Funny. Matthew Inman doesn't look like an Internet kingpin.
You'd expect such a figure to be all swagger and declamations, throwing off one-liners like sparks off a grinding wheel. But Inman, 30, the creator of the webcomic and humor blog "The Oatmeal," is just the opposite: wiry and reserved, with a dry, wisenheimer sense of humor interrupted by occasional bursts of passion (treatment of animals, Nikola Tesla, office politics). He was caught by surprise at being recognized at the Atlanta airport on his recent trip to the South.
If anything, he's strived to remove himself from "all that noise," as he puts it in a recent visit to CNN -- the clamor of social media and comments and articles about him.
But the numbers tell a different story. If Inman isn't a king of the Internet, he's certainly among its royalty.
"The Oatmeal" is one of the most popular humor sites on the Web, with 7 million unique visitors a month, according to The Economist. Inman's latest collection of "Oatmeal" cartoons, "How to Tell if Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You" (Andrews McMeel), spent seven weeks at No. 1 in its category's New York Times Best Seller list, and remains in the Top 10 after 14 weeks. He's proved a master at crowd-funding, raising more than $200,000 for charity as part of a battle with a humor aggregation site and more than $1 million to create a museum honoring Tesla, the inventor.
And then there's the attention.
In December, BuzzFeed published a profile critical of Inman, "The Secrets of the Internet's Most Beloved Viral Marketer," that incited a backlash (and prompted a correction based on some false information). After Inman eviscerated BuzzFeed's story, Gawker struck with "The Oatmeal Sucks, Even If BuzzFeed Was Wrong," maintaining that "The Oatmeal" is "opportunistic and unfunny, trite and shallow."
"It's poorly rendered lowest-common-denominator treacle from a man unable to tell the difference between creative process and social media marketing," wrote Gawker's Max Read.
Which, naturally, prompted volleys against Gawker. "Pure journalism fail," wrote one. "Obvious pageview grab; how annoying. Find something popular and then, if you lack any talent to create something similar, generate pageviews by denigrating it," wrote another.
No wonder Mashable has claimed rule No. 1 of the Internet was "Don't mess with 'The Oatmeal.' "
Inman, a former programmer, is certainly wise to the ways of Internet traffic. "The Oatmeal" began as an offshoot of a dating site he created, and "I have to get a lot of people reading this stuff or I can't make a living," he says. But he bristles at criticism that the strip is merely a craven machine in which he gives his take on popular Internet topics to get page views.
"I'm doing this as a creative outlet, but I'm also doing this to support myself," he says. "How do you maintain integrity while doing both? For me, it's trying to make things that I want to make."
Stephan Pastis, creator of the widely syndicated newspaper strip "Pearls Before Swine," puts things succinctly.
"Who cares where the original motivation came from, if the product is something filtered through his warped head," he says. "That's what you want to see."
Pictures from a dating site
Originally, Inman didn't want to make comics.
He was born in Southern California and grew up in northern Idaho. He admired some cartoonists and dabbled in comics himself -- as a child he drew a short-lived strip called "Nightman," about a dressed-in-black hero who only came out after dark -- but he had his sights set on programming. He started creating Web pages at 13 and took off for Seattle at the first opportunity, after graduating high school, for a job as a Perl programmer in 1999.
He never went to college. "I didn't want to waste four years at university taking Math 101 when I could be working and living in the dot-com boom instead," he says.
The path to "The Oatmeal" began with an online dating site that Inman started in 2007 "as an attempt to get out of my day job," he says. But a dating site without people was useless, he observes, so he leavened the site with blog posts and cartoons about dating, relationships and whatever struck his fancy.
Very quickly, the posts and cartoons -- including "What Santa Really Does While You're Asleep" and "10 Very Good Reasons Why You Should Grow a Giant Beard" -- took over. Inman sold the dating site to focus on the comedy and started "The Oatmeal" in 2009. (The name comes from a handle Inman used playing the '90s video game Quake.)
Other strips, with titles such as "My dog: The paradox" and "How to suck at your religion," featured the kind of subject matter that made many "Oatmeal" entries the equivalent of newspaper comic strips you'd post on your fridge.
By the end of its first year, the site was receiving thousands of page views a day, and Inman had become the poster child for a new generation of Web cartoonists -- something noticed by old-fashioned book publishers.
"He had a following that was growing," says Kirsty Melville, president of the book division at Inman's publisher, Andrews McMeel. "We're always looking for talent, and we recognized his talent and believed that people would find it appealing in book form."
Michael Jantze, who teaches a course in webcomics at the Savannah College of Art and Design and runs the multimedia Jantze Studios, calls "The Oatmeal" "one of the funniest, truest things out there." "It's a good example of what the Internet can (offer) a new generation of voices. It feels more like a peer-to-peer conversation than what comics have ever been in America."
Inman may be the most visible Web cartoonist to make the jump to mass success, but he's far from the first. Other strips, such as Randall Munroe's "xkcd," Nicholas Gurewitch's "The Perry Bible Fellowship," Kate Beaton's "Hark, a Vagrant" and Zach Weinersmith's "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal" have developed sizable audiences, allowing a number of cartoonists to turn the trade into their full-time job.