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Artist Vs. Troll, Why can't you be both?
March 23, 2014 4:33 PM   Subscribe

Gavin Aung Than's Zen Pencils (previously here & here & here) deviated from its usual "illustrating great quotes" format for a little story, "The Artist-Troll War": part one, part two, part three, part four. You can't argue with that, can you? Well, Kris Straub, whose webcomics include the pychological-horror of Broodhollow (previously here), the satirical sci-fi of Starslip and the "I was Meta before you knew what it meant" Checkerboard Nightmare, used his usually-quick-and-dirty gag comic Chainsawsuit (previously here and kind-of here) to make a response.
posted by oneswellfoop (59 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
I want someone to draw me an image of Concern Troll, with brows as high as the Burj Khalifa, that furrow as deeply as the Marianas Trench.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:47 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


I couldn't find the part about trolls or trolling.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 4:51 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]


The Zen Pencils DEATH TO HATERS saga has been an ongoing topic of conversation in the Shot First household, not just because we fancy ourselves "creative people" and do in fact have a horse in this particular race, but also because of the bizarre and deeply hubristic choice Mr. Than made to select HAYAO MIYAZAKI as the champion of the artists' right to—I don't know, never hear criticism?

Kris Straub's comic is a beautiful response to the content of the Zen Pencils comic as it relates to the very real problem of dealing with drive-by criticism. I've been stung by criticism both solicited and un- of my creative work, and it can be a huge, demoralizing bummer. I get it. So does anyone else who's put something on the internet for other people to evaluate.

But even if you're willing to allow Than the implicit comparison of himself with Hayao Miyazaki—which, sure, why not, I'll let him have that—I guaran-goddamn-tee that there is no single person on the planet with less time for artistic special snowflakeness than Miyazaki. The man is notoriously, famously ruthless for pushing the artists under him to deliver the results he wants. This is a guy who drew maybe the greatest science fiction comic of all time, and of it, said, "Sorry, I'm not very good at drawing comics."

If there's anyone on the planet who would have no patience for an artist who's unable to hear and act on criticism, it's Hayao Miyazaki. The man just this year dismissed the entirety of the Japanese animation studio system as being largely unable to produce good work because it's "run by otaku" and is thus too self-indulgent to tell good stories.

To install him as the exemplar of art unfettered by and unbeholden to criticism is to fundamentally misunderstand both his work and the process through which it came into being.
posted by Sokka shot first at 4:53 PM on March 23 [28 favorites]


Here: The Compleat Troller or The Art of Trolling, published 1682.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:53 PM on March 23


Oh, I dislike Zen Pencils. I dislike him with an intensity.

He takes "inspirational" quotes, stripping them of all context to deliver his odious messages. Like how anybody who works a nine-to-five instead of ★★★following their dreams★★★ is a mindless drone robot. And if you're trying to connect to other people via social media, you've basically got a heroin addiction.

I'm not kidding about that last one. I'm not going to find the comic because I got irritated enough the first time around, but the comic's literally got a heroin addict in a bathroom stall in it.

Also, why does Miyazaki have a giant fighting robot? Isn't that like, the least Miyazaki thing ever?

On a brighter note, this isn't the first time someone's looked at this guy's oeuvre and noted that there's something hinky about it.
posted by KChasm at 5:01 PM on March 23 [11 favorites]


The man just this year dismissed the entirety of the Japanese animation studio system as being largely unable to produce good work because it's "run by otaku" and is thus too self-indulgent to tell good stories.

I was really surprised to see Miyazaki show up as the saviour of creators, he is notoriously critical, or as this comic defines it, a "hater". Also, as much as I love gundams, they don't fit his aesthetic.

He should have picked Anne Rice to be his hero. If she could, she would totally assemble a vampire hit squad to take down anyone who has ever written a less than five star review.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:05 PM on March 23 [5 favorites]


God, this is a topic I was hoping would come here but Sokka shot first knocked it out of the park. For what it's worth if an artist can't shake off worthless drive-by criticism (as demonstrated in the original hate comic) or accept worthwhile constructive criticism, they need to reconsider if Art is really what they ought to be doing.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 5:05 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


Also, that one Charles Bukowski comic; what the heck.
posted by KChasm at 5:07 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


I've been watching a lot of top-tier webcomics folks I follow talk about these Zen Pencils pages for the past week or so. Some of them seem to be trashing it, some seem to be critiquing it, it's really hard to tell in the snipped cadence of "a sentence or two that will fit into a tweet".

Personally, I think the main takeaway is "comics are hard". Gavin Aung Than has gotten pretty competent at drawing a functioning page - but it's clear that a couple years of turning other people's writing into comics has not taught him much about writing those pages from scratch.

