The Oatmeal Expands Its Empire

Not Just for Breakfast

Hidden in plain sight off a busy intersection in downtown Fremont, Matthew Inman is busy making The Oatmeal.

Started in 2009, The Oatmeal was just a crudely drawn, intermittently updated, consistently brilliant web comic. Since then it has erupted into a full-time cottage industry: Thirty-year-old Inman is not only the sole creator of the Oatmeal comics (cartoon treatises like “How To Suck At Your Religion” and “My Dog: The Paradox” and infographic diatribes on grammar abuse like “How To Use An Apostrophe” and “What It Means When You Say ‘Literally’”), merchandise (prints, T-shirts, underwear, mugs) and snacks (Sriracha-flavored popcorn). Most recently he has branched out into the unlikely territory of philanthropic fundraising and historic preservation.

After penning a comic tribute to Nikola Tesla in August, Inman spearheaded a crowd-funding campaign to purchase and preserve the inventor’s old laboratory in Shoreham, New York. Thanks to The Oatmeal’s massive online popularity, the campaign went viral, earning more than $1.7 million in nine days, including a matching grant from the State of New York. Currently, a nonprofit is working on buying the property and building a museum in honor of the man Inman dubbed “the greatest geek who ever lived.”

Fresh off this success, Inman is heading out on a 14-city tour for his just-published book, How to Tell if Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You. The tour wraps up with a reading at the University Bookstore on Nov. 1.

“I didn’t realize this until my first book came out, but there are lots of people who don’t read the Internet as much as I do,” says the stubbled, preppy auteur. “They actually do go to bookstores.”

Inman has merchandized The Oatmeal in every possible way, but his direct-to-fans model still hinges upon regularly providing free content. “If you subscribe to my Facebook feed or follow me on Twitter, 90 percent of the time it’s just free comics,” he says. “I try to be a good follow.”

The Oatmeal’s best selling item? “Lately, it’s been a print of Wookiee Jesus holding a lightsaber cross,” Inman says. “Grammar posters sell really well, I think because they’re not just funny. Wookiee Jesus is funny, but what’s the utility of funny? It lasts about an hour and then it’s not funny anymore. With grammar comics, teachers buy them and hang them up.”

And how does he make the transition from long hours spent alone huddled over a computer to a national book tour, interacting with hundreds of fans for days on end? “It’s funny you should ask,” he says. “I’ve been scripting a comic called ‘Five Things Worth Knowing about an Oatmeal Book Signing.’ It’s gonna be like, ‘If I look crazy-eyed or tired or confused, this is why.’