Atlanta (CNN) -- Funny. Matthew Inman doesn't look like an Internet kingpin.
You'd expect such a figure to be all swagger and declamations, throwing off one-liners like sparks off a grinding wheel. But Inman, 30, the creator of the webcomic and humor blog "The Oatmeal," is just the opposite: wiry and reserved, with a dry, wisenheimer sense of humor interrupted by occasional bursts of passion (treatment of animals, Nikola Tesla, office politics). He was caught by surprise at being recognized at the Atlanta airport on his recent trip to the South.
If anything, he's strived to remove himself from "all that noise," as he puts it in a recent visit to CNN -- the clamor of social media and comments and articles about him.
But the numbers tell a different story. If Inman isn't a king of the Internet, he's certainly among its royalty.
"The Oatmeal" is one of the most popular humor sites on the Web, with 7 million unique visitors a month, according to The Economist. Inman's latest collection of "Oatmeal" cartoons, "How to Tell if Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You" (Andrews McMeel), spent seven weeks at No. 1 in its category's New York Times Best Seller list, and remains in the Top 10 after 14 weeks. He's proved a master at crowd-funding, raising more than $200,000 for charity as part of a battle with a humor aggregation site and more than $1 million to create a museum honoring Tesla, the inventor.
And then there's the attention.
In December, BuzzFeed published a profile critical of Inman, "The Secrets of the Internet's Most Beloved Viral Marketer," that incited a backlash (and prompted a correction based on some false information). After Inman eviscerated BuzzFeed's story, Gawker struck with "The Oatmeal Sucks, Even If BuzzFeed Was Wrong," maintaining that "The Oatmeal" is "opportunistic and unfunny, trite and shallow."
"It's poorly rendered lowest-common-denominator treacle from a man unable to tell the difference between creative process and social media marketing," wrote Gawker's Max Read.
Which, naturally, prompted volleys against Gawker. "Pure journalism fail," wrote one. "Obvious pageview grab; how annoying. Find something popular and then, if you lack any talent to create something similar, generate pageviews by denigrating it," wrote another.
No wonder Mashable has claimed rule No. 1 of the Internet was "Don't mess with 'The Oatmeal.' "
Inman, a former programmer, is certainly wise to the ways of Internet traffic. "The Oatmeal" began as an offshoot of a dating site he created, and "I have to get a lot of people reading this stuff or I can't make a living," he says. But he bristles at criticism that the strip is merely a craven machine in which he gives his take on popular Internet topics to get page views.
"I'm doing this as a creative outlet, but I'm also doing this to support myself," he says. "How do you maintain integrity while doing both? For me, it's trying to make things that I want to make."
Stephan Pastis, creator of the widely syndicated newspaper strip "Pearls Before Swine," puts things succinctly.
"Who cares where the original motivation came from, if the product is something filtered through his warped head," he says. "That's what you want to see."
Pictures from a dating site
Originally, Inman didn't want to make comics.
He was born in Southern California and grew up in northern Idaho. He admired some cartoonists and dabbled in comics himself -- as a child he drew a short-lived strip called "Nightman," about a dressed-in-black hero who only came out after dark -- but he had his sights set on programming. He started creating Web pages at 13 and took off for Seattle at the first opportunity, after graduating high school, for a job as a Perl programmer in 1999.
He never went to college. "I didn't want to waste four years at university taking Math 101 when I could be working and living in the dot-com boom instead," he says.
The path to "The Oatmeal" began with an online dating site that Inman started in 2007 "as an attempt to get out of my day job," he says. But a dating site without people was useless, he observes, so he leavened the site with blog posts and cartoons about dating, relationships and whatever struck his fancy.
Very quickly, the posts and cartoons -- including "What Santa Really Does While You're Asleep" and "10 Very Good Reasons Why You Should Grow a Giant Beard" -- took over. Inman sold the dating site to focus on the comedy and started "The Oatmeal" in 2009. (The name comes from a handle Inman used playing the '90s video game Quake.)
Other strips, with titles such as "My dog: The paradox" and "How to suck at your religion," featured the kind of subject matter that made many "Oatmeal" entries the equivalent of newspaper comic strips you'd post on your fridge.
By the end of its first year, the site was receiving thousands of page views a day, and Inman had become the poster child for a new generation of Web cartoonists -- something noticed by old-fashioned book publishers.
"He had a following that was growing," says Kirsty Melville, president of the book division at Inman's publisher, Andrews McMeel. "We're always looking for talent, and we recognized his talent and believed that people would find it appealing in book form."
Michael Jantze, who teaches a course in webcomics at the Savannah College of Art and Design and runs the multimedia Jantze Studios, calls "The Oatmeal" "one of the funniest, truest things out there." "It's a good example of what the Internet can (offer) a new generation of voices. It feels more like a peer-to-peer conversation than what comics have ever been in America."
Inman may be the most visible Web cartoonist to make the jump to mass success, but he's far from the first. Other strips, such as Randall Munroe's "xkcd," Nicholas Gurewitch's "The Perry Bible Fellowship," Kate Beaton's "Hark, a Vagrant" and Zach Weinersmith's "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal" have developed sizable audiences, allowing a number of cartoonists to turn the trade into their full-time job.
Other cartoonists have taken note: Best online cartoonist has been a category at the Harvey Awards -- given by comic-book professionals -- since 2006. The National Cartoonists Society added a category just last year. And Mark Fiore, a political cartoonist whose animated Flash strips appear on numerous websites, won a Pulitzer in 2010.