And of course there's also the fact that a lot of the creators dissecting this first try at being a writer are clearly not people who read ZP on a regular basis. It's popular enough that they're seeing it often enough to feel a need to comment on it, instead of just saying "well that was crap" and closing the tab. Me, I kinda feel like that says there's something to learn from ZP as a creator: what about it makes it so viral, is there something it's doing that I'm not that I can adapt to my own aims as a creator?

I mean, I'm still not interested in reading ZP, it's Not For Me, and this sequence is about as subtle as a brick in delivering its message. It feels like I'm reading an extended version of a political cartoon in a small-town newspaper, where every single metaphor wears its name as a label. Personally I think that if Than wants to do more in the realm of original narrative, he would do well to find a friend who is Good At This Writing Thing to jam out ideas together, and write the final script for him - I learnt a hell of a lot about writing by doing that in one of my projects.

(I kind of agree with what Straub says in the bottom tier of his response: learning to take criticism is important, and fucking hard. Sometimes it's hard to tell "a pro dispassionately shredding another pro" - which can actually be a mark of respect - from "hate".)
posted by egypturnash at 5:13 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]


Wow, for someone who has a Zen-based brand, Than seems to have an awful lot of pent-up aggro.
posted by Bwithh at 5:17 PM on March 23


(I also kind of want to say that at least part of what there is to learn from Zen Pencils is the same thing there is to learn from the Oatmeal. Both of them are good at creating Short Things That Go Viral On The Internet. Which sadly is pretty incompatible with my desire to create complicated, dense, longform works. Ah well.)
posted by egypturnash at 5:17 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]


How much of the problem here is that the internet makes people's semi-private discussions of art accessible to the person who created that stuff? I'm sort of an obsessive person, and I sometimes engage with art and pop culture by picking over it and analyzing it into the ground and sometimes critiquing it. I've always done that, for as long as I've appreciated anything. But I had an experience once where I became aware after the fact that the creator of something was reading a message board where I and other people were discussing his creation, and he was upset and sort of paralyzed by some of the things we said. And on the one hand, I felt terrible about that. I loved what he made, and I felt like a jerk for hurting his feelings and interfering with his creative process. But on the other hand, how were we supposed to know he was lurking? And is the idea that those of us who consume art have to be completely passive in our consumption, because we're not creators? I'm not on board for that. If the only acceptable way to consume art is passively and uncritically then I'm not going to consume very much art, because that's not a whole lot of fun. And unfortunately, in the era of the internet, artists might stumble onto some obsessive picking-over if they happen to Google themselves when they can't sleep at 3 in the morning. When the only way to discuss stuff was with your friends at a bar, then that was less likely to happen.

Having said that, there's plenty of out-of-control assholeish behavior floating around Twitter, for instance, and that deserves to be called out. If you're @ing someone on Twitter just to tell them their art sucks, you're acting like a jerk.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:19 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


I'm not going to find the comic
I will! Here it is! I hate this comic!
posted by dumbland at 5:21 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]


Zen-based brand

yeah, you can't take that too literally. A lot of the time it means basically "Ooh look I'm so random! And deep, never forget that I am deep".
posted by thelonius at 5:25 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


I will! Here it is! I hate this comic!

Ha, that was way beyond anything I expected! That was astoundingly horrendous! The fact that it used a Marc Maron quote was icing on the cake.
posted by painquale at 5:27 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


my desire to create complicated, dense, longform works.

Any time you despair of your complicated, dense, longform comic finding its audience, remember Homestuck -- and especially, remember for how long MS Paint Adventures was a kind of midlist, well-regarded-but-not-explosively-popular webcomic before Homestuck took off.

And good work on Decrypting Rita, srsly.
posted by Sokka shot first at 5:27 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]


Ooh, it is this guy. I wasn't sure it was the same artist but I looked it up and it is. I was just mocking his Universal Declaration of Human Rights poster the other day for its twee inaccuracies.
posted by Bwithh at 5:28 PM on March 23


my desire to create complicated, dense, longform works.

Seconding Sokka here.

Mostly because I was thus reminded "oh, is that about the amazing webcomic that was here a while ago...hm, yes it is. Should put it on RSS."
posted by solarion at 5:33 PM on March 23


I also kind of want to say that at least part of what there is to learn from Zen Pencils is the same thing there is to learn from the Oatmeal.

