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Mónica Guzmán

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June 23, 2012 at 8:00 PM

Why Seattle cartoonist The Oatmeal’s brilliant joke may have backfired

Few things go further online than a good joke, a good cause or a good fight.

Wield all three and you win. Unless, of course, your opponent is determined to change the rules.

Seattle cartoonist Matthew Inman is taking on more than he bargained for as a legal conflict he made public this month did everything it was supposed to except get rid of his problem.

Despite the laughs, the Web-wide support and one hell of a random charity drive, he might have made it worse.

If you haven’t seen the comics on Inman’s site, TheOatmeal.com, go. Now. They satirize the madness of actual modern life — iPhones and all — and though you can’t show them to your kids, they’re raw and refreshing and will very likely make you ROFL at your desk.

All that brainy candor has earned him the trust of countless fans, and that’s given him a perk few others can claim: an online army.

Inman deployed that army when Charles Carreon, a lawyer representing competing humor site Funnyjunk.com, sent him a letter threatening to sue if he didn’t pay Funnyjunk $20,000 over a blog post Inman wrote calling out that site for hosting Oatmeal comics uploaded by users without credit.

It was a weak threat, but an audacious one, ripe for public ridicule. Inman delivered — brilliantly.

He published Carreon’s letter annotated with his crude but reasonable retorts, earning sympathy and style points. He posted a drawing of the Funnyjunk administrator’s mother seducing a bear, showing resilience and guts. Then, the master stroke: Rather than give $20,000 to Funnyjunk, he said, he’d raise the money for the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation in a campaign called Bear Love Good. Cancer Bad.

Not only did that give his fans a good way to show support, but it also made sure no one could call his outburst angry or offensive without first calling it generous and good. (See Brier Dudley’s earlier post on the campaign.)

Inman knows the Internet, and the Internet did not disappoint. His letter went everywhere. His charity drive hit its goal in 64 minutes.  Headlines ooh’d and aah’d as the totals kept climbing (it’s now more than $200,000), and their authors, still laughing, easily took Inman’s side. Everyone agreed: This had badass written all over it. Funnyjunk, Carreon, what losers! the whole Web seemed to say. Sue Inman? After all this? They wouldn’t dare.

But if Inman is a guy you don’t want to mess with, so, apparently, is Carreon. Not because he knows the Internet, but because he thinks he can beat it.

Carreon is surprising everyone with his determination to take on not just Inman, but the entire machine set in motion against him — including the good parts, and the parts he can’t even see. On June 16, Carreon filed suit against several entities: Inman for inciting “cyber-vandalism,” the site that hosted the charity drive and both charities for their part in a fundraiser he claims was unlawfully conducted, and x number of unidentified “John Does” he says violated his trademark (yes, he’s trademarked his name) by impersonating him on Twitter and other sites.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which last week announced that it, along with his Seattle lawyer, will represent Inman, called Carreon’s suit “bizarre,” “ridiculous” and a blatant attack on free speech. Update: Forgot to link to Inman’s own response to the suit; “You’re making things worse,” Inman said to Carreon in that post.

Yet Carreon is amazingly, incredibly, still unfazed. He knows you can’t always take on online meanness, but in this case, he says, he thinks he can and he’ll do the work to prove it. Talking to him, it’s clear: He’s sure he’s right. He wants to give people new tools to defend themselves in a lawless place.

It’s like an old western movie, he said.

“I was affected by the image of people cowering in fear who were unable to rally themselves until one person did three things — they had a badge, they had skill and they had the courage to use it. And they ended up the hero. And that has always been the role that I have enjoyed playing,” Carreon said.

Inman, by the looks of it, set out to shame an overzealous lawyer into submission (his lawyer advised no more interviews with the media). Instead, he created a rival. Whether Carreon is John Wayne, Liberty Valance, or the lowly rider who can’t aim straight, the courts — not the Internet — will have to decide.

We know what the townspeople think: Carreon is a nuisance, shooting blanks. And Inman is a comic, doing his job.

“As someone who’s been making comics for 14 years, you never know what’s going to trigger somebody,” said Seattle’s Mike Krahulik, better known as “Gabe” to the legions of fans who follow his work on popular webcomic Penny Arcade.

“[Inman] definitely might have overstepped with the bear love, but it’s funny. That’s being funny. That’s who he is.”

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