Sun November 4, 2012
Arts & Culture

The Oatmeal's Matthew Inman: Web-comic, Philanthropic Powerhouse, Or Both?

Matthew Inman, creator of the web-comic "The Oatmeal," has gained notoriety recently for raising over a million dollars through 'crowd funding.'

Online crowd funding is a collective way for people to pledge money in support of organizations or causes.  It’s been used to provide disaster relief, support a music artist, or fund a startup company.

However, one of the most successful uses has been by 30 year old Inman. He gained worldwide attention this year by raising nearly $1.4 million on indiegogo, a web fundraising site, to save a laboratory of famed scientist Nikola Tesla

Nathan Heffel: Your use of crowd funding actually began with a lawsuit filed after you called out a web site aggregator for essentially mirroring your blog and taking credit for your work. It’s an interesting story that made your crowd funding the Nikola Tesla museum on Long Island so much easier, and really quick to accomplish.

Matthew Inman: “Yeah it was fast. Uh, the story…the kind of arch of what happened was I made a comic about Tesla a couple months ago, in the spring. You know, kind of saying he’s an unsung hero, and telling his story. And then, I got sued about 6 or 8 weeks later -or threatened with a lawsuit. And I sort of turned the lawsuit on its’ head. And instead of dealing with this lawsuit and dealing with this lawyer... this lawyer was demanding I pay $20,000 in damages or they were going to sue me. So I thought, well, instead of doing that, why don’t we raise the money and donating it to charity.”

Heffel: Was it your intention to raise significantly more than the $20,000 to fight this lawsuit? Did you, at that time, understand the power of what crowd funding could do?

Inman: “I didn’t no. I was actually nervous I’d look like a fool, and I would raise 8 dollars with this. Getting people to pay for things on the internet -it’s difficult. Because people often on the internet, especially my readers, are there to read and have fun and laugh and leave. They're not there buy things. So I think we hit our goal of $20,000, I think it was in an hour. 60 minutes from launch. I was like 'oh my god.' And it kept going, and going and going.

Heffel: So someone comes to you after the lawsuit and says, ‘hey, your blog post on Tesla has gone viral, and there’s this awesome group on Long Island that wants to actually buy his laboratory'. But they need $850,000 to get a match from the state of New York to do so. However, these weren’t people paying to see a product made, or for something they could tangibly touch and buy. But  your followers, and lovers of Tesla, went crazy after you started the drive online and people started giving -sight unseen- in massive numbers.

Inman: “I did not  expect the volume and the speed or the international coverage. That was really cool. We were raising $27,000 an hour at our peak, and that was just nuts. And like you said, this wasn’t people raising money…for instance... a lot of the early Kickstarter projects were people who wanted to see a video game get made, or a movie get made. These people wanted to see a museum get made for an inventor who’s been dead for years. How do you get people interested in a dead inventor? I didn’t think I could do it,  I didn’t think anybody could do it. But Tesla has such an phenomenon behind him right now, this huge following that people wanted to donate.”

Heffel: Now that you’ve been dubbed this 'Philanthropic Powerhouse,’ Can you really go back to making funny and sometimes crude comics? I mean, they are your bread and butter. But with your ability to spearhead an issue and tap into your thousands of readers with just a comic or web post, can you ever go back to making crude, but funny comics?

Inman: “My work has changed too in that regard. I remember my first sets of comics were almost these random nouns strung together like 8 ways to tell you if your family is plotting to eat you. And things along those lines. Like, why you shouldn’t give crack-cocaine to a Tyrannosaurus Rex. And now it's kind of gone to things like Nikola Tesla, things about life and religion and science. I think it’s a good progression, but yeah…it’s a definite change."    

Heffel: Public radio has been trying to master fundraising for decades. With what you know about crowd funding online, what could public radio take from your experience to possibly retool or redevelop our fundraising method?

Inman: “Could a public radio station start an indiegogo campaign? Because part of the appeal of the campaigns is visually you can see that if I donate this, I get this. If I donate this I get that. There’s perks. There’s a clear goal that they can visually see. Rather then just getting on the radio and saying we need 50 grand and we’re at 38. Instead they can see an actual bar graph of how close you are. That might be a way to go. With my cases too they were so special, because in both  of them I had a clear villain and a clear hero”.

Heffel: Switching gears a bit, The Oatmeal is now three years old. In that short amount of time, you’ve amassed thousands of followers; your web comic gets millions of hits. If definitely seems like there’s a new type of web celebrity separate from viral video folks like Tay Zonday, or Matt Harding. Do you feel separate from those web celebrities, or feel in a different echelon because of what you do on the web?

Inman: “I don’t think there’s any sort of that, at least not to me. Let me try to think of an example. Let’s say I met the creator of [the famous comic] BC. I’d be, ‘oh ok ,you know, alright.’ But I didn’t really read his comic. But, there’s another comic right now -Loading Artist- that’s hilarious. He doesn’t have much of a following because it’s just started. I’d be just as excited to meet him as I would to meet Jim Davis.”  

Heffel: So then the internet has leveled the playing field in regards to celebrity -at least on this level?

Inman: “I think so. There isn’t this kind of boys club. Maybe in 20 years we’ll all be grumpy because we were once famous, and now we’re not…I don’t know.”

Heffel: You’d be like: ‘I’m the creator of The Oatmeal! Get off my lawn!’

Inman: “Yeah, I pioneered crowd funding! Or some crap like that, [laughs] sitting there in my suspenders…”

Matthew Inman is creator of the web-comic The Oatmeal.