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The Webcomic Overlook #156: The Oatmeal

Oatmeal has been in the news a lot lately. Much has been made of its incredible cholesterol-lowering powers and its high fiber. Recently, you’ve got the debate between rolled oats and steel cut oats, with some health nuts going, “Rolled oats? Aw hell nah! You gotta get steel cut oats up in the heezy!” But as it turns out, they’ve got nearly the same nutritional value, so either is a good addition to your guilt-free breakfast.

The jury’s still out on McDonald’s oatmeal, though. The Golden Arches bills it as a healthy addition to their breakfast menu. The very minute it came out, though, several nutritionists have weighed in on how the oatmeal isn’t very nutritious, specifically citing how there’s almost as much sugar content as a Snicker’s bar.

Also making the news, to a lesser extent, is Matthew Inman’s webcomic titled The Oatmeal. It debuted in 2009, and it’s apparently one of the most read webcomics today… nearly 5 million unique readers as of September 2010, if you want to get into the brass tacks.

Matthew Inman, a fellow Seattle resident, once worked at a search engine optimization firm, where he learned the tricks of the trade in how to get people to come to your site. According to an article in local alt mag Seattle Weekly, one of the best ways to game Google was to run quizzes with the express purpose of directing people to an online dating site.

But how to get more web pages to link to yours? And how to have those links anchored to the desired search term? Inman fastened on the idea of quizzes. You’ve certainly seen them on Facebook, though Inman was working this technique before Facebook became popular. When you’re done taking a quiz, you get a piece of code, called a widget or badge, to post on your blog or profile. Generally, these widgets have a link embedded in them. But Inman decided to insert a little keyword or phrase too.

So let’s say you take the quiz “How Many People Have You Slept With? Too many? Too few?” and you get a pretty badge that says “You have slept with 4 less people than the average 23-year-old male.” You’re a virtuous sort of fellow and love that result, so you post it on your blog or (five years ago) your MySpace page. All your friends love the quiz and take it too, and suddenly hundreds of thousands of people have taken the quiz and gotten this badge.

But what you don’t see—and Google does—is the keyword or phrase that’s embedded in your badge, along with a link. And when Google sees hundreds of thousands of pages linking to, say, Mingle2.com, on the keywords “free online dating,” Mingle2.com is more likely to be ranked in Google’s first page of results.

He eventually got good at getting the top hits directed toward his site… so much so that Google had to step in and actually put a stop to his shenanigans. They could not, though, bring a stop to Inman’s incredible knack at search engine optimization. His skills would come into play when he’d try his hand at another field: webcomics.

Seattle Weekly reveals the numbers behind The Oatmeal‘s success: as of September 2010, The Oatmeal was “shared by 62,000 Facebook users, retweeted 10,000 times, and enjoyably stumbled upon more than 100,000 times.” Now, from my perspective as a person with a Masters in Business, I have to say that those are pretty big numbers.

Another thing? It’s also profitable. Like, extremely profitable. The same article mentions that Inman “estimates his take-home pay for 2010 will be just over a half-million dollars.” How? Mainly by radically adding “dorm room posters” as a new revenue stream to webcomic monetization.

Apologies in advance, by the way, if this comes off as sounding overly cynical. In a way, I actually find it to be incredibly heartening. From time to time, I get requests from minor webcomics here and there hoping to get extra publicity if they were reviewed on this site. I’m flattered that webcomic creators think that this site may significantly bring in readers. But, to quote a cheeseburger-lovin’ cat, “U R Doin it wrong.” You could probably learn a lot more about bringing in people to your site by following Mr. Inman’s lead than by being featured on my blog, which only gets a paltry 2000 pageviews a day.

So, in all seriousness, congratulations to Mr. Inman for creating one of the few truly profitable webcomics. Hopefully you will one day achieve your dream of moving to Thailand (if you’re not there already).

Unfortunately, I feel that reading up on Mr. Inman has very much tainted my view of The Oatmeal. Could it be that the strips are calculated for the maximum distribution possible? There are several strips, for example, which revolve around cats. Now, for all I know, Mr. Inman has a cat, and, like a cat owner, he’s constantly fascinated by it and wants to put their adventures in comic form. It happens. Still… how can I not see this as some part of a strategy to be forwarded furiously by cat people? You know, the same people who made “I Can Has Cheeseburger” one of the top destinations on the internet?

Or how he seems to focus on geek-approved memes like bacon, bears, and zombies with almost clinical precision? And, hey, wouldn’t you like to have a nice poster to show your dormmates how much of an individual you are? Not to mention that his quizzes are back, our golden egg of search engine optimization.

