Matthew Inman, a former web developer and a man with a scathing, sarcastic and brilliant sense of humor, founded the Oatmeal only a few years ago. The site -- understandably popular for its informative and/or comical styling -- has gained a great deal of viral presence. It's commonplace link-fodder to the tune of around five million unique users a month, with almost a quarter billion page views in 2010. Now Inman, 28, has released his new book, 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth, and I took some time to question him on life, the universe, and sea captains.
1) How did the Oatmeal get started? Did you ever expect it to take off like it has?
I used to build websites for a living and grew weary of a career where my art was subject to the whims of horrible clients. I wanted to build a business that was completely self-sufficient and autonomous. I ended up building an online dating website and marketed it using blogging, quizzes, and comics. Eventually these creations started getting more exposure and traffic than the dating site itself. The dating site was sold and I went on to found The Oatmeal, which is basically my own private wonderland of funny things.
Because the comics on my dating site were well-received, I expected a moderate amount of exposure to The Oatmeal. I certainly didn't expect millions of readers though. It is a most joyous time to be a comic artist, I think.
2) What inspires your pieces?
It's all over the place. Sometimes I pick animals that I think are cool, or I'll just build it around something nonsensical that makes me chuckle. Other times I'll find a gripe and write about it, e.g. If you do this in an email, I hate you. I've definitely become more aware of what people around me are saying and doing and I try to scribble down any idea that comes to me for later use. I was on an airplane a few months ago talking to my girlfriend about buying apps and how it turns everyone into a cheap bastard. Mid-conversation I scribbled the idea down and within a few hours I put together a comic called "This is how I feel about buying apps."
3) How do you create the comic? What's your routine, bizarre or otherwise, for getting going with a piece?
Usually it starts as one or two lines in my notebook, and from there I either sketch out a rough idea on paper or just start drawing directly on the computer. The notebook sketches are extremely crude (I wouldn't dare call them artwork). I don't scan anything or use a tablet -- I draw everything in vector. This means that I use a mouse and each line is defined as a series of points, rather than a stroke. It's a weird way of drawing but it works for me. After it's drawn, I upload it to the website and then post them on my Twitter, Facebook, and RSS feeds for all to see. A typical comic takes a couple of hours to put together, but some of the larger ones can take days or weeks.
4) What do you do to market it, if anything? How long have you been marketing it?
I've found the most effective way to market my comics is to, quite simply, create comics that are highly relatable and funny. I've been featured on a lot of social news sites such as Digg.com and StumbleUpon, which greatly helped me get exposure in the beginning. As of now I've got a large audience to work with, so it's much easier to get the word out about a new comic or blog post. TheOatmeal.com is about a year and a half old.
5) How's the book doing?
As far as I can tell it's doing well. It's my first book so I don't have many metrics to measure success, but the book isn't even out yet and it's already on the Amazon Best Sellers list. It was even #12 in all books for awhile. I'm hoping that when it's actually on bookshelves it'll do even better. I'm still just happy that I got to make a book in the first place, so even if it ends up in the clearance bin for $2.00 I'm going to stand next to that bin and declare, "This is my book! I made this!"
6) What other webcomics do you read or love?
The Far Side
Perry Bible Fellowship
Calvin and Hobbes
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
7) Have you ever heard of Hyperbole and A Half? I've heard quite a few people say it's biting your style. How about that?
Yeah, Allie Brosh is a friend of mine. I think in the beginning some of her work looked a bit like mine, but now we've both bloomed into entirely different things. Also, I'm a firm believer that no art is born in a vacuum. Artists borrow, mold, and create from one another all the time. A lot of the characters I draw are heavily inspired by the artwork of the Perry Bible Fellowship, so I can't really raise a fuss if someone draws characters that look like mine. Plus her website is funny.
8) What's your background and biographical history?
I grew up an overweight, introverted, quiet kid who spent the first half of his life playing video games and reading books, and the last half learning coding, design, computers, and all things geeky. I lived in California until I was 7 and then moved to a tiny redneck town in Northern Idaho. My mother made teddy bears for a living and my dad did landscaping and irrigation, and although my childhood was mostly happy Idaho was a very weird place. After high school I moved to Seattle and worked as a web developer and programmer during the dot-com boom. Nowadays I still spend a ton of time on the computer (somewhere between eight to 12 hours a day), but when I'm not my other hobbies include learning Japanese, distance running and endurance sports (marathons and triathlons), and snowboarding.
I also like playing with my dogs, Rambo and Beatrix.
9) You're responsible for the most hilarious, yet accurate, description parasitic life cycles I've come across. Did you come across this via obsessive data mining or biology work?
Actually this was one of those rare instances where a fan emailed me with an idea and I ended up using it. This same fan was the one who suggested I make a comic about when to use i.e. versus e.g. in a sentence. 99% of the emails I get start with "Dear Oatmeal, you should totally make a comic about [ insert gripe here ]!", so it was refreshing to get a suggestion that didn't revolve around a pet peeve.
10) How were your recurring characters -- Captain Higgins, The Bobcats, etc. -- inspired?
It's actually really refreshing for me to create comics that have recurring characters. Most of my comics are a bit like The Far Side -- every character is disposable and the humor rarely stems from a plot or narrative. Regarding the Bobcats, I attended a really stuffy dinner for entrepreneurs a few months ago and I noticed the majority of its attendees looked like they could be named Bob. They all had mustaches, suits, and shiny hair. While scribbling in my notebook these characters became cats and I appropriately named them The Bobcats. These two cats are going to be a permanent part of The Oatmeal.