Zine Scene: Jason Viola’s Herman the Manatee, Rabbit Shadows, and Who is Amy Amoeba?

Jason Viola: Herman the Manatee Vol. 1Jason Viola: Herman the Manatee (Manatee Power, 1/25/12)

Jason Viola’s comics might look simple at first. Herman the Manatee, Rabbit Shadows, and Who is Amy Amoeba? sound like kids’ stuff. Viola’s comics use the tropes of the Sunday paper strip (animal characters, big bug eyes, cartoonish proportions, and, of course, humor), but the artist uses this style to explore themes that are decidedly un-cartoonish. Even if he claims that Garfield creator Jim Davis is his biggest influence (“for better or worse”), many of his online and booklet stories cover much darker and more interesting territory.

Rabbit Shadows, for instance, follows a young rabbit that gains massive art-world acclaim for his sculptures, which he molds out of his own shadows. He then has to contend with fickle public opinion and his own sense of doubt, with surprising results. Herman the Manatee is similarly nuanced, with its ongoing saga of a manatee that just can’t avoid getting hit by boats. Sometimes hilarious and often quite sad, Herman the Manatee could also been seen as an indictment of human behavior toward nature. For Viola, however, it goes further than that: “While I definitely use ecological concerns in story arcs, I think the larger themes are depression, guilt, self-hatred, regret, anxiety…humor is a safe way to express these things.”

Jason Viola: Herman the Manatee

In fact, humor is crucial, as Viola says: “The themes always emerge from the original joke in everything I’ve written. A manatee getting hit by a boat becomes a story about failure.” Viola uses humor in Sunward as well, another one of his ongoing series. Jokes lighten what is otherwise a somewhat terrifying story, about a young man who is mysteriously falling toward the sun.

Who is Amy Amoeba? may be the most experimental and strange of Viola’s stories. Amy continues dividing into more and more selves, leading to arguments about supremacy and identity. It seems that Viola can’t stop telling outlandish and inventive stories; as he says, “As an adult, I’ve been drawing comics for about four years, so experimenting is partly just me finding my way. I don’t really set out to experiment; I think of a story idea and try to find the best way I can tell it. Each project has its own challenge, which entices me.”

Jason Viola: Who is Amy Amoeba?

His art style, though always simple, also changes considerably from comic to comic. Rabbit Shadows uses a crosshatched black-and-white aesthetic that recalls children’s tales (and is completely silent, which presents its own difficulties for the drawing), while his other comics make use of a more traditional comic-strip style, complete with rounded shapes and bright colors.

Jason Viola: Rabbit Shadows

Viola’s new comic (“about a woman in Cape Cod who was thought to be a witch”) will, no doubt, continue this trend of innovation and exploration of the graphic medium. More than a career for Viola, comics are a constant: “I drew comics constantly as a child and was determined to be a cartoonist when I grew up. As I got older, I gave up drawing and focused on prose and playwriting. Several years ago, I rediscovered comics and fell back in love with them.”

Sometimes, it really is as simple as loving your work. Or as Viola says, “Comics feel like home to me, and I’ll never stop.”

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