Punch Line

05.07.13

The Oatmeal Creator Talks Comics, Lawsuits, His New Book, and More

Matthew Inman of the wildly popular Oatmeal comics has a new book, My Dog: The Paradox, out today. He talks to Jean Trinh about his critics, charitable fundraisers, and more.

An “Internet kingpin” and a “force to be reckoned with” are just a couple of the descriptions media outlets have assigned to Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, one of the most popular comics on the Web. Even Mashable warns readers, “Rule number one on the Web: You don’t mess with The Oatmeal.”

It seems a surprising take on Inman, 30. The Seattle resident is better known for his geeky, relatable humor; for capturing funny and touching moments with his pets; and for his entertaining musings on grammar, the underrated and dangerous mantis shrimp, and 20th-century physicist Nikola Tesla.

Inman’s third book, My Dog: The Paradox, out Tuesday, is a full-color update of his well-received comic of the same name. It’s mostly an endearing story about his dog, Rambo, but also is based on an amalgamation of the other dogs he’s had. Inman notes in the cartoon that his pup “does not fear bears, moose, or other dangerous fauna, but he won’t make eye contact with cats.”

“It’s an animal that continually makes less and less sense the more I have him,” Inman told The Daily Beast in an interview.

Not all of Inman’s cartoons are cute and politically correct; he’s also been known to joke about genocide and abortion clinics. The cartoons are sometimes cheeky and offensive, and they riff off the Internet meme culture. In December 2012, Inman endured a firestorm of criticism after posting a rape joke in his comic strip “The delicate relationship I have with my keyboard.” In the last panel in the comic, a sobbing F5 key referred to as “the rape victim” is being chased by an infuriated blog monster. The caption reads: “The Internet is not behaving as expected. I must now violate you over and over and over again.” Inman later removed the panel and issued an apology on the bottom of the strip. “It was a weird deal because most of the other comics I read on the Internet—they’ve all made those jokes and they don’t get in trouble, but I did,” he said. “I think part of that is because my readership is so broad.”

“But what I realized later, offensiveness aside, it was a stupid comic and it was lazy,” he added. “I felt worse about that than anything else. When I make a stupid, lazy comic, I try to not make comics like that anymore. [I want to] make ones that are funny.”

With 7 million visitors to The Oatmeal in a good month, Inman has a lot of eyes keeping watch over his work. Although he says 99 percent of the comments he gets are positive and supportive, a few are biting. He used to believe that to be a good writer and artist, it was necessary to read the comments and immerse himself in them to improve and grow, he said, but “I’ve found that’s like trying to drink gallons of poison in order to feel healthier.”

Still, Inman’s fan base loves him and his humor so much that 75 to 80 percent of his income from the site is through merchandising—from Sriracha hot sauce products to posters and T-shirts—and the rest on advertising. They’ve even helped him raise money for a variety of charities, including an impressive $1 million in nine days to help a nonprofit build a museum honoring Tesla. In June 2012, Inman published a piece admonishing FunnyJunk—a website that aggregates funny photos and GIFs—for publishing his comics without permission and without credit, and for continuing to do so after he asked it to stop. The site’s attorney, Charles Carreon, sent Inman a letter threatening to sue if he didn’t pay the site $20,000 in damages. Instead of paying FunnyJunk the money, he championed a fundraiser through IndieGoGo to raise $20,000 to benefit the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation. He ended up raising $220,024, almost 11 times the goal.

“With this guy, when I first saw it, my first thought was he’s a lawyer and he’s got plenty of money and time, so the only court that I would win against him would be in the court of public opinion,” said Inman. “So I thought rather than paying him or fighting him with a lawyer, I could just take that money and pour it into charity.”

Carreon then slapped Inman with a lawsuit alleging “cybervandalism,” which Rebecca E. Hoffman of Bloomberg BNA called “frivolity on top of frivolousness.” The suit was eventually dropped.

To show its thanks for the fundraiser, the National Wildlife Federation organized a surprise party for Inman’s 30th birthday at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, allowing him to feed peanut butter on a spoon to two full-grown grizzly bears. “I’ve written comics about bears for years and years,” said Inman. “So I thought, ‘Let’s pay back the bears for all the comedy,’ and that’s why I chose the National Wildlife Federation.”

It’s been a wild ride for Inman, who started building websites when he was 13 years old, eventually putting those skills to work at a company. He later spearheaded a dating site called Mingle2.com—which has since been sold to another company that changed it into a “big spam fest,” he said—using comics and quizzes to engage visitors. The cartoons received the most attention, planting the seed for The Oatmeal, which he launched four years ago.

Inman has had an “intense and complicated” year, he said. BuzzFeed’s Jack Stuef slammed him in an article called “The Secrets of the Internet’s Most Beloved Viral Marketer.” In a lengthy response, Inman defended himself and ripped apart Stuef’s piece, pointing out major factual errors. Stuef had criticized Inman’s rape joke, and the cartoonist struck back by posting an image of the writer and pointing out the insensitive joke Stuef had made about Sarah Palin’s son Trig, who has Down syndrome. BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith eventually issued an apology, though Inman points out he never had an issue with BuzzFeed but with “this one imbecile.”

With things finally settling down, Inman says he hopes to create animated shorts and an app for The Oatmeal, and go back to creating a comic once a week instead of once a month.

“I feel like I haven’t been able to just sit down, focus, and make comics for the Web,” he said. “That’s what got me where I am. Lately, that has been my focus, just making comics for the Web.”