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Fundamental Comics: ‘The Daily Zoo’ and Healing and Inspiration Through Art

“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level.  Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.

The Daily Zoo: Keeping the Doctor at Bay with a Drawing a Day
Writer/Illustrator: Chris Ayers
Foreword: J.J. Abrams
Copy Editor:  Melissa Kent
Publisher: Design Studio Press
Publication Date: 2008
No. of Issues: First volume of ongoing book series

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It was April Fool’s Day, 2005.  On a day typically punctuated by humorous shenanigans, artist Chris Ayers received life-threatening news: He had acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).  The Mayo Clinic describes AML as “a cancer of the blood and bone marrow – the spongy tissue inside bones where blood cells are made” and when it is acute, that means the cancer has a rapid progression and “typically demands quick decision-making.” While the remission rate is approximately 67%, according to Healthline, the “five-year overall survival rate for AML is 27.4%.”

In Ayers’ The Daily Zoo introduction, he shares his thoughts on the experience:

Six hours later [of learning he had cancer] I was sporting a powder blue hospital gown, looking away as a nurse threaded an IV into my left arm, only half-aware of what was happening. The other half of my consciousness was numb, reeling…. I was embarking on a journey, one that would be the toughest I had ever undertaking. Ultimately, though, it would also be one of the most rewarding and empowering journeys I had ever experienced. (8)

Receiving much support from family, friends, and strangers, after a year of treatments that included multiple rounds of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, Ayers came out the other side, so to speak, and the prognosis was looking good: remission.  Ayers was “energized to make my own, personal art more of a priority” (8) and he knew just what he wanted to do…  

The Plot of The Daily Zoo

On April 1, 2006, Ayers started a sketchbook – The Daily Zoo – in which he would draw an animal each day for an entire year.  It was a simple, straightforward goal that would challenge Ayers’ illustrative skills as well building the discipline to show up everyday and complete a drawing; however, these pursuits were secondary to the “opportunity to celebrate the gift of each healthy day. Each animal would represent in a small, but very tangible, way another successful day in my personal fight against cancer” (9).

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Reception Upon Release

A focus on medicine in comic books and graphic novels was not a new genre in 2008; however, such books were few and far between.  Long-time readers of comics and graphic novels will likely be familiar with Harvey Pekar’s memoir, Our Cancer Year, from 1994 in which he collaborated with his wife Joyce Brabner and artist Frank Stack.  Most examples found in this genre of books were fictionalized stories exploring societal anxieties towards epilepsy, AIDS/HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and cancer, such as in Eisner Award winner Brian Fies’ 2006 Mom’s Cancer.  At the time of its release in November 2008 from publisher Design Studio Press, The Daily Zoo was a unique beast in the world of comics, because it was part memoir, part instructional on how to draw, and, most importantly, inspirational.  A portion of the proceeds were given to support cancer charities (for example, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society).  

Not surprising, reviews were as positive and as uplifting as the material itself.  In January 2009, MPR News’ Greta Cunningham reported that “cancer patients often respond emotionally to Ayers’ book.  They tell him his work gives them hope and his cartoons even make them smile.”  Teoh Yi Chie reviewed the book in March 2009 for Parka Blogs, citing The Daily Zoo as “a journal written from the heart” and “creative, inspirational and beautiful.”

The Daily Zoo, along with other sequential art titles, was part of a growing trend that Ian Williams M.D. coined “graphic medicine” in his master’s thesis, and in 2010, the term was published in the British Medical Journal:

Some healthcare professionals – especially those working in public health, with young people, or with non-native speakers – have begun to use graphic stories for patient care and education.  One reason this practice is not more widespread is probably because most doctors have not considered its merits.  We believe that graphic stories have an important role in patient care, medical education, and the social critique of the medical profession. (Jefferson LibGuide, “What is Graphic Medicine?”)

Critical Analysis

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Learning about illness and treatment can be an effective coping and healing strategy for the author, and sharing that information with readers can transform a negative experience into a positive one.” This is partially Ayers goal; however, he takes a more reflective stance regarding his illness.  In his introduction, he explains that “this book is not meant to be a blow-by-blow account of my cancer journey – that is a story for another time.  This book is about what I chose to do after experiencing cancer” (8). He decided that his art needed to take a more central position in his life by making a commitment to draw an animal a day which would require the discipline to show up to blank page for 365 consecutive days and challenge his skills as an artist.