The thing is, I don’t know how much of it is cynically intentional… thus it falls to me to focus on The Oatmeal from the standpoint of content. I have to say, The Oatmeal is not bad. It’s quite funny in spots. The jokes rely on absurd premises (“Party Gorilla!“), simple illustrations, and violent punchlines. (Why does this feel like I’ve used the same description for at least three or four webcomics reviewed on this site already.

A typical The Oatmeal comic combines Inman’s drawings with long, journal-like passages of text. (Not always, though. The format is a bit flexible, and some are short, nearly dialogue free pieces.) Take one of Inman’s most popular strips: “How to Use A Semi-Colon.” It’s one of several grammar-and-punctuation-themed strips. It’s very light on artwork, and the art that it does feature is rather rough. Its humor relies on the absurdity of its written passages, like its example of two independent clauses:

“My aunt also had hairy knuckles; she liked to wash and comb them.”

It’s really not that far off from the goofball sensibilities of notable American humorist Dave Barry. As the comic progresses, Inman tries to top the absurdity with sillier and sillier examples (“I gnaw on old car tires; it strengthens my jaw so I’ll be better conditioned for bear combat”) until, at the end, there’s a violent punchline about how Godzilla is misunderstood.

OK, so the “random” elements at the end (and, indeed, interspersed throughout the whole comic) is kinda tiresome. However, I do appreciate that Inman did devote an entire comic to the semicolon, which inherently such a dry subject matter that it would be a big blind spot for most people writing a humor comic. The fact that he managed to stay on topic for so long earns my respect.

I actually do like a fair amount of the comics. I even liked the Angry Birds comic. Sure, it’s the dreaded video game comic, but in my experience most of the gaming cartoonists wouldn’t deign to comment on something as mainstream as an iPhone app game. I generally liked his insights into new media. It seems like he’s beating a lot of people to the punch with some of the jokes, such as the uselessness of Follow Friday, the awfulness of online shopping carts and why some e-mails go unanswered. Here, Inman’s life experiences at tech firms go a long way to mining new, untapped sources of comedy.

There are times, though, when I feel The Oatmeal sorta goes long and tends to beat the joke into the ground. Maybe the fact that the joke goes on so long is the joke? I don’t know. I just didn’t find them that funny.

There are times, too, when the punchline smacks of desperation. I generally enjoyed “The Crap We Put Up Getting On and Off and Airplane.” It comes off a little as something stand-up comedians would rehearse, but, you know, it is funny. Well, that is until we get to the final panel, which is a “fart cloud” joke. Wow. I didn’t know that The Oatmeal was for six year olds. If not fart jokes, then it’s “hilarious” outbursts. If not that, it’s disproportionately emotional reactions. If it’s not that, it’s something cute and “totally random” like an oversized chinchilla on a jet ski.

All the same, it all feels very tame. For a comic that basically announces how “edgy” it is with a strip called “How to Name an Abortion Clinic,” The Oatmeal feels as if its taking the most conservative road possible to humor. Buttersafe (reviewed here) is more spontaneous and has better comic timing, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (reviewed here) is better at handling cynicism, and Cyanide & Happiness has better stick figures and is knows how to write a violent punchline. While these webcomics are popular, they don’t have the combined readership numbers of The Oatmeal. I guess there’s a lesson in all this: to be consumed by a large number of people, you have to be a little bland.

Not unlike oatmeal, the flavorless breakfast of champions.

Tune in next time, friends, when The Webcomic Overlook runs an online quiz on how reading webcomic reviews can make you a better lover.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on March 2, 2011, in 3 Stars, comedy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. You could probably learn a lot more about bringing in people to your site by following Mr. Inman’s lead…

    Yup. The secret to success is to be a piece of shit. Learn it well, kids.

  2. It’s like the Garfield of webcomics… designed by a cynical man who knows exactly what to do to get your money.

  3. I hate to come around like a sore hater, but I’m bugged by this little excerpt:

    “I even liked the Angry Birds comic. Sure, it’s the dreaded video game comic, but in my experience most of the gaming cartoonists wouldn’t deign to comment on something as mainstream as an iPhone app game.”

    Not only that part about it being an app didn’t make much sense(it’s still a game, gaming comics will mock/address it, and addressing mainstream games is what gaming comics do most), that “comic” itself is lazy like hell. Here’s a much better Angry Birds comic, in my humble opinion: http://nerfnow.com/comic/455

    All in all, Oatmeal feels like Cracked articles in comic form, which isn’t exactly an improvement…

  4. though i don’t want to see all my favorite webcomics resorting to quizzes/SEO tricks, it’s inspiring to see the potential audience/business success that is possible. and, content wise, i’d give the Oatmeal at least three or four stars. i’m trying not to be too jealous.

