Across from the framed picture of the gun-toting cat wearing a jet pack, next to the stack of ink doodles, behind an array of computer monitors, Matthew Inman is pounding out quick commands on his keyboard. His office, a neat, airy room on the top floor of a muraled building in the trendy Seattle neighborhood of Fremont, looks like the headquarters of a tech start-up: polished floors, colorful posters, a fuzzy orange couch, shelves of tchotchkes, a shih tzu named Beatrix and a Lhasa apso named Rambo.
On Inman's screen is a drawing of a grizzly bear holding a giant strip of bacon, a panel in a comic that will soon be read online by thousands of people. It's Inman's hobby and his day job. It pays for the apartment six blocks away with the gray Audi A4 parked outside and the swanky office space with the full-time assistant. This is the headquarters of the Oatmeal, which--in a quirky paradox of 21st century media--is a small family business with a massive following.
Inman's online-only comic is a slightly cranky illustrated guide to everyday life, with a lot of random animals and scientific facts thrown in. The Oatmeal has no plot, but its doughy, wide-eyed characters don't lack charisma. Their appeal has given Inman readers and revenue in an age when both are harder than ever for cartoonists to come by.
Gone is the age of the funny pages, when syndicated masterworks like Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, Gary Larson's The Far Side and Charles Schulz's Peanuts were as big a part of many Americans' Sunday mornings as pancakes or church. Online comics such as the Oatmeal, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and xkcd sprawl beyond the strictly allotted panels of newspaper strips, evince the nerdy irreverence of dedicated fans and share their obsession with science, cats and video games. (The Oatmeal gets its name from Inman's days playing the computer game Quake under the handle QuakerOatmeal.) Social networks widely disseminate the most popular works--Inman's comic "My Dog: The Paradox" has been shared nearly 700,000 times on Facebook--while millions of regular readers go directly to comics' home pages to get their fix.
For about as long as the Internet has existed, people have been drawing funny pictures on it. But there's a renaissance under way. In 2012, for the first time, the National Cartoonists Society recognized online work at the annual Reuben Awards, and more and more Web-comic artists are publishing books. They have also leveraged their viral power for social action, raising millions of dollars online for a myriad of causes, starting charities and, in Inman's case, even funding a museum.
Escape from Office Culture
It's mid-December, Inman's busy season. He's trying to finish a comic called "The State of the Web, Winter 2012--13." There are prints to review, a new payroll system to discuss and Oatmeal merchandise to ship. "We're out of the lip balm," his assistant says. Inman is focused on the bear with the bacon. He's illustrating a bit about how endangered foodstuffs get more attention than endangered species. A few mouse clicks give the bear a snarling mouth. "This is me at my lowest," says Inman, 30. "Bears, poop and bacon are my crutch."
He launched Oatmeal in July 2009 as an offshoot of some cartoons and quizzes promoting a dating site, one of his earlier creations. Formerly a self-taught graphic designer and Web marketer, Inman, who never attended college, grew tired of pushy clients and office culture. "I wanted to create a website where I could make my own money, work from home, not have a boss," he says.
After Inman's dating site sold to a competitor and his illustrations took off, he decided to give Web comics a try. Within a year, a few million people were visiting the Oatmeal every month and he was working on his first book, 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth (and Other Useful Guides). It was the combination of entrepreneurialism and creativity he had been looking for. "I make a book and I sell that--that's work," he says. "But other times I think, Today I'm going to draw a Wookiee mermaid and put that on my website. There's no financial goal. That's just me wanting to draw a mer-Wookiee."
When they meet him, the first thing fans notice is that Inman looks nothing like the pasty blob-people of his comics. He has the lean figure of someone who runs marathons for fun, which he does. The divergence is intentional. "I like people to think of me as a weird alcoholic in the woods whittling squirrels," Inman says. He believes that the doughy characters he draws with a keyboard and mouse in a basic Web-design program are more relatable than his own likeness. "It's funnier because when you see them, you project your own character into it."
Simplicity is a philosophy shared by many Web comics. Xkcd, a brainy strip drawn by former NASA roboticist Randall Munroe, features endearing stick figures and science jokes. Dinosaur Comics, a laugh-out-loud series by Ryan North, uses the same clip art of three chatting dinosaurs in every iteration--an amazing comedic feat, considering it's been running for 10 years. Drew Fairweather's Toothpaste for Dinner features a daily pen-on-paper doodle. "The simpler the style, the more people can relate to them," says Ted Rall, a syndicated artist and former president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. What's not so simple is how those drawings become a business.
A Comfortable Living
"Can I have a hug?" asks the warehouse manager when Inman arrives for a visit. Ann Inman, Matthew's mother, runs the Oatmeal's merchandising operation from her home in Rockport, Wash., a snowy hamlet of about 100 people tucked into the Cascade Mountains 90 miles north of Seattle. In her converted garage, a half-dozen part-time workers mill around cardboard bins bearing tags like "Missile," "Nipples" and "Silver Unicorn," preparing to take packages to the post office. The local postmaster says the town's mail volume went up 700% in 2010, the year after Inman went into business.