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.?
"I never liked single-panel cartoons," he said. "As a kid I always liked the longer story lines with lots of words. 'Bloom County.' 'Pogo.' And now, here I am, doing a single-panel strip."
He gets some inspiration from nature shows, he said, and the Discovery and History channels. His best ideas come when he's half asleep, he said. There's a little room to one side of his studio filled with a giant bean bag. It's the idea room. He goes there to nap and get into "the zone" where concepts can come to him.?
"The hardest part of my job is coming up with ideas," he said. "It always has been. I have to shut off the noise and focus on different subjects. There'll be an idea like: moose in a hot tub. Then I have to think why would that be funny."
The formula seems to work. Last week, Kellogg called to tell Carpenter that the number of newspapers carrying "Tundra" had topped 500. In addition to running in the funnies, there are new "Tundra" books coming from national publishers Andrews McMeel and Willow Creek Press. Mead office supplies will issue three "Tundra" calendars this fall. "Tundra" greeting cards are sold at Target stores. "Tundra" Christmas cards will be marketed later this year.?
Success as a cartoonist has brought attention. The USO has sent him on morale-boosting trips to Iraq and Kuwait (the "Band of Boneheads" tour) and military hospitals.?
It has also increased the number of emails he gets from readers who don't always approve.
"Any time something isn't scientifically correct, I hear about it," he said. The corn stalks don't look like real ones, said an observer in the Lower 48. Noah's Ark isn't depicted in the right proportions mentioned in the Bible, noted another. A panel that showed a walrus and a penguin in conversation brought the accusation that he was ignoring the fact that those animals don't live in the same hemisphere.
"They also don't talk!" Carpenter said. "All I can say is, 'People, it's a cartoon!'"?
Success as a businessman has been as important as his success as a funny man. A year and a half ago, he and Kellogg presented a seminar on self-syndication. It went well enough that they'll repeat it in Las Vegas in February.?
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Carpenter's message to others hoping to make a living on the funny pages is to not sit around waiting for the national syndicates to call you.
"For my first 15 years, I was only in Alaska," he said. "I tell people to get into regional papers, sell cups and calendars — and you can make it."
For Carpenter, making it as a cartoonist has been a dream come true. "I don't have a lot of other marketable job skills," he said.?
And if the pressure of coming up with a new joke every day, seven days a week, cuts into his entertainment schedule, he can handle it.
"Work is entertainment," he said.
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