How One Man Is Building A Successful Creative Career As A Cartoonist

How do you become a New York Times’ bestselling cartoonist?

Quit your day job, sell your house, and set up a website making inspirational comics.  

Melbourne-based Gavin Aung Than, more commonly known as the Zen Pencils online, says he spent nearly a decade at a desk job that became dry, dull, and frustrating.  He longed to leave but didn’t know how to support himself — a common conundrum.

As a child and a young adult, he had an affinity for drawing, something that manifested into a career as a graphic designer.  But working at a big corporate company was getting to him. He wanted to be more creative, to be an artist.

So he tried.  He set up a website devoted to web comics, a growing trend, he says, as young cartoonists were bypassing traditional newspaper careers to put their creations online.  He managed to produce over 300 comics on the site.  But in 2011, he had to shut it down after seeing that it wasn’t gaining enough traction to become a full-time gig.  Failure, he says, was instrumental in helping him find Zen Pencils.

Inspired by the much-read book, The Art of Non-Conformityby Chris Guillebeau, he decided to try one more time.  The answer to the first question in Guillebeau’s book, “What talent do you have?” was easy, Than says.  The second one, “How can you use that talent to help others?” was harder to answer.

At his desk job as a graphic designer, Than says, he enjoyed reading Wikipedia pages and biographies of famous people who used their talents for good. These are the Gandhi’s, Martin Luther King’s of the world — people whose quotes we love to read, Than notes.   

Turns out he wasn’t the only one who enjoyed their famous sayings.  There were endless quotes on Twitter and Instagram, all uplifting and inspirational.   “I realized I’m not the only one who likes reading and sharing these.”

The lightbulb moment hit him in 2012 when he decided to take the leap and see if he could build a creative business as an inspirational web comic. 

At 29, he quit his day gig, sold his house, and lived off of the profits, with a six-month cushion. 

“Generally, you shouldn’t throw all your eggs in one basket.  But in this case, I did,” he says.

Than’s first comic centered on a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “When you were born, you were crying and everyone else was smiling. Live your life so at the end, you’re the one who is smiling and everyone else is crying.”  An apt start for Than’s journey.

The site caught on, gaining a global audience and his work has been featured in Slate, Washington Post, and more. 

Gavin Aung Than's latest book, Dream the Impossible Dream.  Photo Courtesy of Subject.

Photo Courtesy of Subject.


Than invites quotes from his readers now.  For each quote, he develops a concept, does some rough sketches, and then hand draws the final piece with a pen.  After that, it’s scanned into a computer and colored using Photoshop.   Each comic, Than says, takes about a two days.  But it varies depending on the intricacy of the design and the length.

Despite the success of his site, Than has shied away from advertising.  Before his first book, Than made money selling merchandise through the site — posters and canvas prints of his creations.

Three years later, Than has now released his second book,Dream the Impossible Dream.  Going beyond just quotes, these are tales inspired by the sayings and doings of individuals like the Dalai Lama, Amy Poehler, Khalil Gibran, and Robert F. Kennedy.

Still making a living off of a creative pursuit isn’t easy. 

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