Kris Straub also did a note-perfect parody of The Oatmeal.
posted by painquale at 5:34 PM on March 23 [7 favorites]


"I didn’t know anything about her before adapting this quote but she seems to have lived a very interesting life..... Rand was a strong, out-spoken woman who definitely lived by the words in this quote. Anyone here recommend The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged? Thanks to Luciana for submitting the quote."



So basically anyone can submit any "inspirational" quote from any source and there's a chance he'll make an earnest cartoon out of it, and he'll do that with minimal research. That, um, would seem to be a trolling vulnerability?
posted by Bwithh at 5:35 PM on March 23 [7 favorites]


(Or maybe he's just doing a libertarian-friendly piece to expand his audience but is willfully ignoring what Rand represents)
posted by Bwithh at 5:36 PM on March 23


I find two problems with this Zen Pencils series: 1) in the first part, the elderly lady was providing what could be valid criticism until the #theaterisdead hastag, and 2) the response to hate is make good art. That's right, your sucky art is no help, contrary to the Kurt Vonnegut quote posted after the last part:
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience BECOMING, to find out what’s inside you, TO MAKE YOUR SOUL GROW.
Negative criticism does not equal hatred or trolling. The problem isn't with the increased (attention) to negative comments provided in hyperbole, but not being able to take criticism. The response is great, and makes my points, but better, and with images.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:50 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]


I liked that Chainsawsuit comic, but had no idea what it referred to. (Apparently I did not read far enough down the page.) So thanks for the context.
posted by Existential Dread at 5:52 PM on March 23


In college, I had a professor who tried to help us take criticism, as his was possibly the first class where students would be faced with serious and thorough feedback. "Once you put your work on the wall, it is no longer your own."

Don't take criticism as a personal attack, but as a way to improve your work. Sometimes this is hard, but I try to remember this lesson when faced with feedback I don't like.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:55 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


And remember Sturgeon's Law. Was Theodore Sturgeon a hater or a creator?

And if you've ever heard Kris Straub doing one of his podcasts (current, past, more past), you'd know that he is also a skilled and entertaining troll... (thus my post title)
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:02 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


In his defense, the Artist Hero Guy isn't supposed to be Mizayaki, he just looks like him because Gavin is a fan.

That said, though, I am so down with the critique of the perspective a lot of the ZP strips take, but I take a dim view of any such "all you need to do to be an artist is follow your dreams and want it hard enough" stuff. I did like his Ralph Steadman homage for a Hunter S. Tjompson quote, though.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:13 PM on March 23


I thought this was an enormous improvement on the ending.
posted by emmtee at 6:23 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]


Sokka Shot First basically said most of what I would've!

As 75% of the people I follow on Twitter are other indie/webcomics types, Zen Pencils (we always just call him "Zen Pencils," I didn't actually know the artist's name until this thread) has been a fixture on my feed since this arc began. I guess he would classify us as "HATERS" but mostly the comic is discussed with a sort of gleeful rubbernecking affection. Having this sort of perspective on criticism is so obviously amateurish that it seems mean-spirited to actually go after the guy in any serious way. He made a kind of dumb comic where Miyazaki draws the word "Art" on the moon with Haterslime. SH-SHRUG???
posted by Narrative Priorities at 6:24 PM on March 23 [5 favorites]


I just realized something. The style borrowing. The use of other people's words.

If you read the ZP "about" page, its origin is him filling himself with inspirational quotes while hating his day job.

Are we watching someone who has lucked into a podium begin to wonder just what the hell he's going to say, and how to say it?

Poor bastard. If he is, struggling to find his own voice in the glare of the spotlight is gonna suck. Especially if ZP is now what pays his rent and he wants to move on to less snack-sized works.

Also thanks, Sokka and Solarion.
posted by egypturnash at 6:41 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]


Well, I liked it. Responding to mindless, pointless hate with more art seems like a good way to go.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:42 PM on March 23


Giant Robot! Punch hard! Use all your might! Save Art!

I dunno, there's a joke in there somewhere. I just miss Johnny Sokko, I guess.
posted by allthinky at 6:56 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


I thought this was an enormous improvement on the ending.
posted by emmtee at 6:23 PM on March 23 [1 favorite +] [!]

what is it?
posted by Bwithh at 6:59 PM on March 23


Also, that one Charles Bukowski comic; what the heck.
posted by KChasm at 5:07 PM on March 23 [1 favorite −] Favorite added! [!]


OMG, that's .... literally a pro-psychosis inspirational poster.
posted by Bwithh at 7:03 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]


Bwithh: "what is it?"

