Creator/s: Nathan "Jackhass" Birch
[Note: This is an old review that was written in 2007.]
"You know, sometimes it's nice to have a friend who doesn't know what you look like..." - Shandy, from Zoology
The comic has a pretty unique style in the way both animals and humans are rendered. Even though Zoology would be considered a furry comic, Jackhass' drawings outside of the comic have shown me that he's quite capable at drawing people, so it's a credit to his ability as an artist to be able to draw both animals and people well. Also, the animals look somewhat humanish and the humans look somewhat animalish, and this works amusingly to blur the lines between the two. I've noticed that comics which are largely furry-based often have a special way of drawing humans, I suppose since in that context the humans are approached as a strange kind of ape (which we are) as opposed to a separate and higher level of existence which is the usual perception.
In describing Zoology's aesthetics, the best word to use would be minimalistic. The characters are static and not very detailed, the backgrounds are generally non-existent, and there's little variety in perspective. However, Jackhass makes great use of this minimalism which helps him keep the comic clean and simple but also appealing and effective. There's a big difference between Zoology, though, and other comics that are typically associated with minimalism, such as Cyanide & Happiness, White Ninja, and Toothpaste For Dinner. One key element is that Zoology's simple backgrounds are not only subtle but are well-composed to establish mood and contrast without taking attention away from the characters and dialogue. Here's an example of radial gradients, which are very easy to do, being used to effect, and I think that 5th panel works great even though the background looks really easy to do. This one shows mood shift well, as the first white panel reflects the innocuous situation (from the alligator's perspective), then a sudden contrast with a dark gradient showing danger and confrontation, followed by a radial gradient which emphasizes the action of the panel and its significance in terms of plot resolution, and then the soft gradient reflecting the gross and comedic but happy ending. I think that without this background dynamic, the strip wouldn't be dramatic enough for the "REGURGITATE!" substitute to work. Here's another example of minimalism done well; it's surprisingly effective for a strip that has four identical panels and a homogenous gradient background. However, in this case, the distortion of the gradient adds a lot of visual flavor and again show's Jackhass' skill with simple backgrounds. Some simple effects, like screentones, are also used, and Jackhass mixes in simple hand-drawn backgrounds too which helps prevent the comic from being too abstract. The comic is ripe with simple but effective backgrounds like these, and I think that the typical reader probably wouldn't even notice that they're there, which, IMO, is a testament to their quality. This minimalism is also used well in terms of the writing, because while Baker's and Shandy's pens are never shown in the comic, the wall separating them is a prominent aspect of the strip, and this reflects the psyche of the characters and their overwhelming interest with each other, and also adds a sad but amusing quality to the strip that the wall is so simple but also so powerful and antagonistic.
Zoology is mostly a comic about different relationships, those being Baker & Shandy, the octopi, the zookeepers, the gerbil father and son, and Ernest Ape (with himself), each of which I'll write about individually. There are similarities and problems among the different stories, though. For one, the comic is very male-oriented in its perspectives, which I assume is primarily due to the author being male. While the comic has a style of approaching male mentality in a condescending but honest way that's charming and amusing (at least I wasn't bothered by it despite being a male), I think the one-sidedness is limiting the content. Not only does the strip focus too much on the males, but it seems to me like the females are written by a guy and not as natural as they should be. Not that it's a big issue or an uncommon one, but I thought the females in the comic are pretty flat and unlikeable, and the comic is much more based around the desires and actions of the males towards the females rather than anything the female does or says. Then again, it might make the comic more interesting and amusing to have it be male-oriented like this, but I think it would benefit from having the females be written better and being more developed and there being a more neutral perspective.
The comic has a newspaper style in numerous ways, and I'm not sure how well this works in the webcomics environment. One big concern is the overemphasis on holidays as a theme for comics. This is a popular subject for newspaper comics, since A) it's universal, B) it's unoffensive, C) it provides a theme for writers taxed by daily comics. I don't think these reasons apply here. It might just be my own tastes, but I find holiday comics to generally be uninteresting and redundant, and they're not as practical in webcomics because there's a lot more freedom here in subject matter. Same thing with cursing; in the comic, cursing is self-censored and clean, and I don't see any reason Jackhass needs to be censoring himself. If he's adverse to cursing himself then that's one thing, but even though Zoology is like a newspaper comic, it's still a webcomic and so it has a different audience and environment.