Online strips often have a distinctive style that would be an awkward fit, at best, on the pages of mainstream newspapers -- or even alternative papers, the kind that gave Matt Groening's "Life in Hell," Ben Katchor's "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer" and Tom Tomorrow's "This Modern World" their starts.
David Rees' now-defunct "Get Your War On," created in the aftermath of 9/11, featured clip-art figures of office workers spouting often profane views of the Bush administration; "Cyanide & Happiness," with several contributors, has characters who resemble stick-figure versions of Fisher-Price people. Munroe's "xkcd" sometimes dispenses with its stick-figure characters entirely in favor of pie charts, mathematical formulas and aphorisms.
But then again, one of the pleasures of the Internet is that you're not dependent on such things as storylines, space restrictions, editors, newspaper syndicates or even a regular publishing schedule. You can just start a blog and get going, Jantze says.
"What we call 'webcomics' -- we're at a point now where you can just scratch out the word 'web,' " he says. "It's going to be a webcomic because that's how you start. Just do it and don't worry about the money."
That's kind of how it began for Weinersmith (known, before he was married, as Zach Weiner). The "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal" cartoonist had a page on the old Geocities hosting site where he posted essays and commentary and started a comic about him and his friends. When he entered college, he posted more regularly and noticed that, each time he added a comic, his readership would increase.
He finally plunged into full-time Web cartooning while working in the entertainment business "and hating it actively." "I thought if I did comics full time it would be much better," he says.
At the time -- around 2007 -- that didn't mean big money: "about $1,000 a month," he says. But within a year he'd left free-lancing behind and was able to turn cartooning into his career.
Like Inman and other Web cartoonists, he's used the comic as a launching pad for other sources of income; these days, half his money comes from the sale of merchandise. He won't reveal his salary but says he has employees and describes himself as "comfortable."
"To be honest, I could be probably be making more, but I'm not much of a business demon," he says.
The Web also offers creative freedom. Inman doesn't shy from four-letter words (even if they're often softened by his use of Burst My Bubble, a font that resembles a guileless version of Comic Sans). "Hyperbole and a Half," a blog-comic from the now-reclusive Allie Brosh, devoted a long, wrenching entry to Brosh's depression. (That was more than a year ago; she hasn't posted a new cartoon since.)
Weinersmith devotes "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal" to whatever's on his mind, and given his degrees in both literature and physics, the subject matter can be wide-ranging.
"Last year I was reading a lot of philosophy, so there were a lot more cynical, existentialist jokes," he says. "This year I'm reading economics, so I've done a lot of economics jokes. And I still do a lot of science jokes and dirty jokes when I can. If you look at the page, it's probably a reflection of whatever I've been reading in the last month."
"Pearls Before Swine's" Pastis observes that Web cartoonists have more leeway than his print colleagues, which he suspects has helped them with young readers.
"All those (Web) guys share a very edgy sensibility. You wonder, for that generation -- to appeal to anybody from 12 to 22 right now -- could you do something gentle?" he says. "You think about the stuff that tends to circulate (in social media), it tends to be pretty edgy."
Art and commerce
For some, Inman's not edgy enough. One Gawker commenter called him, not unkindly, "the Dane Cook of webcomics," after the popular but unchallenging comedian. Inman, however, noted on his BuzzFeed response that readers have sent him hate mail and death threats thanks to "The Oatmeal's" subject matter. In any case, he doesn't suffer fools gladly: One section of "The Oatmeal's" website is devoted to a "Retarded Emails Hall of Fame."
But at the heart of the criticism seems to be resentment that he's managed to take all of this material and -- through shrewd use of Digg, Reddit, social media and other marketing efforts -- turned "The Oatmeal" into (relatively) big business. Last year The Guardian newspaper reported that he made $500,000 a year from the site, and since then the figure has followed him around like one of "The Oatmeal's" loyal dogs. (He won't divulge his current earnings.)
Inman's rather exasperated by all of it.
"If you look at my Wikipedia entry, the second line is, 'He makes $500,000 a year.' It's weird. I don't understand how that has come to define me. ('Dilbert's') Scott Adams isn't defined by how much he makes," he says.
If critics are bothered by Inman's Internet monetizing, they'd better get used to the idea. Just as Adams parlayed "Dilbert's" success into products and speeches, and Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" characters have been used to sell insurance and snack cakes, more webcomics will likely be following "The Oatmeal's" lead -- if they haven't already.
Old-line cartoonists have started migrating to the Web with more than just their daily output. Jantze has made animated YouTube videos of several newspaper strips, including "Zits" and "Cul de Sac," and Pastis created an iPad app for "Pearls" last year, complete with video strips and behind-the-scenes material. Why, even the nearly 83-year-old "Blondie" has its own website.
"It's a blurring," says Melville of the publisher Andrews McMeel. "Whether it's content that originated on the Web, content that originated elsewhere -- they're still artists expressing their work."
"The Oatmeal" probably won't be around as long as "Blondie." Inman says that he believes the strip is good for a five-year run, which gives him two more years of regular production -- though, he laughs, he's been saying that for a while. After that, he'll continue in comedy -- perhaps some animation, perhaps some standup.
In the meantime, when he thinks about his antagonists, he remembers a lunch meeting with one of his heroes, "The Far Side's" Gary Larson.
"One of the questions I asked him was regarding feedback on his work, and did he show his comics to his friends and family. His words were, he worked in a vacuum: He put out comics, they got into newspapers, and that was it. That was the end of the communication," he says. "And if you look at his work, it's perfect and it's wonderful and it's consistently great. So I look at that and I think some community can be helpful -- but for the most part, stick to your own voice, trust your own judgment, write how you want to write."