The Daily Zoo by Chris Ayers shows the strength of human character as it overcomes adversity. There are many reasons to pick up this book: the great art, the eager forward by famed creator J.J. Abrams, the frank discussion of chemotherapy, Ayers’s survival story, not to mention that a portion of the proceeds is going to charity for cancer research. The real soul of The Daily Zoo, though, is the exposition of Ayers’s own fanciful, whimsical soul.
In 2005 (on April Fools Day, nonetheless), Ayers was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. Beyond the physical struggle, the emotional and psychological impact of such an illness is enough to devastate anyone. Ayers came through his illness, and, back on his feet with life to live, Ayers was “eager to move forward, though mindful… that a relapse was a real possibility.” Every day was precious, and it was time to show the essence of life within each of those days.
He found his solution in art, which already was his life. Ayers was (and is) a concept artist working in Hollywood, doing character designs, landscapes, anything asked of him in a wide variety of styles. Rather than the book charting his treatment and recovery as others have done before, The Daily Zoo is a celebration of the life after remission.
Ayers’s lifetime of drawing became a new experiment: a year of sketches of animals, one each day for a menagerie of 365 wild creatures. Some are vivid, realistic drawings, such as Day 003’s “Grizzly” or the “Ground Hornbill” of Day 133. Others are more experimental, like glowing “Eyes” in the darkness reminiscent of an old Looney Toons or the angular “Space Bunny.” The complete sketchbook is laid out like a calendar, with thumbnails of everything from extinct animals to Yodaphant (an elephant Yoda) to a black bear playing croquet.
Among the best are Ayers’s cartoons that give hints to a deeper story, such as the fitting “Finished at he Finish” tortoise from Day 365. Reminiscent of the “Tortoise and the Hare” tale, the tortoise is done, but so exhausted he cannot even break the ribbon at the finish line. Others show “Mr. and Mrs. Hammer at the Opera,” as hammerhead sharks take in a little culture.
The crème de la crème of Ayers’s sketches (certainly subjective, but delightful) are given in chronological order with commentary. “Count Moocula” shows a bovine under a full moon in classic Nosferatu pose with a cape drawn across its nose has a description of the impulsive thought “vampire cow” and how far Ayers could run with it. Many of the comments discuss the sources of inspiration for the sketches, a useful guide for artists at all levels. Going deeper with the design, Ayers writes an entire background for “Flamingo Fu” about a whooping crane in exile who trains up flamingo Deuce McCoy in Boca Raton. Other stories are left more to the imagination, of which there is plenty.
The Daily Zoo is an excellent read, whether as an in depth study of a year’s progression of experimental art or something to flip through again and again for personal gems. Volume One covers the first year after Ayers’s treatments. Volume Two is swiftly on the way with many more creatures to come.