedicates himself to telling others to do the same.

So the repeating theme of this comic tends to be people being unsatisfied with their office job, quitting to peruse their calling (which is almost always art) and various plagiarized quotes appropriated to advise people to do just that. It just goes on and on like that. "Quit your job!" "Become an artist!", "Quit your job!" "Become an artist!", "Quit your job!" "Become an artist!", "Quit your job!" "Become an artist!", "Quit your job!" "Become an artist!", "Quit your job!" "Become an artist!", "Quit your job! Quit your job! Quit your job!". Forget about your responsibilities! You don't have kids to feed or a mortgage to pay! You'll do fine with the money you saved up from your high paying office job! What's that? You don't have any money saved up because you work at McDonald's and just trying to get by? Doesn't matter! Follow your dreams at all costs! Just like this guy in my comic whose obsession with "Game of Thrones" is destroying his marriage! There is no way this could go wrong! After all, look at me! I did it! That's why half the people in these comics are myself! And as you browse Facebook on your cellphone and read my comic that someone linked to you there, don't forget that cellphones and Facebook are stupid (except when I use them to make my living which is fine). Gavin finds a way to make every other quote he draws support this position, even when using one the intention of which was to say that you DON'T need to do anything drastic like quit your job to enjoy life he somehow finds a way to misinterpret it to mean the exact opposite.

There is so much wrong with this way of thinking and so much danger in someone actually following Than's advice wholeheartedly. First and foremost, if you have an office job you should be grateful. You could just as easily be cleaning out shit or being yelled at be a fat woman with her husband's ballsack on her breath about her burger not having enough pickles as her spittle bounces off your face. You should be grateful for anything you have because 100 years ago concepts like "Disposable income" and "Social mobility" didn't exist. Plus, not everyone wants to be an artist! Not everyone is good at art and won't become good just by trying really hard. Some people's idea of happiness is an office job where they make a lot of money and can lord over people. The path to doing what you really want often goes through 20 years pushing papers until you get promoted high enough so you can buy that fucking boat. Not everyone can live off the low salary of an artist and job satisfaction is not always enough. Having a job you really want is often worthless if you come home to a slum and a microwave dinner. Finally, your job isn't supposed to be fun. If work was fun people would have no reason to pay you to do it. What you should strive for is having a job you don't hate that leaves you with enough time and money to spend your hours away from it enjoying yourself with friends and family because that the best most of us can hope for. If everyone just up and quit to follow their pipe dreams the economy would collapse and there sure as hell would be no room left in the art world for a hack like Gavin.

The real slap to the face isn't that Gavin lucked out and honestly thinks everything will be fine if everyone just followed his example, it's that this comic isn't very "Zen" at all. To go back to my previous issue with the comic's inconsistency between the source material and the final result, I would like to add that, not only is ZP often proven wrong by the people, event and at times even the actual quotes it uses, but also, in the few rare occasions that ZP does quote something remotely zen-like, it's always in stark contrast to its usual "Work hard and achieve your dreams!" motto. Like when Gav quotes Gautama Buddha about being happy by letting go of ego-driven ambitions and Thoreau about letting happiness come to you while the rest of ZP contradicts itself and tells you that you will never be happy unless you follow your ambitions at any cost like a giant egotist.

The Troll Arc


This is when things really went downhill.

Zen Pencils was no stranger to making insipid comics about those darn, dirt trolls, the first of which used a quote by Neil Gaiman that contained the words

"[if] someone on the internet thinks what you're doing is stupid or evil or it's all been done before... make good art"

Gav's feelings on criticism

that are placed over a drawing of someone literally crying in front of his computer screen and then using that as inspiration to write a book about trolls. This is a great example of why you shouldn't take anything said by a famous person you admire as words directly from the mouth of god. People make mistakes, even people you look up to. So, while it's okay to like Gaiman and enjoy his books and draw on things he says for inspiration, it doesn't mean you also have to support his feverish defense of cartoon child pornography. So, if someone on the internet thinks what you're doing is stupid then, even if they are trolls, they might be right. And if someone on the internet thinks what you are doing is evil, then maybe you should stop. Oh, and if someone on the internet tells you that what you are doing has all been done before then you are probably Gavin Aung Than who doesn't seem to have had an original thought in his life.

