Visiting The Oatmeal, you can never be sure what you’re going to find. The quirky comic site run by Matthew Inman offers a wide-ranging assortment of topics, seen nowhere else. Whether Inman is pondering what level of hell computer printers come from or creating an unforgettable education in the proper use of the semicolon, his commentary is, at once, insightful and riotously funny.
The stars of The Oatmeal come and go. You’ll find few recurring characters in Inman’s work, yet he regularly returns to the animal kingdom for comic ideas. From dogs to angler fish to customer service reps, Inman has skewered them all, but among all the animals, his most consistent target has been cats.
“It’s easy to make a cat very, very funny,” said Inman when we sat down to discuss his recently released book, How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You. This book, his second, is full of cat comics, including some that you’ve seen and a lot that you haven’t. “It’s about 50 to 60 percent new material,” Inman says. “All of my stuff on the web is free, so I want to give people a reason to buy a book and reward them for supporting me.”
Inman is nearly done with a whirlwind book tour, but he took some time out to talk to GeekDad about The Oatmeal, Tesla, and other funny subjects. Like any good comic, this interview has a great last panel. Read to the end to find out how you can win a very specially autographed copy of How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You.
Banks: Is there a creative process you go through for a typical comic or is each one its own beautiful and unique snowflake?
Inman: It’s chaos. There is no order to it. I typically write things in a notebook, ideas, roughly and then at some point I type them up into a script. When I draw them, that’s when they really come together. When I draw, I tweak them, that’s how they become comics. I never draw on paper, only rarely, if I need to establish the form.
Banks: Tell me about your art background.
Inman: I don’t have much of one. I drew a little when I was a kid. Then when I hit my teen years, I just got into computers and Web design, Quake, coding and that stuff. I was a web designer, so there was art there, I suppose, drawing logos and things like that. I just started doing comics 3 or 4 years ago, using the same tools I did web sites with, I was drawing comics with.
Banks: What tools do you use to create?
Inman: Everything is drawn in Adobe Fireworks, which is an ancient Web graphics program. I am pretty certain I am the last person that uses it. I’m pretty sure Adobe only keeps it alive for me at this point, but I just use it out of inertia. I’ve been using it since I was 15 and now I’m 30.
So it’s a type of software that’s an extension of my arm. I don’t even have to think to use it. All the menus are hidden and I have an empty screen because I know all of the keyboard shortcuts. It’s a very efficient way to draw, but I’m making an attempt to switch to something else this past year. My artistic ability with [Fireworks] is maxed out, so I want to do something else.
I draw with a mouse — I have a tablet, but it’s really only good for stacking things on. I’m slow with it, it’s like drawing with your left hand, so I get aggravated with it and switch back to my right. That metaphor meaning the left would ultimately be better, but the switch is really, really hard.
Banks: Do you have a sense of why your comics are so popular?
Inman: I find a lot of the stuff I do is very relatable. I think the thing that strikes a chord with people is finding things they hate or things they love, like Sriracha rooster sauce or things like proper punctuation or I hate my printer or I love Nikola Tesla, or themes in our lives like history and technology, things like that. Other than that, I just try to focus on making it funny. Lots of bear jokes, lots of poop jokes. You can never run out of poop jokes.
Banks: Now that you’ve been doing this for a while, do you have a confidence in what will be funny or what might go viral?
Inman: A little better. Still, sometimes I feel like I’ve written a comic and I think “this is genius and the best thing ever” and it just ends up being kind of OK. And then other times I think “this is terrible but I’ll just put it up” and it goes nuts. It feels a little more refined and I know that there are some themes if I write about they will absolutely go crazy. Anything cats is crazy, technology like my “State of the Webs,” where I talk about what Microsoft is up to — those go nuts because they are topical.
Recently, I did a comic about my dog called My Dog is a Paradox. It’s been in my notebook for two years. It’s been rewritten, torn apart, started over a bazillion times and I kept thinking about and I kept saying “This is cr*p”. I finally wrote it and drew it and I was looking at the illustration and at the finished product and I thought it was cr*p. But I thought, let’s just put it up and see what happens. It ended up being one of the most popular comics I’ve done in years.
People were crying when they were reading it. One woman tweeted at me and she was like “Oatmeal, your dog comic made me cry, f**k you, I hate you” – this full spectrum of human emotion from one tweet – it was the coolest thing ever. So in that case, my comic spider-sense was off because I thought it was cr*p.
Banks: Are you someone who’s always been funny?
Inman: No, in my family, I’m not the funny one. I’m kind of the mean one. So I don’t know how this came about. I did hear once from a comedian that most stand-up comedians have a horrible temper. When I heard that I thought maybe that’s why I was the mean one who came into comedy, there was that overlap there.
Banks: Who’s the funny one in your family, then?
Inman: My sister, probably, is the funny one – also very nice and funny. I’m just cruel and funny. Nice is hard to make funny, overall. If you love something it’s harder to make that hilarious than something you just tear apart. I’ve made an active effort to catch myself when I write a comic and say “Oh this is genius!” I stop and say “this is not genius – you’re picking a gripe that everybody hates.” It’s like the standup bit “What’s the deal with airline food?” I find myself writing stuff like that and I want to trash it because it’s lazy.
