The Banality of Easels

Zen Pencils’ Damning Inability to Say Anything Meaningful

There are a lot of bad things on the Internet. There are, like, absolutely horrible things (the type of things you find on darknet sites or chans), and then just your casually abject things (comments on news sites, posts by Cathy Brennan, and so forth), and then there are things which aren’t evil, necessarily, but nonetheless are mind-bogglingly, through-and-through bad. Zen Pencils falls firmly into the third category.

For those of you who are blissfully unfamiliar with Zen Pencils, it’s a project by Australian cartoonist Gavin Aung Than which essentially matches up “inspirational quotes” of the sort that your Zinfandel-swilling great-aunt shares on Facebook with art that often completely misinterprets or alters the meaning of the original quotation. Not that the art is bad—it’s probably the only aspect of the comic that I can stand, and Than is versatile enough to skillfully mimic the artistic styles of other artists when they’re germane to the “storyline”—but it all seems to be aimed towards one unshakeable, thoughtless narrative: Quit your job and do art (or whatever it is that you really want to do). It worked for Gavin Aung Than, so fuck it! Quit your goddamn job! I’m not exaggerating when I say that nearly ALL Zen Pencils comics follow this theme in some way (over fifteen examples can be found here).

This is, of course, not reality. I am a writer. I also teach college courses, do freelance editing work, and work in retail because I have to pay bills and rent and buy food. If I were to quit my jobs and write full-time it would take me less than a month to either starve, be kicked out of my apartment, or both. Those of us who have some miniscule inkling of how the world actually works for marginalized people understand that “the Zen Pencils message” is patently absurd—but a lot of people don’t, and a lot of people buy Zen Pencils collections and prints and pillows, which in turn proves to Than that his model works, and he cranks out more insipid, uninspired nonsense ad nauseam.

I don’t want to talk about the stupid Game of Thrones comic (wonderfully parodied here), but I have to. It’s probably Than’s most infamous work (aside from his much-lampooned “just fucking jump on the table at a dinner party and start screaming” comic) and involves a man straight-up abandoning his family in order to….go kill a dragon, which is apparently a real creature that lives just outside the city limits. It’s narrated by a Charles Bukowski quote. First off, I guarantee that Bukowski did not have mythological creatures in mind when he said “isolation is the gift”—he was probably referring to the sort of isolation experienced by most elderly, misogynist men who drink a case of Schlitz before noon every day. Furthermore, this is the second time ZP used a Bukowski quote after Bukowski’s publisher told him to quit it once already.

Another example of this sort of willful dumbing-down and removal of all context is the utterly offensive portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson’s “buy the ticket, take the ride” quote, which is plastered over (prepare for a mind-blowingly deep visual metaphor here, folks) the image of a little girl getting on a roller coaster. Than also touts this particular comic as “the offspring of Ralph Steadman and Quentin Blake,” but literally the only imaginable resemblance to Steadman’s work is the font style on the “Fear and Loathing Ride.” Dr. Thompson would have absolutely despised this cheap cash-in of a project, for the record. This comic makes me physically angry.

All of this would be almost tolerable if Gavin Aung Than weren’t so unbelievably thin-skinned. When you’re an artist, people criticize your work. When your work is trite reinterpretations of well-known quotes, sometimes people are going to mention that. Than wants no part of this whole “criticism” business, though. In his world, everyone who dislikes any aspect of his work or would like to see it improved is a “troll.” This bothers me for two reasons: first off, it contributes to the ongoing repurposement of the word “troll” from “person who says things they don’t actually believe in order to provoke outraged reactions” to “person who says things that hurt my feelings,” and secondly, to refuse any criticism (constructive or otherwise) is to stagnate as a creative professional. I don’t need to point out that that’s what Than has done. In fact, he got so riled up at all those HATERS and JERKS who didn’t like his unflavored gruel of a comic that he abandoned his usual one-off platitude style and created an entire series of comics depicting Hayao Miyazaki engaging in mortal combat with a gigantic green booger emblazoned with the hashtag “#HATE.” No, really.

He also hates people parodying his work or otherwise using it in any context other than unyielding supplication. A blog called drilpencils had a brief and fairly hilarious run replacing Zen Pencils captions with @dril tweets, until our favorite hypersensitive cartoonist memorably posted “I’m not really sure who Dril is, but I don’t want my work associated with his tweets,” demanding that the blog’s curator stop using his work. The irony involved in a cartoonist whose entire livelihood comes from public-domain quotations throwing a tantrum over a perfectly legal parody account apparently escaped him.

In summation, I don’t like this fucking comic. It’s hackneyed, it takes itself far more seriously than it deserves, and it provided the world with the monstrosity that is this comic (a devastating jeremiad about how we’re all social media junkies, except Gavin Than, and also please don’t forget to click the buttons for all my social media accounts, conveniently located directly above this comic about how social media is evil!). Please, middle-aged interior decorators, hairgelled startup mavens, or whoever funds Zen Pencils’ continued existence: please stop paying this man to make bad things.

Art by TN. 

Johnny Islamabad

Johnny Islamabad

Johnny Islamabad is the main editor and cofounder of Empire of Loathing. In his non-Internet life, he is a starving literature professor and alcohol enthusiast. He most often writes about the bizarre farce that is American electoral politics, which is a refreshing break from the bizarre farce that is his daily life.

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