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'Toon tycoon: 'Tundra' strip in more than 500 markets

By Mike Dunham

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Saturday, Jan. 21 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

Chad Carpenter draws his "Tundra" cartoon in his studio at his home in Anchorage, Alaska, and the strip appears in more than 500 newspapers around the world. (Bill Roth/Anchnorage Daily News/MCT)

WASILLA, Alaska — As of this month, Chad Carpenter's "Tundra" comic strip has officially expanded to 503 newspapers, including the Deseret News, and other publications. They include big-circulation industry giants like Newsday and the Los Angeles Times and more obscure papers like The Gleaner of Kingston, Jamaica. Among the European outlets is a Norwegian language version in the comic magazine "Billy."?

It's a potential daily audience of millions and a remarkable milestone for the self-syndicated strip — apparently the most popular comic to be distributed by the cartoonist's own company rather than a major syndicate.

In early January, Carpenter summed up his success from a garage-top studio apartment attached to his home looking out at the Chugach Mountains in Wasilla, Alaska.?

"It's been a surprise," he said. "And it's brought a whole new level of stress." He pointed at piles of paper being sorted for taxes. "I don't golf any more. I don't fish or go out in my canoe.?

"But I take a lot of naps, which is a nice perk with the job."

Born in Michigan in 1967, Carpenter moved to Alaska with his family when he was 4 and grew up in Wasilla. After graduating from high school in 1985, he considered a career in law enforcement; his father was a state trooper. He bounced between various jobs — night security guard, process server, urinalysis monitor — but spent his idle hours doodling. On a trip to Florida, he connected with several professional cartoonists, including Jim Davis ("Garfield"), Dik Browne ("Hagar the Horrible") and Mike Peters ("Mother Goose and Grimm"). They gave him encouragement. Peters told him, "Draw what you know," and he returned home to work up ideas for a strip based on life in Alaska.

In December 1991, the Anchorage Daily News became the first newspaper to pick up "Tundra." The quirky comic with its cast of slackers thinly disguised as wild animals was popular with Alaskan readers. But it was hardly a living.

In 1993, Carpenter self-published his first book of "Tundra" 'toons. The first 3,000 copies sold out quickly, and a second run persuaded him to stick with the strip. He began to market spin-off products — T-shirts, cups and more books. From booths and tables at trade shows and the state fair, he hawked the wares of "The Tundra Empire," which boosted his income. "It helped that I had a great tourist market," he said.

In 2004, the 10th "Tundra" collection came out and a full-color version of the strip debuted in the Sunday Daily News. The comic was still carried in only seven papers, most in Alaska. Carpenter was living in a friend's basement.

That changed when Bill Kellogg, a friend and talented salesman, started traveling around the Lower 48 and pitching the strip to major papers.?

Most newspaper comics are handled by syndicates that market a number of strips, columns and features. The artists and writers trying to churn out a daily product seldom have the luxury or the connections to cut the number of deals needed to turn a comic strip into a meal ticket — not if they want to eat more than one meal a week.

Self-syndication was, and still is, extremely rare in the comic business. But Kellogg made it work. By 2006, "Tundra" was in 75 newspapers and the list was growing. When papers gave the strip a trial run, the public generally asked for more.

"It was no contest," wrote Spokane Spokesman-Review features editor Ken Paulman in 2007. "Of the four comics we've been testing ... none has been received so enthusiastically as Chad Carpenter's single-panel strip about life in Alaska."?

Paulman is among many who have likened "Tundra" to Gary Larson's "Far Side" series, which ended in 1995. Carpenter said he's caught off guard by the comparison.?

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