If there's anything more representative of the triumph of Art over Hate than Dick Butt, I don't want to know about it.
posted by emmtee at 7:22 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]



OMG, that's .... literally a pro-psychosis inspirational poster.
posted by Bwithh at 7:03 PM on March 23 [+] [!]


btw, for the non-Game of Thrones fans out there, the ultimate act by the "hero" depicted in the final scene here, is actually totally suicidally insane ***in the Game of Thrones universe***.
posted by Bwithh at 7:32 PM on March 23


OMG, that's .... literally a pro-psychosis inspirational poster.

Wow. You're not kidding. It's actually saying 'abandon your loved ones, bankrupt yourself, and expose yourself to public scorn to take a shot at your dream that has a 100% chance of failure' (in this case, trying to kill a non-existent dragon that, even if it existed, would just burn your ass and then go back to sleep).

I'm starting to see why people don't like this guy.

The artwork is still good through.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:54 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]


If I had come to it cold, I would probably have assumed the Game of Thrones/Bukowski strip was a subversion of the text, but honestly, who can even tell, man.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:21 PM on March 23


I actually love that GOT one. It's got some balls at least.

By the way, there's another way to respond to mindless, ignorant criticism besides Moar Art. It is to create reasonable, passionate, educated criticism. Metafilter is (sometimes) one of the best sources of that, as this thread demonstrates. Cheers.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:44 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]


Didn't Bukowski work for the Post Office?
posted by thelonius at 11:03 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


Didn't Bukowski work for the Post Office?

Yes, but he also (eventually) quit the post office to write full time:
In an unpublished letter to Carl Weissner, dated "sometime nov. 1969," Bukowski explains that "I have one of two choices--stay in the postoffice and go crazy...or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve."
Bukowski walked the walk. His first novel was about the post office.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:10 PM on March 23


literally a pro-psychosis inspirational poster.

I'm not sure if there's something about Bukowski that drives metafilter particularly crazy, but every time he comes up a bunch of people feel compelled to point out that his life was a mess, that his poetry was substandard, and/or that his advice, far from being wholesome and salutary, would likely rather get you killed.

BUT THAT WAS HIS WHOLE SCHTICK! He created a job for himself, which was to be The Madman Bukowski, he spat sour wine spit at your middle class verities, he spent his days at the dog track drunk as a lord, and he got paid to do all that bourgeoisie-epatering. (not much, at least until much later, but what the heck, a gig's a gig.) EVEN BOTHERING TO DISAPPROVE OF HIM is basically playing right into his hands, and if you knew where they'd been, that's probably not where you'd want to be.

I know, there are people out there who take his advice as though it were actual advice, and not dime-tour-of-the-demi-monde performance art, and those people are extremely annoying, auditioning, as they are, for a job which no longer exists, because we only needed one Bukowski, if that. But still.

ALSO: he pretty definitely hated a lot of stuff, so he was probably a bad guy who should have been destroyed by robots, instead of what actually did destroy him, which was, I believe, having too darned much fun.
posted by hap_hazard at 11:35 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


Assuming Bukowski was actually the kind of alcoholic he depicts in his persona: it was not fun
posted by thelonius at 12:00 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


OMG, that's .... literally a pro-psychosis inspirational poster.

Cervantes called, he wants his plot for Don Quixote back.
posted by sukeban at 12:31 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


it was not fun

You'll never get him to admit that now.

the ghost of chinaski cannot be reasoned with
posted by hap_hazard at 1:52 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure if there's something about Bukowski that drives metafilter particularly crazy, but every time he comes up a bunch of people feel compelled to point out that his life was a mess, that his poetry was substandard, and/or that his advice, far from being wholesome and salutary, would likely rather get you killed.

You are the first one in this thread to point this out about Bukowski.

Prior to your comment, it seems to me that everyone was talking about the Zen Pencils interpretation of the quote.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:04 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


The irony of this is that Zen Pencils is more a hustler, a grifter than an artist himself, ripping off the work of other people, usually while misunderstanding it to "create" mawkish "inspirational cartoons. He's about the last to be able to defend the purity of art against criticism.

It also speaks of a massive entitlement to equate criticism with hate, the idea that the only allowed response to art is adoration.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:13 AM on March 24 [9 favorites]


In an unpublished letter to Carl Weissner, dated "sometime nov. 1969," Bukowski explains that "I have one of two choices--stay in the postoffice and go crazy...or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve."

The thing is, though, that for every artist who says something like this, you can find an artist who says the opposite - T.S. Elliot once told friends that the reason he kept his job at the Bank of London was because having a steady income kept him from having as many of the "black moods" that prevented him from writing.