  5. It would be much better if the art was funny.

  6. Some Random Anon

    Some of the comics are OK, but overall, I hate the site. He has a sexist subpage called “Women With Mustaches” which isn’t photoshopping silliness. No, it’s candid photos of women who happen to have some facial hair, and sometimes there are even close-up views for maximum humiliation. Sure, there’s also a Man Boobs sub site, but last I checked, the only pics were of celebrities. If you call him out on these subpages, your letter might wind up on his hatemail page which he lovingly calls “Retarded E-mails.” Call him out on the ableism, and you’ll wind up there, too. The whole thing just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    • Which is different than how real oatmeal leaves you feeling.

    • Yup, agree. Even his regular comics are tinged with sexism, if they have anything to do with women and men. “5 Super Neat Ways to Use a Hooker”? Mmmmyeah. But if I look at the ones that have nothing to do with anyone’s gender, they can be pretty funny. I laughed at the Shopping Cart one.

      • Some Random Anon

        Oh wow. I totally missed the hooker thing. That’s pretty terrible.

        Anyway, the site was one of Time’s best blogs of 2010. http://ti.me/i1pmKA I just find that a little saddening.

        • The hooker thing didn’t bother me, mostly because it was a decent set-up for the joke. Whenever someone does a “joke” about hookers, the typical punchline is “dead hookers” … and that’s probably one of the less offensive jokes. (The “rational” response is of course the service they’re employed in.) That’s pretty much what I expected before clicking the link for that comic. So it’s kinda funny and unexpected that The Oatmeal’s punchline includes “Mario Kart” and “Couch Fort.” Not the world’s greatest joke, mind you … just not the worst /most offensive way possible to conclude that joke.

    • I’m sorry, but when you say “call him out on ableism”, do you mean the mail about dyslexia? Because I think calling someone who says people should learn how to spell some of the most commonly used words in the English language doesn’t automatically counts as ableism. Given that the writer compares him to Hitler for telling people they’re stupid if thay can’t remember when to say “its” or “it’s”, I think she deserves to be on there. Claiming some sort of righteous cause doesn’t give one argumentative immunity.

      • Wannabe Marysue

        psst, Using the term “retard” as a synonym for stupidity is what he’s doing, and that’s ableist.

      • Some Random Anon

        I was referring to the name of the page, not saying someone deserved to be immune to criticism. And really, I’m sure somebody’s made more rational arguments and it obviously hasn’t changed anything. It’s like he’s proud to come off as a bigot.

  7. I’m getting the same vibe off this comic as with PHD Comics. That is to say, most of the time I don’t find it funny at all, but it suddenly works when the author makes a comic from personal experience. The stuff about web-design is actually pretty relevant to a course I’m taking.

    But that’s about as far as my interest in this comic goes. The regular jokes are far from funny, and the art (when it’s there at all) is terrible. On top of that, I don’t think the fact that it got a large audience through the use of clever insider tricks is something worth praising. At the very best he knows exactly how bad he is, and is laughing all the way to the bank as people hand him truckloads of cash. At the very worst he means every thing he says and truly believes he’s God’s gift to webcomics. I’m also willing to bet that this is the only webcomic a large part of his audience reads, and they probably don’t even know what a webcomic is and that they’re reading one.

  8. Ughhhhhhhhhhh this guy doesn’t have a soul.

  9. Wow, I’ve read a lot of these without even realizing it was from that site lol. Seeing them all together, it does look like he writes them just to get popularity… doesn’t sound very fun to me… but I guess maybe it’s a job to the guy now.

    Whatever… I wouldn’t go out of my way to read it.

  10. okay, i hadn’t seen the women with mustaches stuff (appears to be his earlier work?), but now i’ve seen it and feel sad about it. agreed, it’s cruel and not cool.

  11. Although there are some hilarious comics on the oatmeal, allot of it is rather boring. I guess SEO gimmicks work over quality everytime.

  12. “I guess there’s a lesson in all this: to be consumed by a large number of people, you have to be a little bland.

    Not unlike oatmeal, the flavorless breakfast of champions.”

    And even less unlike xkcd, the vanilla ice cream of webcomics.

  13. This article is genuinely a good one it helps new the web visitors, who are wishing in favor of blogging.

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