Other cartoonists have taken note: Best online cartoonist has been a category at the Harvey Awards -- given by comic-book professionals -- since 2006. The National Cartoonists Society added a category just last year. And Mark Fiore, a political cartoonist whose animated Flash strips appear on numerous websites, won a Pulitzer in 2010.
Online strips often have a distinctive style that would be an awkward fit, at best, on the pages of mainstream newspapers -- or even alternative papers, the kind that gave Matt Groening's "Life in Hell," Ben Katchor's "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer" and Tom Tomorrow's "This Modern World" their starts.
David Rees' now-defunct "Get Your War On," created in the aftermath of 9/11, featured clip-art figures of office workers spouting often profane views of the Bush administration; "Cyanide & Happiness," with several contributors, has characters who resemble stick-figure versions of Fisher-Price people. Munroe's "xkcd" sometimes dispenses with its stick-figure characters entirely in favor of pie charts, mathematical formulas and aphorisms.
But then again, one of the pleasures of the Internet is that you're not dependent on such things as storylines, space restrictions, editors, newspaper syndicates or even a regular publishing schedule. You can just start a blog and get going, Jantze says.
"What we call 'webcomics' -- we're at a point now where you can just scratch out the word 'web,' " he says. "It's going to be a webcomic because that's how you start. Just do it and don't worry about the money."
That's kind of how it began for Weinersmith (known, before he was married, as Zach Weiner). The "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal" cartoonist had a page on the old Geocities hosting site where he posted essays and commentary and started a comic about him and his friends. When he entered college, he posted more regularly and noticed that, each time he added a comic, his readership would increase.
He finally plunged into full-time Web cartooning while working in the entertainment business "and hating it actively." "I thought if I did comics full time it would be much better," he says.
At the time -- around 2007 -- that didn't mean big money: "about $1,000 a month," he says. But within a year he'd left free-lancing behind and was able to turn cartooning into his career.
Like Inman and other Web cartoonists, he's used the comic as a launching pad for other sources of income; these days, half his money comes from the sale of merchandise. He won't reveal his salary but says he has employees and describes himself as "comfortable."
"To be honest, I could be probably be making more, but I'm not much of a business demon," he says.
The Web also offers creative freedom. Inman doesn't shy from four-letter words (even if they're often softened by his use of Burst My Bubble, a font that resembles a guileless version of Comic Sans). "Hyperbole and a Half," a blog-comic from the now-reclusive Allie Brosh, devoted a long, wrenching entry to Brosh's depression. (That was more than a year ago; she hasn't posted a new cartoon since.)
Weinersmith devotes "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal" to whatever's on his mind, and given his degrees in both literature and physics, the subject matter can be wide-ranging.
"Last year I was reading a lot of philosophy, so there were a lot more cynical, existentialist jokes," he says. "This year I'm reading economics, so I've done a lot of economics jokes. And I still do a lot of science jokes and dirty jokes when I can. If you look at the page, it's probably a reflection of whatever I've been reading in the last month."
"Pearls Before Swine's" Pastis observes that Web cartoonists have more leeway than his print colleagues, which he suspects has helped them with young readers.
"All those (Web) guys share a very edgy sensibility. You wonder, for that generation -- to appeal to anybody from 12 to 22 right now -- could you do something gentle?" he says. "You think about the stuff that tends to circulate (in social media), it tends to be pretty edgy."
Art and commerce
For some, Inman's not edgy enough. One Gawker commenter called him, not unkindly, "the Dane Cook of webcomics," after the popular but unchallenging comedian. Inman, however, noted on his BuzzFeed response that readers have sent him hate mail and death threats thanks to "The Oatmeal's" subject matter. In any case, he doesn't suffer fools gladly: One section of "The Oatmeal's" website is devoted to a "Retarded Emails Hall of Fame."
But at the heart of the criticism seems to be resentment that he's managed to take all of this material and -- through shrewd use of Digg, Reddit, social media and other marketing efforts -- turned "The Oatmeal" into (relatively) big business. Last year The Guardian newspaper reported that he made $500,000 a year from the site, and since then the figure has followed him around like one of "The Oatmeal's" loyal dogs. (He won't divulge his current earnings.)
Inman's rather exasperated by all of it.
"If you look at my Wikipedia entry, the second line is, 'He makes $500,000 a year.' It's weird. I don't understand how that has come to define me. ('Dilbert's') Scott Adams isn't defined by how much he makes," he says.
If critics are bothered by Inman's Internet monetizing, they'd better get used to the idea. Just as Adams parlayed "Dilbert's" success into products and speeches, and Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" characters have been used to sell insurance and snack cakes, more webcomics will likely be following "The Oatmeal's" lead -- if they haven't already.
Old-line cartoonists have started migrating to the Web with more than just their daily output. Jantze has made animated YouTube videos of several newspaper strips, including "Zits" and "Cul de Sac," and Pastis created an iPad app for "Pearls" last year, complete with video strips and behind-the-scenes material. Why, even the nearly 83-year-old "Blondie" has its own website.
"It's a blurring," says Melville of the publisher Andrews McMeel. "Whether it's content that originated on the Web, content that originated elsewhere -- they're still artists expressing their work."
"The Oatmeal" probably won't be around as long as "Blondie." Inman says that he believes the strip is good for a five-year run, which gives him two more years of regular production -- though, he laughs, he's been saying that for a while. After that, he'll continue in comedy -- perhaps some animation, perhaps some standup.