Another concern with the writing is that it tends to be somewhat clumsy in its execution. Particularly, punctuation marks are often not used correctly or are noticably absent, and there are also typos and spelling errors in the comic. This isn't a big deal, although I would pay more attention to it and possibly get someone to proofread the strips before posting them.
Baker & Shandy: I think this relationship is handled particularly well as a concept, even if the characters aren't that interesting or amusing. Their dynamic is basically a criticism of racism and a testament to the negative impact it has on cultures and relationships. Baker & Shandy get along great, and the reason that they're interested in each other is because, due to the wall separating them, they imagine each other as being a member of the same species (or race.) So, it's really sort of ironic because even though the wall is so limiting and oppressive towards them, the wall's concealment is the only reason that their relationship exists. So, it's optimistic that they've overcome their differences (their "racism") because of this and would probably be accepting of each other if they ever get passed the wall, but it's also sort of tragic that a wall separating them was necessary to bring them together (in that they're driven by a fantasy) and that they would've probably rejected each other due to their differences. It's amusing, though, how easily they assume the animal on the other side is their own species and how easily this assumption manifests itself into a powerful force (to the point where Baker is willing to do anything to get passed the wall.)
Octopi: This is a more typical sort of situation, but handled well, amusingly, and interestingly. I think this one's my favorite and sums it up pretty well. Angsty is very easy to relate to, and that helps his appeal a lot. Probably most of the guys on this forum are like him, and I think there's a self-mockery self-contempt thing going on with him. Like, that we enjoy seeing Angsty suffer because we dislike ourselves. The relationship is pretty interesting since both octopi are so anti-social, problematic, inept, and have low self-esteem. Whereas Angsty is bad at relationships because he's so inexperienced, it seems that the female octopus (whose name I don't remember) has been in too many bad relationships so she's cynical and pessimistic but also understanding. The reason that the female octopus keeps Angsty around is partly because she pities him and partly because it helps her self-esteem to have a guy try so hard to win her over. Not that it's any surprise when they keep breaking up and getting back together. So, I guess this depressed loser guy and depressed loser girl relationship is fun to see develop because it's both realistic and problematic.
Zookeepers: I thought this relationship was pretty flat and uninteresting. Whereas the guy is another depressed and clueless loser like Angsty, the woman has no flaws and makes no mistakes, and also mostly puts up with the guy out of pity. Not that they have an actual relationship, but they do interact a lot and the guy is trying to make a relationship so it seems to count. So, I'd like to see more flaws and problems with the female character, and I'd like to see the relationship develop more, even if it's slowly, since even though the guy is an idiot he's still a sympathetic character (especially since he didn't choose to be a zookeeper.)
Gerbils: Heh, this one's pretty cute. The Dad is pretty childish and immature himself, but since he's a parent he's responsible for his son. I'm wondering where the mother is in this, though, since she's never mentioned but there's no explanation given for her absence. Anyways, the kid's problems are pretty relevant to cartoonists of any age, as I'm sure we're all aware of what it's like to have our work criticized and rejected by others. However, since it's a little kid, it's more cute and innocent than sad. Then again, it seems more than likely that the kid will grow up into an Angsty so there is a darker undertone there. Parenting relationships are pretty over-done in comics, though, and the emphasis on comics is what's keeping it going. I'd suggest shaking it up by introducing the mother or developing the kid and making him older, as it's been explained in the comic that gerbils age pretty fast. Generally, it's a cute set-up but it doesn't seem to have much longevity to it.
Ernest Ape: These strips are ten times funnier than anything else in the comic. Every one was done well and cleverly. When I see an Ernest strip, I know I'm probably gonna be laughing by the end of it. His extreme narcissism is great, and when he's not on air he's either checking himself out in the mirror or dressing up in stylish suits. His advice is so retarded that it's funny to try to imagine how bad his previous relationships were (if there even were any.) The ambiguity of the callers is hilarious, especially in the sense that it's usually unclear whether it's an animal calling or if it's a human calling who has no idea that he's getting relationship advice from an ape in the zoo. I wouldn't change anything about the Ernest comics, and even though they're fairly sparse it only makes it funnier because they're usually in the middle of a sequence when they're least expected. Definitely the best part of the comic.
In order of favorite to least favorite, I'd say, Ernest, Octopi, B&S, Gerbils, Zookeepers, in that order.
Overall, I found the comic to be pretty interesting and enjoyable. The art's great and fine as is, whereas the writing's better than average and could use some work. Jackhass clearly has a knack for this and I think at this point he mostly just needs to practice and experiment and refine his skills.