You don’t step on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. And you don’t mess around with Matthew Inman, creator of the wildly popular webcomic The Oatmeal. Charles Carreon learned that earlier this year, when he sued Inman over allegedly defamatory comments and was made an Internet laughingstock.
Now Inman has taken aim at Jack Steuf, who last week wrote an unflattering profile of the cartoonist at BuzzFeed. (True confession time: I linked to the article in Comics A.M., although by the time I read it, the most egregious error had already been removed.) Inman posted the BuzzFeed article in its entirety and added his own annotations, taking issue with almost every point and ending with the allegation that Steuf had to leave his last job after a fake birthday card that mocked a poem written for Sarah Palin’s son, who has Downs Syndrome.
The most serious error in the BuzzFeed article is that Steuf relied in part on what turned out to be a fake profile of Inman on a website called SodaHead. The profile portrayed Inman as married, with children, and a staunch Republican, none of which is true. In fact, Inman is not married, has no children, and voted for Barack Obama both times. BuzzFeed removed the inaccurate information and added a terse note at the end of the article:
Update: A previous version of this piece linked to a profile that implied Inman was married, had children, and holds certain political beliefs. The profile is a fake. Inman refused to comment for this story, but posted an extended challenge to it on his website.
As mea culpas go, that’s pretty thin gruel. This is bad stuff. It’s poor journalistic practice to trust anything online, and the fault lies not just with the reporter who did it but also with the editor who let it get by. As Slade Sohmer points out in a nice analysis of the situation at HyperVocal, BuzzFeed’s nonchalant response erodes the website’s credibility and, by association, online media in general.
Many of Inman’s other responses are matters of interpretation or degree, rather than fact; Yes, he did work in search engine optimization for a while, but that doesn’t make him “the Dark Lord of SEO spam,” and what Steuf calls a “sprawling retail business” Inman calls “a handful of retired folks working out of my mom’s house in the middle of nowhere.” The fact that Inman has figured out the formula for a successful comic doesn’t necessarily make him a cynical manipulator; as he points out in several places, standup comics and other cartoonists use similar techniques. Or as Inman puts it, “You seem to be confusing pandering with just making funny shit.”
While the Downs Syndrome joke was unquestionably in bad taste, there’s a bit of pot-meet-kettle here; Steuf’s article opened with an account of a rape joke that Inman made in an Oatmeal comic and then removed after the Internet erupted in fury. Although Steuf described The Oatmeal as a “typically safe” comic, Inman points out in his response that “I’ve written (and continue to write) jokes about abortion, murder, urine, boners, poverty, and panda bears shitting on infants.” In fact, it could be argueed that one of the things that makes The Oatmeal so successful is that Inman is a master of knowing just how far to go to make the audience feel it’s reading something edgy, without ever tipping over the edge. Inman may joke about cancer, but he knows better than to mock a child with Downs Syndrome, and he admits he was “acting like a childish prick” when he defended the rape joke.
This seems to be the end of the affair, though. As Sohmer points out, everyone will have forgotten about the BuzzFeed article by next week. Inman made his points and will get plenty of applause from his fans. Hopefully Steuf learned his lesson, but plenty of journalists have committed worse sins and continued in the profession (the key is to not do it again). Both sides get a lot of extra hits, including from articles like this one. And perhaps readers will think twice before taking a BuzzFeed article seriously, given that the editors are willing to dismiss a deeply flawed article with a shrug.