To get to the point, in one of his more recent comic he decided to stop stealing quotes for long enough to write an original story and boy did he pick a great topic. In the four pages of the comic people who have engaged in online trolling suddenly have their heads explode into green mush that all gathers together in one place and turns into a giant slime monster with "#HATE" embedded in its chest (just in case you thought the comic was being too subtle) that proceeds to eat artists alive while criticizing trolling them.

To combat this creature one Hayao H. Miyazaki gathers together a crack team of artists that together build a giant robot designed to fight the monster, making this the first time in history that an artist has created something that is of any actual use to anybody. The robot contains recordings of not Kanye West and not Lady Gaga that is uses to confront the slime monster and blast it with loud hip-hop music. The creature has the reaction you would expect to having to listen to rap and begins to vomit uncontrollably (why are you so racist Gavin?), then the robot flies this kaiju to the moon where it vandalizes it by writing "ART" on it with the liquefied corpses of its enemies.

So what were these nasty trolls saying that was so bad they deserved to die? Let's see...

"He's a terrible comedian I didn't laugh once #diedonstage #hack"

Well, that's sort of rude I guess... Let's see what else.

"I loved her old stuff but now I'd rather die a thousand deaths than listen to her new music #sellout"

I suppose there isn't really a need for hyperbole in the criticism but otherwise it doesn't seem so bad... Let's see what this little old lady character has to say.

"Her performance was thin and unconvincing, turgid and uninspired. #Theaterisdead"

This just seems like valid criticism! Why is her head exploding?!

So there you have it, this is what Gavin considers "trolling." Light criticism often peppered with praise. In one interview, predating this comics, he talked about addressing the issue of "troll culture" in a future comic because, while he's fine with criticism, some of the comments he has gotten were "just pure, hateful stuff." If what's in this comic is any indication of what he considers to be "hateful," then I imagine that the criticism he claims to be fine with must come with a complimentary hand-job from its author to soothe his temper as he reads it.

That, however, is not the only baffling thing about this comic. First of all, why choose Miyazaki of all people? Is it because, like most of the people Gavin chose to quote at the start of the comic, he was the lowest hanging fruit? That would be my guess, which is only made more funny considering Gavin wrote in the comments of this comic:


Yes Gavin, only you know who the most famous anime producer in history is. You're such an erudite. However, one thing that Gavin apparently doesn't know about Hayao Miyazaki is that he said the reason he's quitting the anime industry is because he's sick of all the fucking otakus. Which to me sounds like the kind of criticism that would put him on the troll side of the spectrum using Gavin's criteria. I also find it funny that the robot has Gavin's favorite quote of all times that was said by Theodore Roosevelt and contains the words "it is not the critic who counts" written on it. I find it hard to believe that Miyazaki would like to have Roosevelt quoted on his imaginary giant robot, seeing as how Roosevelt was a white supremacist. But I'm sure we can find other inspirational people who share Than's opinions on criticism! Oh! I found one!

"Only the person who is able to solve problems better is allowed to criticize."

You know who said that? Adolf Hitler. So you're in really good company there Gav.
You like quotes Gav? You like quoting Shakespeare? You wanna know what the bard's opinion on criticism is?

"Now this overdone or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others."

So this magnum opus of Gavin's, which he stated that he put extra effort into producing (unlike his regular comics that he actually sells. His paying customers can go fuck themselves I guess) went over about as well as you might think. He got called out by known comic artist "James Stokoe" and Kris Straub, although his work lost some of its luster since then, made a parody of this comic as well. Soon Tumblr was flooded with parodies that I collected so I could add them to this review (my apology for not crediting people's work. I saved these a long time ago and don't remember their source).

