Why Zen Pencils Is Awful
In case you haven’t heard of Zen Pencils by Gavin Aung Than, it’s a series of web comics adaptations of famous quotes. The comics tend towards the saccharine and the vaguely inspirational, so I’ve left it off my radar for a while. Of course, courtesy of the excellent Zac of Anime News Network, I now treat the site with more than just passive annoyance.
Zac tweeted a link to the Zen Pencils comic adapting a quote from Ayn Rand. I’m not going to waste time arguing how awful Objectivism is. I hear Bioshock does a good enough job of that. But what’s infuriating is that the author admits he doesn’t even know what he’s talking about. The explanatory notes underneath are clearly stitched together in such a way that gives you a brief bio shrouded in vague summation.
It’s clear the author’s work consists of looking up inspirational quotes and just building off from there, ignorant of the circumstances in which the quotes were produced. Idolization is something to avoid with all people (ex: what Gandhi had to say on rape), but this Rand quote comic supports the work of an individual that has no redeeming virtues. The ignorance of how these quotes are significant pervade the site, and fit into a larger theme of: apolitical mediocrity.
Every quote the site adapts could probably fit on a stock motivational poster. This isn’t to diminish the work of people Than quotes. But the material selected certainly illustrates a trend for adapting quotes for blunted, middle-road schmaltz. Much of the content reads like the equivalent of hazy sunsets and warm fuzzies. The comics with the most bite I’ve seen consist of quotes from George Carlin (of course) and various justice porn adaptations to pull on the heart strings.
There is barely any recognition of the material reality of the world. Zen Pencils is abstract liberalism at its most potent. Unfortunately, like the criticism my dear friend lobbied at PBS Idea Channel, Zen Pencils “functions as a kind of Intellectualism 101, perfect conversation fodder for those who want to dip their toes into complicated issues […] without having to read anything.” Each comic tends to be a fleetingly inspiration quote with little in the means of instruction. When can I see a comic adaptation of Malcolm X (“The Ballet or the Bullet” anyone?) or Karl Marx? Must all the comics be easily digestible milquetoast? For a website all about quotes of wisdom, it lacks tenacity and bite to make any impact in the world. It’s all socially acceptable rehashing of the same rhetoric that seeks to inspire rather than challenge, abstract rather than engage. And in the end, that does very little in changing the world for the better.
Aside from any semblance or acknowledgement of our political reality, abstraction also goes further to obfuscate awful things. I started this post by noting the (likely unintentional) obfuscation of Ayn Rand, but I found a perfect distillation of the problems with such abstraction and ignorance. (There are many examples to choose from.) In one of the more popular comics of 2013, Than adapted a quote from Marc Maron on social media. In it, Than equates the social media “addiction” to drug addiction.
Aside from unwanted social media stereotypes cropping up again, comparing social media “addiction” to heroin addiction is like comparing apples to HEROIN ADDICTION.* It’s abstracting the real world to an awful, moralizing degree, ultimately obfuscating truth rather than revealing it.
What’s worse is Than’s response in his end of the year wrap up, saying that “Some people were highly offended that I compared social media users to drug addicts. Oh well, I’ve learnt that I can’t please everyone with my adaptations.” He literally shrugs off the valid criticism with the veil of “everyone’s a critic!” Of course, it’s just another layer of abstraction to frees Than from moral responsibility. Because after all:
Ah yes, his latest comic. I’ll be getting to that shortly.
*Note: I stole this joke from Season 4 of Archer, now on Netflix. Go watch it.