My top five Zen Pencils comics
There won’t be a new comic update this week I’m afraid – I had some freelance jobs I had to finish which meant my Zen Pencils work had to take a backseat. The success of this site is great, but it’s also a double-edged sword – it’s great because it’s gotten my name out there and I’m getting requests for other cartooning work, but other work means I can’t draw Zen Pencils comics! I will not make missing an update a habit, but this week’s workload just got the better of me.
Anyway, I wanted to post something for you. I love hearing what your favourite Zen Pencils comics are, so I thought I should return the favour and let you know which ones I am the proudest of, and give you a sort of ‘director’s commentary’ on them. Plus, there seems to be quite a few new readers here in the past month so there might be one or two here you haven’t seen before.
5. AROUND THE CORNER Charles Hanson Towne
Most Zen Pencils comics are meant to leave you feeling inspired, positive and optimistic, but I enjoyed how this poem leaves you with a feeling of melancholy. Well ‘enjoying’ the feeling of melancholy is an oxymoron, but you know what I mean. The poem hits you ‘right in the feels’ and I think my comic really rams that gut punch home. I would rather you feel sad after visiting this site than nothing at all.
I like to experiment with different styles occasionally – it helps keep things interesting. I used a very graphic, flat style with a limited colour palette on this comic, which I think worked well. Having the letters printed on the building was inspired by the great comic artist Will Eisner. For his classic Spirit comics, he would open each episode with a beautiful illustrated title that was part of the story. Mine is nowhere near as good or detailed but that’s where the idea came from.
This comic inspired reader, Sahel Takel, to make a wonderful short film version:
Having readers tell me that my work has inspired them to create something themselves is the best feeling, and I was really humbled when I saw the film.
4. ASK YOURSELF Howard Thurman
I get a lot of satisfaction when I use a relatively short quote and manage to turn it into a longer story, like this one. It means I’ve used more of my creativity rather than just adapting a quote word for word. This comic has a bit of an autobiographical touch. My parents were not overly strict or anything, but I was always expected to go to college and academic performance was deemed way more important than creativity or sports. Hence, I was a total do-gooder at school, something like a straight-A student, always did my homework and was a big teacher’s pet. So the girl in this comic is definitely based on myself. But I was never a huge wrestling fan and I’m not sure where the idea of the girl being a wrestling fanatic came from. But I really like how it contrasts with her law career and the absurdity of her wearing her wrestling costume underneath her normal clothes all the time. The comic portrays an important message but is also really silly. I definitely plan to make a sequel to this so we can see how Rising Phoenix is doing.
3. IT’S JUST A RIDE Bill Hicks
Readers had been sending in this quote since the launch of the website, and I always planned to adapt it but was intimidated by it. So much so, that when I first attempted to do it, I chickened out and did this simpler quote instead. I am a huge Bill Hicks fan and this is probably his most famous bit, so I really wanted to do it justice. I kept trying to tackle it by adapting it literally, using an actual ride, roller coaster, ghost train, motorbike ride … but I wasn’t getting anywhere. It’s more fun thinking of an original story and then applying the quote to it – and this became one of those examples. I had just seen the documentary The Inside Job, about how the global financial crisis was triggered, and that gave me the idea for the comic. It would be how one of those greedy investment banker pigs realised he was ‘living on a ride’ and decided to change rides. I was really happy how it turned out and it goes to show that ideas can come from pretty much anything you absorb – whether it be movies, books, music or life.
2. ON KINDESS Roger Ebert
The theme for this comic was easy to figure out – it had to be about movies. Roger Ebert is so associated with film that not making his comic about movies would be totally missing the point, even though the quote is specifically about kindness. So I had to think how I could combine kindness and movies into one story. My initial idea was of a man who keeps going to the cinema, and he would always see a homeless man begging for change outside the cinema. The moviegoer would always ignore the beggar until many years later, he finally decides to help by buying him a movie ticket. This becomes a habit and the man keeps buying tickets for unfortunate people until he’s finally an old man in a retirement home who buys everyone there a movie ticket. It would end with a bunch of elderly folk walking to the cinema with the final panel being a large shot of the theatre full to capacity. Eh … it’s an OK idea, nothing special. I got a few sketches into that idea but scrapped it – I needed something better. The turning point was when I realised it had to be more about the cinema than the man. That’s where the idea came to focus on the actual cinema, how one man keeps going to the same theatre his whole life and his kindness is directed to his beloved movie cinema. Once I realised that, it was much easier to develop the story. I was going to try and be funny in the panel of the present-day cinema with the movies Argo, Django Unchained etc. Instead of actual modern-day movies I was going to take a shot at the state of the film industry by using titles like Iron Man 7 and The Fast and Furious 12. I decided against it, it would have changed the feel of the comic for the wrong reasons.
The print of this comic is finally available. Profits donated to the Roger Ebert Scholarship for Film Criticism.
1. MAKE THE MOST OF THIS LIFE Carl Sagan
The reasons this comic is my favourite are more sentimental than rational. For starters, this is one of my first comics. Even though it is number 12, it was actually the fourth or fifth Zen Pencils comic I did. As soon as it was completed I knew that I might be onto something with the whole ‘quotes into comics’ idea of the website. I had already handed my resignation letter at my old job but was still working there. So I was really scared about leaving and I wasn’t sure risking everything to start this website was going to work out. This comic was the first to capture the combination of inspiration, thoughtfulness and humour that I was trying to achieve and it gave me some confidence about the decision I had made. It was a sort of ‘eureka’ moment. Plus around that time, I was reading a lot of Carl Sagan books and the fact that one of his quotes was the impetus for my first successful comic was like a sign that Zen Pencils would work out. I think some other comics might be as good as this one, but I don’t think I’ve done any that’s better, which is slightly embarrassing since I’ve drawn over 100 comics since.
Well, there you go – my five favourite comics so far. What do you think? Agree? Disagree? What are some of your favourites? Be sure to share them in the comments and also the reasons why.
I like to apply the chef’s saying to my own work “You’re only as good as your last
dish comic“, and I will strive to get better so that the next top five list will be my five most-recent toons.
This has basically been a whole post of me patting myself on the back – I make me sick! I promise things will be back to normal next week.