Is Zen Pencils an Enemy of the State?

Here at the Webcomic Police, our job is to watch over all the radical webcomic creators and stop them from disseminating terrorist propaganda. Recently, Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils wrote a four-part story arc about internet trolls exploding into piles of goo that congeals into a giant monster that eats all the creative artists until a super team of artists, musicians, animators, etc. create a giant robot to murder it and draw the word “ART” on the face of the moon with the monster's remains. Other comic artists like James Stokos and Kris Straub interpreted the arc as a whiny self-indulgent hit piece lumping all criticism together and equating it to trolling, something that anyone who has spent enough time online has witnessed firsthand. Is he attacking just internet trolls, or is he advocating the violent overthrow of the Webcomic Police (and by extension, the United State of America)? We sent one of our officers to perform reconnaissance and report.

At first glance, it's hard not to see this as a disgruntled artist power fantasy. The comic opens with the stereotypical loser alone in a darkened room at his computer getting a sense of sadistic glee from composing multiple tweets equating a webcomic to “a smear on my toilet paper” and telling people to give up on creating anything until his head explodes, slowly detailed across nine panels. The monster has a giant #HATE hashtag on it. Hayao Miazaki pilots a giant robot with the words “It's not the critic that counts,” (from a speech by Teddy Roosevelt which in context preaches moderation between idealism, cynicism, individualism, and collectivism) on the breastplate and curbstomps the monster with little struggle (also, it's ironic that Miazaki was chosen as the pilot who hates criticism despite being a critic of his own industry). And in the author comments, Than demands you pick a side between the “armchair critic slinging snarky quips behind the safety of a keyboard,” or “the creator.”

I don't know if it goes so far as to completely condemn all criticism. On the second page of the arc, Than states in the author comments that “all constructive criticism appreciated.” And going back to the Roosevelt quote, the paragraphs around it focus on the person who feels “a twister pride in cynicism,” and holds “an attitude of disbelief toward all that is great and lofty,” which fits more with the modern image of an internet troll rather than someone merely stating their opinion or a media critic. And while the whole idea of using a famous animator leading the charge comes off like suggesting that we should side with the artists because Miazaki supports them, it could be more that Than used him more as a shout-out as Than writes in the author's comments that he considers Miazaki an inspiration. In that context, the arc could be more interpreted as artists using the negativity to drive them to make something even better rather than allowing themselves to be consumed by it. That would be an inspirational moral that would be much more fitting with Zen Pencils' repetoire.

However, people aren't going to share the comic with the author comments or research the comic in that much detail. And they shouldn't have to. Regardless of the media or genre, the role of the comic is to use words and pictures to convey what the author wants as elegantly as possible (Evil Tom Preston was able to convey “Don't let negativity stop you from creating,” in six panels compared to Than's four pages). And if multiple people are seeing it as an anti-critic screed, then there's obvious problems in the execution. The terms “troll” and “hater” get thrown around to the point that they basically mean “Someone who disagrees with me.” There certainly are examples of people who just want to be cruel just for the sake of it, but there also exists artists online who have no desire to improve and create an cult of personality around themselves to worship them and destroy anyone who says anything less than lavish praise. And if you label a character with an obviously loaded term and then send a giant robot to beat it up emblazoned with a shortened quote saying that critics don't matter, then of course people are going to take it the wrong way. I haven't seen anything suggesting that Than is a prima donna, but without context it would be easy for someone to read this and think that their behavior is justified because everyone is a giant jelly hater monster who doesn't recognize their genius.

Is Gavin Aung Than a webcomic terrorist advocating the death of criticism? No, but the comic could have been executed better to give a message of using negativity to drive further creation rather than demanding a call to arms against a vaguely defined threat. We currently don't have enough evidence to have him taken to Guantanamo Bay. We will conduct further investigation by tapping his phone, pulling his internet records, sending a drone to follow his every move, and riffle through all his books of inspirational quotes to see if he highlighted any anti-government statements. Just to be safe.

We have control. We keep you safe. We are your hope.

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