Seattle’s Matthew Inman makes no apologies for his hilarious and twisted comic.
SCORES OF PEOPLE are standing in an autograph line at the Seattle Convention Center, a place so miserably crowded with humanity that a mosh pit would offer blessed relief.
Still, there’s no tamping down the excitement of the waiting autograph-seekers, their arms wrapped around books with titles such as “My Dog: The Paradox,” “5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth” and “How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You.”
As the line inches along, fans strain for a view of the author, who is sitting with a bag of Sharpies behind stacks of books and bumper stickers, collections of mugs, decks of cards, T-shirts and stuffed creatures, dutifully signing whatever people put in front of him.
“That’s him?!” a few exclaim. They were expecting someone different — older and paunchy and balding, perhaps, or maybe an unshowered teen with the remnants of last night’s microwaved burrito spilling down the front of a pitted T-shirt. Someone closer to the cynic who is a recurring character in the author’s genre-defying web comic, The Oatmeal.
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What they were not expecting is Matthew Inman, the boyish 33-year-old author from Seattle wearing a clean, collared shirt; the polite, reserved artist with the runner’s physique and the charming Tintin-like cowlick that looks as if his mom has spit-licked his hair back for church.
Sure, he looks harmless, but he’s still packing a knife: He has warned people that he will draw a phallus on their book if they tell him a cat story. He’s heard thousands, damnit, and anyone who tells him one more will pay a price.
A 13-year-old boy holding Inman’s cat book takes the ultimatum as a challenge, and after telling Inman his feline story, walks away, thrilled and giggling, at the promise kept.
It’s not just cat tales, though. Inman has been privy to people’s stories of loss and redemption, their weight-loss battles, their pets and their childhood traumas. It comes with the turf when you’re a storyteller/comedian/cartoonist/writer on the internet who mines the ordinary and the extraordinary, the ridiculous and the scatological, to create a website that engages millions of people a month.
“I’m driven by rage and anxiety,” Inman says during an interview at his home office, where he sequesters himself for as many as 12 hours a day, drawing and writing in the company of his two feisty and flatulent Shih Tzus, Rambo and Beatrix. “When I’m bright and happy, I don’t get anything done. I’m just lazing about. It’s the worst.”
Inman says he was born angry, and has found a perfect vehicle for expressing his annoyance with everything from the word “Namaste” — especially when it’s attached to a hashtag — to the misuse of the semicolon to the very existence of horses, including one named Toby he says tried to sexually assault him when he was a child tasked with feeding it.
His comics, drawn on a computer tablet with a stylus, are minimalist line drawings finely attuned to the erogenous zones of a public searching for amusement amid a sea of online blather and bullpoop. Expletive-ridden and filled with pets and pet peeves, they are absurd, juvenile, sardonic, insightful, snort-worthy and, at times, deeply moving.
INMAN CAME OF AGE as an internet celebrity in his 20s, and has since been surprising people — and himself — with a string of successes as improbable as they are incredible.
The Oatmeal, the website that Inman launched in 2009, draws as many as 7 million unique monthly visitors. He has published five books, three of them New York Times best-sellers. He started a dating website, Mingle2, which racked up a million profiles before Inman sold it. He helped save Nikola Tesla’s laboratory on Long Island, raising $1.37 million for its preservation via crowdfunding. He also raised more than $220,000 for charity in an act of revenge against an aggressive attorney that became the stuff of internet legend. He co-created the popular card game “Exploding Kittens” last year, and started a race series where people run through the woods dressed as junk food. And those people running in Christmas lights around Green Lake in December? Yep. Inman started that race, too.
Inman’s comics have won an Eisner Award, the Pulitzer Prize of the comics industry (he’s nominated again this year). Where other cartoonists struggle to eat, Inman owns a million-dollar home in Seattle with a captain’s view of Puget Sound.
