Affirming Life: A Review of The Daily Zoo and Year 2 by Chris Ayers
I met Chris Ayers, the author, at the Los Angeles Times Book Fair, an enormous bibliophilic orgy celebrated once a year in the city that bears its name. He was fresh-faced and ginger-haired, with a smile that hoped passersby would choose his booth among thousands of others. I fulfilled that hope, but only because I’d already bought his books the previous year, and was already familiar with his story.
Living with Leukemia
He’d been diagnosed years earlier with an alphabet-soup of medical conditions that revealed only one comprehensible and frightening term: leukemia. He obviously survived. But I’ll leave you to read the introduction of his books to share in his journey through the nightmare of worry and treatment.
As a character designer in the entertainment industry, he responded to his ordeal by drawing one character a day. That effort not only affirmed his life but led to several books, starting with The Daily Zoo and Daily Zoo Year 2. Each book documents a full year of drawings. The hardback versions of the books are about 8.25 inches square with 160 pages. Paperback versions are also available.
You can find out more about the life of Chris through a video that I've linked at the end of this article.
His disease wasn’t the reason why I bought these books.
What initially drew me (no pun intended) to the Daily Zoo was the cover cartoon of a goofy flamingo in hospital gown and bandage, sucking a thermometer. Then I looked inside.
A tear-drop-shaped red robin pouted from the Day 11 page. An octopus on Day 50 used his eight arms to play poker with himself. An orange Tyrannosaurus Rex smiled slyly from Day 90. And an exhausted racing tortoise collapsed on a Finish banner from Day 365. The entire work begins with a foreword by filmmaker J.J. Abrams, who, after enjoying a few drawings through a mutual friend, requested an introduction to Chris.
- The cover of Daily Zoo Year 2 shows shows an elephant confidently striding out of the hospital. He still wears a medical gown and drags his IV carrier, on which a hapless mouse orderly dangles.
As with the first volume, the methods and subjects vary widely. For example, a shaded, gray-scale Moby Dick is decked out in turtleneck, pea coat and hooked arm on day 373. A green zombie frog sleepwalks through day 535. A blue and yellow woodpecker goes fishing on day 588 by tying a line from his beak to a float in the water. And an orange and yellow turtle is getting ready to hang ten with his surfboard on day 666.
Not all the illustrations are in color, since some days he could barely lift a pencil to draw. But they all delight with their bemused expressions and human-like responses to all kinds of situations. Most are caricatures of animals, though here and there are concoctions, like the day 100 Yodaphant, an alien combination of Yoda and elephant.
All pictures feature text describing the technique or inspiration behind his creation. For the Daily Zoo, the Polychromatic Hippo on day 114, begins “For this one, I was inspired both by tribal markings of certain aboriginal cultures and by the practice of painting elephants for festivals in parts of India.”
Years in Review
The last few pages of each book summarize the entire year’s calendar. A miniature of each drawing occupies one day, and each month is laid out on two facing pages. Not quite half of the artwork that appears on these final pages do not appear in the rest of the book. It’s a nice bonus to be able to hunt for these new creations. I only wish they were bigger.
I didn’t buy anything from the author that day, though his offering included a new coloring book, cards and t-shirts displaying some of this characters. Yet he was kind enough to autograph the two books of his that I’d brought, while proclaiming that he’d been in remission from the disease for years.
At my request for The Daily Zoo, he drew a mouse with an uncertain but hopeful smile, showing a confident thumbs up. The freedom from leukemia had launched this whole new enterprise for Chris.
For The Daily Zoo Year 2, I I said he could draw anything he wanted to accompany his signature. He quickly sketched out a happy pig popping out of a mud pit.
Chris has created additional volumes in this series. They're worth buying if you become a fan of his art.
© 2020 Aurelio Locsin