Digital Ash: Zen Pencils
I don't usually like to read long-form comics on a screen, but I am a fan of certain online comics, or maybe cartoons is a better term, though I'm not sure of the difference. What I like, and/or what works is that they're usually one-pagers, or one-screeners, and they’re funny—whether it’s Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World, or autobiographical sketches like Hyperbole and a Half and The Oatmeal. I like dipping in for a quick laugh, though usually I'm laughing because they're sadly true—a kind of humor and truth that can't be gotten at with 'real' representations of reality — a little (or a lot) of caricature (and especially self caricature) emphasizes our sometimes absurd life.
One favorite, which you may not have heard of, yet, because it's not based in the US but rather Australia, is Zen Pencils, by artist Gavin Aung Than ("Gav").
Gav renders a multipanel comic — either filling one screen or sometimes a little longer, but never really long – using the text of a quote, usually something about life, or a life lesson, from some famous individual, from Gandhi to poet Charles Bukowski. And it may seem like I'm contradicting myself, since in a recent review I stated I didn't like when comics took a stand-alone text and tried to cram it into comic book form but, well, as Walt Whitman said, "And if I contradict myself, well then, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes."
But seriously, why this comic works, why Gav can make it work, is he only uses very short bits of text, a poem, say, or an aphorism, or a paragraph from a speech. And while each of these bits of text stand alone as "words of wisdom," Gav's comics, at their most powerful, seem to magnify, or maybe amplify, the 'message' by creating a little visual narrative to go with it.
The way I like to enjoy zenpencils.com is to zip into the site and read one comic only. Just a small dose. Anything more might lessen the effect. When you get to the site, his latest comic/cartoon is displayed prominently, and lower down there's a top ten of the most popular comics over the years, and buttons for lists of most viewed and most commented, etc. Plus at the top is an Archives button which brings you to the whole big shebang list of all entries.
I have my favorites of course, like quotes from Bukowski and Vonnegut, but there are many gems, and many repeat appearances by some of Gav's characters, like the Shaolin monk, and the red-haired young woman with the heart balloon.
My favorite? John Donne's "For Whom The Bell Tolls," which features a teen metalhead boy that reminds me of myself hanging out with his electric guitar and his metalhead girlfriend, happy, and then flashes forward to the grown man, with a respectable middle class life and respectable wife and family, where he reads about the death of guitarist Jeff Hanneman last year, from the thrash metal band Slayer. And so, the middle class respectable guy goes into his garage, plugs in his old electric guitar, loud, and thrashes out one last time in tribute. That made me raise my fist in a goat-horn salute and almost fucking cry.
Yes, I'm 45 and listen to Slayer and a goddamn online cartoon made almost cry.
But you'll find your own favorites. I think what is unique about zenpencils.com is that that all Gav's comics make me feel joy, something I don't think any comic — paper or online — has done. Or at least not consistently like this. Even when they're sad, they're joyful in that they capture what being human means. Or, feels like.
Ok, now click over to zenpencils.com and enjoy!