Zen Pencils Troll Arc Parodies

In conclusion, Gavin doesn't just draw caricatures, he is a caricature. He's this strawman people like myself are sometimes guilty of constructing but one I never believed could represent the real opinions of an actual person. But there is one real person who thinks this way and that person is Gavin Than. Gavin seems to honestly think that his work is beyond reproach and that anyone who criticizes it couldn't possibly be anything but a troll driven by jealousy for whom the 3rd grade level argument of "Oh yeah? I'd like to see you do better!" is a valid response. He says as much in his final notes to the comic that read:

"It’s time to choose a side. Are you on the side who takes the easy option? The troll. The armchair critic slinging snarky quips behind the safety of a keyboard. Firing sarcastic bullets at those in the trenches. Or are you a creator? Someone who makes something. Someone who lets themselves be vulnerable in front of an audience, who contributes something new and hopeful to an increasingly dark and depressing world. Choose. Which side are you on?"

Not only does he make no distinction between a critic and a troll (because he doesn't seem to believe that there is one), he also asserts that everyone in the world is either one of those two things or an artist and no other options exist. It's embarrassing to read, but no more embarrassing than him describing what he does as "the trenches." Really, Gav? You sitting at home, producing one comic every two weeks and drawing people who disagree with you being murdered by a giant robot because you were too lazy to hold down a real job is "the trenches?" Get over yourself, you pompous ass.

Author biography


This comic is created by Gavin Aung Than, an Asian man in his 30's living in Australia.

In his various interviews he talks about his inspiration for creating this comic being him hating his desk job as a graphic designer which led him to quit and sell his house. So if there is anything positive I can say about him is that at least he isn't a hypocrite and follows the same bad advice he constantly gives his fans.

His previous comics include some painfully unfunny tripe that you can find samples of on his site and exemplify why he should stick to plagiarism and never try to write something original again. He also had a third comic which was published in a newspaper that he admits wasn't very good and was only published there because he worked at that paper's art department. Hooray for nepotism.

Besides the aforementioned callouts from Straub and Stokoe, his internet adventures also include a parody from Shortpacked!, mocking his use of a quote by Bill Watterson and, as much as I don't like Dave Willis, I have to admit that this time he's right on the money.

Recently Gav also got into it with a creator of a parody comic called "Dril Pencils" when he demanded the creator stop using his art. To be clear, this comic wasn't even making fun of Gav or ZP. The blog owner just took random tweets from @dril and inserted them into ZP comic strips. But Gav was too thin skinned to allow even perceived criticism of his work to continue and too blind to see the irony in him complaining about misuse of his intellectual property when his own comic is nothing but that and when he himself was contacted by Charles Bukowski's editor requesting that he remove a comic using his quote it didn't stop him from later making more comics using Bukowski's content despite being asked not to (I really want to email his editor about this just to fuck with him).


I don't think that if Mr. Than ever finds this page he will get anything out of it. He couldn't be more blocked off from critique if he encased his head in solid lead to avoid seeing or hearing it. I think that if he ever tried to read this article he would recoil from it like it was Kryptonite after finishing a single line.

For those who want to read Zen Pencils: There is nothing for you here. There is nothing of value in this webcomic. It is the product of pandering and Wikiquote created for people whose personal development ended at the age of 14. The bastard child of high-school lit and post-collage pretension designed to save one man from the horrors of waking up every day at a reasonable hour. There is nothing in this webcomic you couldn't find in a fortune cookie. Anything in it that is worth reading is worth reading out of the misleading context of its drawings. It contains quotes from Lao Tzu more than once so here is a quote from "The Book of Tao" that I think best describes this webcomic:

"True things are not pretty
Pretty things are not true"

That is what Zen Pencils is. It deals in pretty things, hollow platitudes intended to create the illusion of depth by a man who did not think up the things he says but repeats them nonetheless as though he understands what they mean. If ZP was a physical thing instead of a webcomic on the internet I would burn it, gather the ashes in a small pile and then burn it again.

I wouldn't be surprised in the least if Gavin Aung Than had seen this Ozy And Millie strip and failed to realize that Millie's punchline was meant to be ironic.

UPDATE: I think it's apparent by now that the author has decided to end his webcomic. Thank God.