Penmen – three decades on, it is still cool to Grin Big!

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Penmen creator Gary Blehm, pens his thoughts!

A school kid in Colorado, United States, drew a cartoon figure with a big grin and declared his intention to draw cartoons for a living to his parents. The year was 1977. No big deal, you think, every other kid comes up with such far out career choices, everywhere in the world!


But this kid was different. He called the character Penmen. Twelve years and many sketches later, his first poster titled “Find the two identical Penmen” was published. The 20 X 30 inch poster had featured 1039 Penmen figures, with only two identical ones. For the uninitiated, the year was 1989.

Since that first sketch, the pen may have faced an existential crisis with the world turning digital with a vengeance and what not, but the Penmen has not only survived, but has actually proliferated. First there were the posters – then the geographical spread as the Penmen moved into Canada, which ultimately led to a book deal and a syndicated comic strip.

The next decade witnessed the Penmen in their animated avatar, as new and more topical adventures were created to keep up with the changing times. Soon enough, in 2006, Gary Blehm animated Penmen for the Disney owned Jetix Europe – a seventy language kid’s network with footprints across Europe. As the penmen comics are wordless, their mute screams were, and continues to be a perfect fit, transcending the barriers imposed by languages.


As a brand extension, Penmen T Shirts with the “Grin Big” mnemonic, are extremely popular and continue to influence newer and newer generations.

Inked Happiness got in touch with Gary Blehm, “the optimist”, creator of the hugely popular Penmen, and this is what he had to say (excerpts):

Penmen creator Gary Blehm
Penmen creator Gary Blehm

Inked Happiness. Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, Generation-i … the Penmen have seen them, engaged with them and tickled the funny bones, all without uttering a word. So how does the Penmen feel in 2020?

Gary Blehm: While I’m enjoying working on the Grin Big!™ t-shirt branding with the outdoors and positive vibes I still feel drawn to the black and white presentation of the character with the posters and comic strip. I’ve always enjoyed black and white art.

 Inked Happiness. Do the rue the slow death of the fountain pens, and with them, the art of handwriting? Or do you feel that this too shall pass?

Gary Blehm: I would hope that the organic joy of writing and drawing with a pen will always endure like the guitar. Emotion can be expressed best with the human touch. Imagine movies without real life actors. I think there is a dropping off point with digital.


 Inked Happiness. What writing / sketching instrument do you use? Are the Penmen created by fountain pens and ink? Your comics would lead us to believe that they are?

Gary Blehm: When I produced my posters and comic strip in the 1990’s I used technical pens for their precision. I draw with digital vector graphics today for the precise line that I always hoped to achieve. I’ve been considering selling some original work executed with my Montblanc Meisterstuck. In my 31-year career I’ve signed every PENMEN® contract with the Montblanc that I bought with sales from my first poster in 1989. There is a personal history with that pen and I’d like to produce some art with it.

 Inked Happiness. What message do you have for your innumerable fans among our readers, mostly fountain pen and ink aficionados?

Gary Blehm: While my renderings have been executed with different styles of pen, the Penman character exists in the fabulous world of pen and ink. Penman wields a dip pen with a classic Higgins ink bottle. He embodies the soul of pen and ink. He is the Penman, after all. He speaks without words with visual metaphor and sequential art. It is a style of Penmanship telling stories in pantomime.

Penmen poster

 Inked Happiness. Anything that you would like to add.  

Gary Blehm: As I say in motivational speeches of optimism to kids in school, the Power of Optimism lies in doing what you love to do. “Be Positive and Follow Your Dreams!” -Penman

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