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An Audience With Jason Viola


Manatees are my favourite animals (after penguins). With this in mind, I was overjoyed to hook up with manatee expert Jason Viola. By expert, I mean he draws a hugely successful webcomic about a certain manatee and his tribulations in motorboat filled waters. Here, we chat about the real-world problems facing this endangered animal and, obviously, about the highly acclaimed comic itself which is often referred to as “Charlie Brown underwater”.



Zeke Iddon: Herman the Manatee is a charming strip which is frequently touted as one of the best manatee-themed webcomics going, if not the best. Mr. Viola, How’s things?

Jason Viola: Pretty good, thanks! I just got back from MeCAF, a local comics festival, where fortunately the manatee-themed webcomic competition was not too thick.

For those that aren’t aware of your work, could you please describe Herman and his universe? Please try to do so in less than 47 words, with the last two being “mild peril.”

Herman is a curious manatee who frequently gets hit by boats. When the boats aren't around, he faces other traumas and failures. His universe could be described as a 1980's funny animal cartoon seen through Kafka-colored glasses. Silly songs and mild peril.

The comic has evolved beautifully over the last two years, going from a recurring joke (Herman managing to thunk his head off a boat every week) to a world filled with bizarre character relationships and story arcs. Was the progression quite a natural thing?

Thank you for that. Initially I planned on running the boat gag as long as I could and then ending the strip entirely. But I was having so much fun with Herman that I wanted to try putting him in different situations and see if I could maintain the absurd and depressing balance of the original strips. I think it has sometimes been more awkward than natural, though!
There’s actually quite a serious side to this, isn’t there? As much as we laugh at Herman’s boat-based woes, the problem of motorboats seriously harming actual manatees is threatening to wipe out the already endangered species.

Yes. A woman said to me at a book fair recently, "You know, manatees really do get hit by boats. It isn't funny." I told her I don't think a real manatee getting hit by a boat is funny at all but when Herman gets hit it's hilarious. She moved on to the next table.

Manatees don't have any natural predators, so they tend not to be afraid of humans and their boats. They get seriously maimed or killed by boat collisions quite often. Efforts have been made to protect them by setting slow speed zones around their habitats, though I've heard recently there is a coalition of boaters who are trying to raise that limit.

The BP oil spill disaster off the Louisiana coast is also threatening the manatee population, amongst other wild life. Any plans to feature this in the comic?

Possibly. I'm not usually very topical; any issues I raise in the comic tend not to have anything to do with manatees. This year a lot of manatees have died from the cold snap that hit Florida but I haven't written about that. But the oil spill, because it is such a large disaster, may resonate in Herman's world, which is full of misery and no stranger to man-made suffering.

For a comic interview, this is turning pretty depressing. On that note, what was your inspiration behind Herman? He’s got to be the most pitiful, hopeless character we’ve ever met.

I had drawn a picture of a sad manatee trapped in a tank and hooked up to tubes that two friends of mine found really funny. We joked about putting him in a comic strip where he just got hit by boats and looked sad. Everything has stemmed from the look of that drawing, a poor manatee looking out with disappointment and confusion. But as I formed the strip, I drew a lot of inspiration from both Charlie Brown and Krazy Kat. And my own disappointment and confusion.

A lot of people will be reading this and thinking “gosh, I just wish there was some way of owning a print copy of Herman the Manatee”. Jason, Is this a possibility?

I'm so glad you asked! All of your Herman the Manatee print copy needs can be met at my online store. So far, I've got three small and affordable collections of Herman comics.

What’s the future of the Herman strip? Does it have a finite end? Will you move to colour like the creators of Dr. Mcninja? Increase to ten updates a week?

Well, I don't think I'll ever update more than once a week . And I like how I can keep the aesthetic both bleak and fanciful and I'm not sure how easily I can maintain that if I add color. I have stories that I would like to get to but the future is perpetually uncertain. Herman has been an experiment from the start and I don't know exactly what it will turn into next. That said, whenever I throw something new into the comic I do try to make it fit the tone of the whole series. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but there is a certain consistent feeling I strive for when I draw Herman. And it feels something like the hull of a speedboat against your forehead.

In the two years that I've been drawing this comic, the end has always been about six months away. But it does have an ending and I know what it will be, just like the creators of LOST did. And it will leave you scratching your head, disappointed and confused.

You’re a prolific artist – there’s some great work of yours outside of Herman the Manatee dotted around the Internet. As an artist, where do you see yourself in, say, five years?

The main reason I don't want to update more than once a week is I want to tell stories other than Herman. I've been producing self-contained minicomics for a few years and I plan on continuing. I enjoy drawing Herman quite a lot, but it is those other comics where I get the most satisfaction. I find that telling stories with a beginning, middle, and end comes more naturally to me than a weekly gag. In fact I tend to have over-developed ideas for Herman that need to get stripped down in order to fit into six panels. In five years? I've started very early writing for a graphic novel. So I hope that's done.

Jason, thanks so much for taking the time out. ‘Twas an honour and a pleasure.

Thank you! It's been fun.

Click the above comic to start from the beginning of Herman’s adventures!







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