The Oatmeal and the State of Web Comics

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I’d like to talk about The Oatmeal. Let’s forget about the the Buzzfeed article for just a minute and discuss The Oatmeal on its own merit.

Last week, Comic-Con International announced the nominees for the 2014 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. The Oatmeal was nominated for Best Digital/Webcomic alongside other online greats, but one of the biggest nomination surprises was The Oatmeal for “When Your House Is Burning Down, You Should Brush Your Teeth” in the category of Best Short Story. If it wins, it will be the first time a webcomic has won outside of the “webcomic” category.

This comic deserves the nomination. If you have not yet read it or The Oatmeal before, go ahead and look through it. If you have read Oatmeal before, you’ll notice this story is very different from other Oatmeal comics. I spoke with Matthew Inman, aka The Oatmeal, last week about his nomination and the webcomic ecosystem today, and he noted the change of pace himself. “Normally with The Oatmeal comics, it’s just funny. It's funny and it's clever, but there's not usually much more than that.” Inman said that in the wake of the now infamous debate with Buzzfeed, “I had this thought that, let's write a comic that I've never written before. Let's forget everything I’ve ever done, and let’s write something that’s story driven, something that's not very Oatmeal, and something that's not even drawn like The Oatmeal.” He went on to explain that he even went as far as learning new software and changed his drawing method entirely.

Okay, so maybe we can’t forget about Buzzfeed. Just to give a quick recap for those who missed or don’t remember it, back in 2012, Buzzfeed contributing writer Jack Stuef posted a lengthy article criticizing The Oatmeal for a rape joke made in one of his comics. The panel was removed from the comic, but the Buzzfeed article also included a critique of the site, and accused Inman of simply pandering to the internet’s lowest common humor denominator in order to rack up page views and claimed that Inman learned these skills while working as an SEO marketer. The Oatmeal fired back in kind by questioning Buzzfeed’s credibility, accusing it of trying to accumulate page views, and pointing out major inaccuracies in the article which included linking Inman to a social media profile that was not actually him. Buzzfeed updated the article and removed the inaccuracies, and besides a few follow up articles from other sites, the argument seemed to fade away.

But it stayed with Inman, who responded to the criticism by altering his style and posting a deeply personal comic right afterward. That comic was nominated for the Eisner Award. “When Your House Is Burning Down” represents how much The Oatmeal has evolved since the site’s early posts about “5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth.” The nominated story as well as some of the site’s more recent posts deal with issues of great loss and struggles with body image while maintaining the typical Oatmeal goofiness. “It was touching on a new type of storytelling, which was exciting for me. I had been making the same types of comics for years, and I wanted to try something different, and I wanted to grow a little bit."

This can really be said of a lot of webcomics today. XKCD began as some stick figures on graph paper, and really has developed into an amazing, sometimes poignantly beautiful webcomic about “romance sarcasm, math, and language” as it claims on the front page.Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal started off as sometimes inaccessible, single-panel dark humor, and it has evolved into daily updates of some of the internet’s funniest content. The entire webcomic community, like The Oatmeal, has really come into its own and constantly finds novel ways to touch on new types of storytelling.

So should digital/webcomics remain separated in their own category among other Eisner nominees, or have they developed to a point where they deserve to be folded in with the others and compete against mainstream publications from DC and Marvel? Inman does not mind the separation. He believes that the internet, “open[s] up a new way of drawing and writing that wouldn't be available to traditional comics because you're not bound by the size of the page. You have an infinite amount of space.” He goes on to point out cartoonists who are pushing the boundaries of the form by including animation or adding interactive elements too. “It's almost like a new medium.”

So maybe the separate category for digital/webcomics is justified, but not because of some archaic notion that webcomics are print’s amateur little sibling. Instead, the separation comes from the freedom the medium allows and the pioneering work being done by so many cartoonists online. Because of the ingenuity of so many cartoonists on the web, it means “there’s so many good comics out,” as Inman says. The Oatmeal is one of those good comics, and, separate category or no, it’s good to see digital comics being recognized by the industry.