In a different time and place, the trajectory of Inman’s life thus far would be positively freakish. But the former computer programmer occupies a rare intersection of art and technology, a social space where he can sit at home in his pajamas and watch in real time as his comics connect with millions of people around the world.
Stepping into Inman’s world is like visiting a Japanese tea house that has fallen hard for Archie McPhee. In a room that his friends call “The Mattseum,” paintings of Inman’s dogs share wall space with oddities such as framed crickets and butterflies, the bone from a raccoon’s penis and other assorted kitsch.
The rest of his house, like his comics, is a minimalist dream, with sparse furnishings and an uncluttered workspace that allows him to draw and code fluidly, like a conductor. He works furiously, drawing on an elevated computer pad, and typing up the lettering and computer code for his comics and website.
Like other kids who grew up in front of a computer, Inman lives on the internet. He doesn’t just understand its power; he harnesses it to attract and create huge audiences.
“More than anyone else I know, Matt can accurately predict what massive groups of people will find entertaining,’’ says Elan Lee, the former chief design officer at Xbox who launched “Exploding Kittens” with Inman and another friend in 2015.
Inman has a gift for simplicity, Lee says; he can take a complicated idea and “scrape off all the extra crap,” so that what’s left sparkles. Inman’s gift for sighting the gem has made him what Lee calls “an icon of internet humor and memes.”
Although Inman cites “The Far Side,” “Calvin and Hobbes” and “The Perry Bible Fellowship” as comics that influence his work, he says he draws more inspiration from stand-up comedians, such as Eddie Izzard and Louis C.K.
“I like to panel down and tell 20 jokes, rather than panel, panel, punchline,’’ Inman says.
INMAN SPENT A LOT of time making art as a kid, but he abandoned that on Christmas Day 1994, when his mother brought home the family’s first computer. He admits an obsession with the nascent online world, and no wonder: His first act of coding was a fan page devoted to his other main obsession at the time, “X-Files” actress Gillian Anderson. Would she notice him? (Nah, he says. He’s still waiting.)
Inman eventually became so adept at programming that he turned it into a business when he was in high school.
His mother, Ann Inman, an artist who supported a family of seven by making mohair teddy bears for collectors around the world, says her son became a web developer after the Silverwood Theme Park fired him from his summer parking-lot job after discovering he was only 14 years old. Determined to make money, he built a website for his mother’s business, and soon was shopping his skills around town, she says.
“He’s always been a hard worker,’’ she says of her fourth of five children. “All of them are.”
There is some disagreement over the number of cats that lived in and at the Inman home in Hayden, Idaho: Family recollections range from 15 to 20. But there is no disagreement over who was responsible for cleaning the litter box: Matt. He’s still holding a grudge.
One night, in January 1993, the family’s house burned to the ground. The humans escaped, but the kids had few alternatives but to sit in their father’s Jeep, waiting for the fire department, while watching flames turn their home to cinders.
Inman later memorialized the trauma in a funny and poignant comic titled “When your house is burning down, you should brush your teeth.” Which is apparently what he did.
The family was homeless, but not horseless, for a year while their house was rebuilt. Inman says he developed a hatred of horses after a too-close encounter with Toby, the stud, and from having to feed a stable full of them, despite a hay allergy that required him to wear pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a mask in the scorching heat.
Inman exacted revenge in a comic titled “Why We Should Be Eating Horses Instead of Riding Them.” The comic, filled with profanity and references to poop, enraged some horse lovers. He remains unapologetic.
Ann, who now lives in Skagit County, says she kept her kids close while still exposing them to the natural world, which her son continues to mine for comic material. She recalls a day when Matt and one of his brothers came home, freaked out by an encounter with a dead coyote that had been mauled by something higher in the food chain.
She followed them to the site and returned home with the coyote’s skull. The boys were grossed out until she cleaned it and bleached it, she says. Then they wanted it. (She gave it to Inman as a gift several years ago. Last year’s Christmas gift was an owl skull.)