There are people who do not do well emotionally without some kind of steady income, to a point where their own art would suffer, and it is okay that they are like that. It's hard for them to carve out enough time to work, but it would be worse if they didn't have that financial stability. They - we - don't need lectures from people about how if we were really committed to our art we wouldn't be selling ourselves out with a bourgeois day job.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:20 AM on March 24 [4 favorites]


They - we - don't need lectures from people about how if we were really committed to our art we wouldn't be selling ourselves out with a bourgeois day job.

Oh, sure. I wasn't saying it was necessarily good advice. Just that Bukowski believed in it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:52 AM on March 24


The irony of this is that Zen Pencils is more a hustler, a grifter than an artist himself, ripping off the work of other people, usually while misunderstanding it to "create" mawkish "inspirational cartoons.

This seems like an unfair characterisation. He takes inspiration from other people's work, certainly. Aren't all artists drawing on their influences to some extent? I don't think that you can fairly say he's ripping anyone off - his visual artwork and his interpretations of the quotes are just that; his.

Whether you like the work, or whether Zen Pencils is 'good art', is another question entirely.

He's about the last to be able to defend the purity of art against criticism.


I don't think that's what he's doing - I think he's trying to push back against the substance-less, relentless negativity and abuse that many people are exposed to online. Not actual (nuanced, constructive, thoughtful) criticism. From his comments on Part 4:
The theme of internet trolls has been on my mind for awhile now. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, comment boards … is it just me or is the internet being suffocated by negativity and hate? Not necessarily directed at my work but just in general. Maybe I’m visiting the wrong sites but everybody thinks they’re an expert and can’t wait to tell you you’re wrong, or something sucks and why the hell did that person even bother trying?
I agree it would be foolish to claim that art should be immune from criticism.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:01 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, any relevant point Zen Pencils has to make, however small, is lost somewhere around the part where Hideo Miyazaki grins up at a quote by American president Teddy Roosevelt emblazoned on a giant fighting robot and says, "It's troll hunting time."

That is a thing that was actually drawn and was not a dream.

But you know, maybe I'm wrong! After all, a lot of us probably don't know who Hayao Miyazaki (noted pacifist, incidentally) is.

(And don't tell me that character isn't supposed to be Miyazaki. The original version of the comic straight up had Miyazaki's name in panel one.)
posted by KChasm at 5:28 AM on March 24


Assuming Bukowski was actually the kind of alcoholic he depicts in his persona: it was not fun
it's a lot more like work
posted by thelonius at 5:59 AM on March 24


> "I have one of two choices--stay in the postoffice and go crazy...or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve." Bukowski walked the walk.

Black Sparrow Press also began paying Bukowski a regular stipend against future sales, which ensured him a steady, albeit small, income and shifted the financial risk of downtime to his publisher. So Bukowski walked the walk, and had an arrangement a less-talented and less-productive writer could not have had. But he was not at risk of starving.
posted by ardgedee at 6:11 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Oh, sure. I wasn't saying it was necessarily good advice. Just that Bukowski believed in it.

Nah, I gotcha. I think I was more kind of tangentially asking-without-actually-verbalizing-it "why don't we see a Zen Pencils about T.S. Elliot and his day job, why is it always these 'art or nothing' quotes?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:23 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Kris Straub also did a note-perfect parody of The Oatmeal.

Or rather, Kris Straub has a track record of being really spiteful of artists who he perceives as having found success while not appearing to work as hard as he does.

I'm really sick of the cliquishness of the "Webcomics Community" vis a vis who has annointed themselves arbiters of quality. I respect Kris Straub's talents, but I kind of roll my eyes when a guy who literally wrote a book titled "How to Make Webcomics" yet again gets indignant when someone else finds success in doing it differently.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:10 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


No, I think that it's more that he's not fond of hypocrisy.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:42 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Or that The Oatmeal sucks like a fuckity-suck.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:45 AM on March 24 [3 favorites]


Kris Straub also did a note-perfect parody of The Oatmeal.

Or rather, Kris Straub has a track record of being really spiteful of artists who he perceives as having found success while not appearing to work as hard as he does.


Those can both be true!
posted by painquale at 8:56 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


I just assumed that Gavin Aung Than was trolling. I mean, it's obvious he's a troll, right?

As for Kris Straub, his attitude should annoy me quite a bit...but he kind of gets a pass simply because I like Broodhollow. I'm shallow that way.
posted by happyroach at 10:42 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Kris Straub has a track record of being really spiteful of artists who he perceives as having found success while not appearing to work as hard as he does.

...including himself. Chainsawsuit began as a toss-off of bad jokes badly drawn that became more popular than any of his own more 'artful' endeavors (all of which I have enjoyed) and BOY was he pissed for a while...
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:20 PM on March 24


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