Friday, November 02, 2012


I'm a decent fan of the web comic The Oatmeal. I have a very different relationship with it than I do with my other webcomics, mostly due to its irregular publishing schedule. A lot of webcomics stick to well-known newspaper-style schedules: Sinfest puts out a new strip every single day, including a color strip on Sundays; Penny Arcade has new strips every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The Oatmeal puts out a new strip when he has a new strip.

They aren't really strips, though: his comics are LONG, and extremely well-drawn. To be very crass, I feel like The Oatmeal produces the same amount of humor content, but delivered in large chunks rather than in a constant stream.

Pretty much everyone first encounters The Oatmeal after being linked to a particularly funny and popular strip of his. There are several such entry points: what life is like for Apple product owners, or paying attention to cats, or why Sriracha is so delicious. Then, once you're on the extremely well-designed website, you start clicking around through the wealth of other great comics (why printers are evil! what the word "literally" means!), and before too long you're a fan.

Matthew Inman, the creator of The Oatmeal, has recently gained some fame and notoriety outside of the world of webcomics-creation. (As a side note, it would be interesting to examine why so many webcomics creators use pseudonyms and what effect, if any, it has. Why do we have Jonathan Gabriel and Tycho Brahe instead of Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins; Oats instead of Inman; The Authors instead of Steve Havelka? This isn't a universal tendency, of course: Ryan North, Kate Beaton, Tatsuya Ishida, and many more proudly write under their own names.) He was involved in (and exacerbated) a legal tussle where someone threatened to sue him after he complained about them stealing his comics. (Yeah, it was as weird as it sounds.) That led into an awesome campaign by Inman to raise money for cancer research and wildlife protection, specifically to spite his enemies. More recently, he tapped the newly-found generosity of Oatmeal readers to raise money to help secure a museum to honor the great(est) inventor Nikola Tesla.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Inman give a short talk and a Q&A here in San Francisco. Sadly it was in the Marina, but for once I didn't particularly mind trekking out to that particular neighborhood. It was held at the Books Inc. there, and like other branches of that local chain it was well-organized and well-staffed, somehow managing to handle the hundreds of readers who had turned out for the event. It was a young crowd, and while it did give off a bit of a techie vibe, it was more of the cool SF techie than the nerdy Silicon Valley techie that I was kind of expecting.

Inman proved to be a really good speaker, spinning through a series of anecdotes and thoughts. A lot of his talk was autobiographical, and while much of it was familiar to those of us who've kept up with his blog, there were new nuggets of information scattered throughout, including the tale of his family's defective cat, and his extended battle of wills with a friend's cat who confronted a dishwasher.

He graciously took a lot of time for questions from the crowd. Some particular ones that I remember follow:
  • Where does the name The Oatmeal come from? He used to play a lot of Quake. His screen name was Quaker Oatmeal.
  • What was he like in high school? He listened to a lot of Nine Inch Nails.
  • What did it feel like to withdraw $200,000 in cash? It made him nervous. He needed someone to help him, and drew a Venn Diagram of people he could trust who were huge and had firearms, and settled on a friend from Alaska, who brought a shotgun and guarded him from the bank.
  • There is no more awesome sensation in the world than feeding a grizzly bear peanut butter with a spoon.
  • For his birthday, someone gave him a Tesla Cannon. He wants to use it to heat sandwiches.
Inman gamely stuck around to handle the LONG line of people getting their book signed. Interestingly, he does sign as The Oatmeal - and with a lot of style!

Hrm... I'm just now realizing that I haven't written about webcomics in forever. There are a ton of great ones out there, far too many for me to keep current on. I'd break them down by the following:

Comics I Regularly Follow:
  • Dinosaur Comics - I've periodically dropped in on this over the years, but have become a regular follower in 2012. Possibly my favorite comic of the moment; Ryan North has a wonderful comic sensibility.
  • Sinfest - I've been following this since at least 2003. It's changed a lot over the years. I don't think it's as laugh-out-loud funny as it was at the start, but in many ways it's more interesting; the author often uses the comic as a vehicle for self-examination, to intriguing effect.
  • Penny Arcade - I hesitate to even call myself a gamer these days; I might play three or four games in a year if I'm lucky. Fortunately for me, while Penny Arcade the entertainment business is gaming-focused, Penny Arcade the comic is more about the weird obsessions of its creators, and continues to be amusing and relatable even as I drift farther away from the gaming culture.
Comics I Sporadically Follow:
  • Hark: A Vagrant - Kate Beaton has semi-retired the strip, refocusing on her Tumblr and new projects, but she still occasionally updates. I'll always love her for Fat Pony and for her literature comics and all the other awesome stuff she does.
  • Overcompensating - I used to check the site a few times a year, now I watch it regularly, although updates have been getting rarer lately. Rowland is a very busy guy, between running Topatoco, restarting Wigu, and getting married!
  • The Oatmeal - You know the score.
  • Wigu - I'm going through the archives.
Defunct Comics I Re-read When I Need to Laugh:  Comics Emeritus:
  • Men in Hats - Another wonderful absurdist comic, and one of only a few whose book I've purchased. It ended years ago.
  • Sluggy Freelance - My very first webcomic! The abrupt shifts in tone eventually got too severe for me to handle, but I admire how it paved the way for future comics.
  • PvP - I never got too enamored of this comic, and gave it up when the cat started inhabiting the Christmas tree, which felt like a rip-off of Bun-Bun from Sluggy.  Hm, it looks like Scott has updated his style - it looks good!
  • The Trenches - I may revisit this sometime, but the start of the strip didn't really grab me. It might resonate more for people within the industry.
As is often the case, time is the great limiter in what I read. Yeah, a comic only takes several seconds to read, but if it's something you do daily or weekly, it adds up! I'll continue to curate my reading, and am sure the list will continue to evolve over time.

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