It wouldn’t be Matt’s last gross-out. The guts of the internet can be worse than anything you might encounter on a forest trail.
AFTER GRADUATING FROM high school, Inman landed a job with a search engine optimization company in Seattle. He says he was unpleasant to work with, and eventually quit to see what he could pull off on his own. He started Mingle2, and used his knowledge of SEO to manipulate the algorithms Google uses to rank websites by embedding bits of code referencing the site into quizzes that people would take and post on their dating profiles.
He was eventually busted, and the site temporarily banned by Google, but not before he sold it and continued to work there as an employee, writing the quirky quizzes that had become so popular. Bored and eager to work for himself, he struck out on his own again in 2009 with what seemed a delusional idea at the time: creating comics on the web.
Inman gave away his work — and still does — but when the site became too expensive to support, he asked people to donate a buck or two if they liked what they saw. He also turned some of his comics into posters, and later books and other merchandise, to make a living.
Inman had clearly hit on a successful formula, but it was his steely outrage against a humor website that was stealing his work that cemented his iconic status. Inman had complained in a blog post about the offending site, and received a threatening letter from an attorney there demanding that Inman pay him $20,000 for damaging the site’s reputation. Inman took to the internet, launching a crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo.com to raise the money, but said he would donate it to two charities and send the attorney a photo of the money along with a drawing of the attorney’s mother seducing a bear.
The campaign raised $220,000 for the charities, and Inman became an internet hero when he made good on his promise, posting the photos and the drawing for posterity.
The success of that campaign led him to launch another one in 2012 to raise funds for the preservation of the Tesla museum. Within six days, the campaign raised $1.37 million. Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla Motors, pledged another $1 million after Inman — who drives a Tesla Model S — made direct appeals to Musk in an email, and in a mildly shaming comment attached to a comic that won Inman even more admirers.
Last year, he turned to crowdfunding again, this time as a marketing scheme for Exploding Kittens. The Kickstarter campaign raised $8.8 million and became the most-backed campaign in the website’s history, attracting more than 219,000 backers.
Inman says the creators were so taken aback by the success that they spent $1 million on a joke: an electronic music box that emits a meow when you open the box lid containing the cards. The game, which has since been widely copied and counterfeited, is now a full-fledged business of its own that employs about 800 people, most of them contract warehouse employees, Lee says.
Inman’s mother, well-versed in mail order, took over the shipping end of the business, and now, she and her husband run a small warehouse where she ships clothing, mugs, stuffed animals, posters and books for The Oatmeal.
LIKE MOST ARTISTS, Inman lives in perpetual fear that he will never have another good idea. He points to notebooks, dozens stashed around his house, filled with what he says are rotten ideas. Except that one of those rotten ideas eventually became his most popular comic and the basis of his best-selling book, “My Dog: The Paradox,” a sentimental, scatological take on man’s best friend. He still doesn’t quite get why.
“I enjoy things most when I suffer beforehand,’’ he says. “I like to suffer, suffer, suffer, and then you get to enjoy something.” It’s why he took up distance running — not just marathons or triathlons, but those absurdly punishing races that push people past the point of endurance into the darkest parts of their psyches.
Inman loves running so much that he wrote a comic about it, which then became a book, and then a race series called “Beat the Blerch,” which Inman calls “the single best week of my life. It’s like Oatmeal Con.”
He runs the race as The Blerch, his slothful alter-ego, dressed in an inflatable plastic suit, while runners dressed as fast food jog along a course lined with cake and couches.
Despite his success, he’s convinced he’ll eventually become the punchline, the guy who doesn’t know when it’s over.
“Often what I’m driven by is fear,’’ he says. “I’m a cartoonist. What’s our life span like? I always think the last thing I do is the last successful thing I’ll do, so I better make it good because no one is going to like The Oatmeal in six months, so I’ll have to find something else.”
Right now, finding something else appears to be the least of his problems.