I’ve developed this pet peeve. I listen to a lot of stand up comedy and I get tired of the the formula of “tread along, fumble and then race joke or d*ck joke … fumble … suck … race joke, d*ck joke.” They have no punch line, they just throw in obnoxious racial jokes, which are fine and can be funny at times, but we have so many comedians that do that.
We have so few comedians that are like Eddie Izzard. He gets up and talks about history and the Mayflower and it’s just tear-jerkingly hilarious. Bill Cosby, that man could make you laugh out loud without cussing. That, to me, is more impressive than the a guy like Carlos Mencia who just hits the race vibe over and over again. Same with white people, we do it too. “I’m the really uncomfortable white guy who doesn’t fit in, watch me try to rap.” Certainly there are more funny things in the world to talk about than your d*ck or things like that.
Banks: What makes you laugh?
Inman: In terms of comics online, I am a huge fan of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. I think it’s one of the best comics written in the past couple years and he updates almost every single day which, to me, is just like “Good job, man.” I can’t do that and stay consistently funny too. Beyond that, I really like any comic that involves animals, nature or the punchline has some horrific act of surprising violence. I know it sounds terrible. I think that’s why I like Cyanide and Happiness because usually [the panels are]: Cute. Cute. Horrible. It’s a simple formula, but it usually makes me laugh. Other than that, David Sedaris, and that’s it.
Banks: You’ve done a lot of cat material on The Oatmeal. Are you a cat person?
Inman: My first comic I ever made that was a home run was How to tell if your cat is plotting to kill you. My family had tons of cats growing up, between 12 and 17 at any given time. My girlfriend has cats and even though I don’t own one now, they are a great source for comedy. All of my comics are like The Far Side in that there are no recurring characters, they’re all like single panel disposables. However, I wrote a strip called The Bobcats and that was the first ever sort-of narrative I had. From that, I said let’s make a themed book about cats.
Banks: How did you decide on the themes for your books?
Inman: My first book was so rushed. I launched my web site, got a book deal, book came out. It happened really fast, so I put everything I had in the book. Every comic I had written, I put in there. It was all I had and I needed as much as possible. There are some pretty awful comics in there. I look and I think “I didn’t write that, did I?”
There’s one called 6 Ways to Fight a Crack Whore, where I give instructions on fighting crack whores. It’s horrible. It’s misogynistic. People complain about it constantly and I just say “I’m sorry, it’s all I had at the time.” But now, with this book, and the next one I am going to cherry pick the best comics out of the last few years and put those in. For the next book, I’m going for a more technology and geek theme. Probably less cats and bears and more rants about Facebook and things along those lines.
Banks: You’ll be keynoting SXSW Interactive next year, yet you’re only a few years removed from being “just a guy.” Do you feel like you got fame and popularity overnight or was it a slow build?
Inman: It didn’t seem like it was overnight. Prior to running The Oatmeal, I had some recognition for some comics I had done, my dating web site and those things, but with The Oatmeal, it seems like a steady climb for the past three years. This year with the Tesla campaign and the other one before that broke me out of Reddit and got me on Fox News and Mashable and places like that.
My fame, I call it being a “cewebrity” and it counts for nothing in the real world. Offline, I say I’m The Oatmeal and people are like “what the f**k is that?” [Clarification: Inman often refers to himself in the third person as “The Oatmeal.”] I make an active effort not to have my picture on my web site or my book because it doesn’t make my work any funnier. My first book has my photo [on the back cover], but I had to fight to keep it off the second one. A lot of writers think their work is more likable and you’ll somehow become a star if your face is attached to everything you write and I don’t think that’s always true. Some of the artists I admire most, I have no idea what they look like. Like Gary Larson or Bill Watterson – they’re like enigmas. When you interject your voice or mannerisms or personal life or photo into comedy, often it makes it less funny.
Banks: What are the next steps with the Tesla museum? Do you intend to be involved in the planning and building?
Inman: The property is now purchased; it’s in the hands of the nonprofit. So the plan is to take the remaining money that’s left over and clean it and fix it and have a Nikola Tesla festival on July 10th, on his birthday of 2013.
The fully fleshed-out science center they want to build will cost a lot more money so in the interim, we’re just going to try to get it good enough to have some sort of event. The museum is far off. We’re trying to find a corporate sponsor or someone along those lines to step in. I’m just going to be a spokesperson, so if they need someone to get on the Internet and bang on some pots and pans, that’s what I can do best.
Banks: Have you had any contact with the people who run the Tesla Museum in Belgrade?
Inman: They reached out to me, wanted to give me a free tour and I’ve done some interviews with Serbian newspapers. I got contacted by William Terbo, who is Tesla’s last remaining relative that’s alive who met Tesla, he’s in his mid 80s. That was really cool.
How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You is available in bookstores now.
All images belong to The Oatmeal.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this book, which The Oatmeal signed and we’d like to give to you. Leave a comment mentioning your favorite Oatmeal comic and you’ll be entered to win. We’ll randomly pick a winner this Friday night. [Edit: This contest is now closed.]