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Ayers provides personal reflections on his illness by beginning each month with a drawing and a personal story.  He provides insight into the impact of the illness of his life.  Instead of wallowing in negativity or “woe is me” attitude, Ayers finds a kernel or many kernels of humor, which results in an inspiring and uplifting message.  For example on Day 89, Ayers drew a capped platypus wearing a yellow onesie with a green “P” on his chest.  He titled the piece, “Platypus Power,” and discusses his experience going through radiation treatment, always finding an angle of humor:

Unlike many comic book characters, my exposure to radiation and highly toxic chemicals during my cancer treatment didn’t give me superpowers.  It did not give me the power of flight, though I had some pretty wild flights during my feverish delirium.  I could not climb walls – some days I couldn’t even climb out of bed.  Nor did my muscles double in size, but my feet did swell to hobbit-like proportions due to fluid retention.  It didn’t even turn my skin green, though the chemo did turn my urine green..and blue…and orange….  Being a cancer survivor, I feel a strange dichotomy of extreme fragility and empowering strength.  After enduring such a treacherous journey and coming out on the other side, one can’t help but feel a little bit like a superhero. (35)

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While The Daily Zoo is a personal journey of healing, it is also a call to be creative.  Daily, Ayers had the opportunity to create a new character and experiment in a variety of mediums, thereby stretching and honing his skills as an illustrator.  For many entries, Ayers is candid about his artistic choices and how he overcame challenges.  For instance on Day 012, “The Penguin Who Made My Day,” Ayers discusses how a penguin gave him some troubles:

This guy started out as a normal penguin, not an aquatic gunslinger.  I began lightly sketching in pencil and got the feet to work, but the body and head were giving me a lot of trouble.  Thank goodness for erasers.  After numerous attempts, the cowboy part just sort of happened – I think partly as a result of his inward-pointed toes and slight bow-leggedness.  Once I had a direction for his character, it started to come together.  Perseverance doesn’t always result in success, but in this case I feel it did.  After initially fearing this sketch was doomed, it turned out to be one of my favorites. (17)

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Relevancy Today/Why #StoriesMatter

Ayers succeeds brilliantly with balancing insightful moments of his personal journey while celebrating his life by exploring and sharing what he loves: art.  At once, he is a medical success story and a creative motivator calling his audience to “create.”  Readers who may be on a similar medical journey will find comfort in Ayers’ upbeat reflections, and readers who are seeking creative motivation and insight from a person who really knows his craft will again find Ayers inspiring through his candid observations as he completes each daily sketch.  His personal and creative journey continues to have relevancy today.

In the larger context, The Daily Zoo and the volumes that followed, Ayers became part of the growing body of work of graphic medicine.  Ayers wanted to make a difference and his doctor, Gary Schiller M.D. thought he did:

We are very fortunate that patients like Chris are willing to educate us, not only about how to use, or not to use, a certain drug or treatment, but how to proceed through the often tortuous and conflicting paths of therapy. (Back cover)

Hence, The Daily Zoo comes to matter not only to an artist seeking to celebrate his life and his art, but also to a wider audience – patients, families, and friends of those with AML and other life-threatening illnesses, and the medical professional seeking to connect with the patient.

Other Points of Interest

Since the release of his first volume in 2008, Chris has gone on to publish two more volumes, released in 2009 and 2015.  This series also includes My Daily Zoo: A Drawing Activity Book for All Ages (2011) and The Daily Zoo Goes to Paris (2012).  Early published works in which he contributed to include: Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem: Inside the Monster Shop (2007); Alien vs. Predator: The Creature Effects of ADI (2004); and Worlds: A Mission of Discovery (2004).

More generally, see website Graphic Medicine for reviews, podcasts, and blog articles dedicated to this important genre of sequential art.  The U.S. National Library of Medicine provides educational resources, as well as access to their exhibition collection.  


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