Acclaimed Alaskan cartoonist Chad Carpenter never wanted a real job. "I've drawn ever since I was a child. I've always done that," he said. "I never really wanted to get a real job in my life, and cartooning seemed to be the easiest avenue to do such a thing. I was wrong because now I work harder than ever, but it's fun."
The Wasilla-based cartoonist of "Tundra" fame spent more than 14 years content with his regional success with his comic strip in a few of the state's daily newspapers and supplementing his income with the sales of related books, calendars and other merchandise. A couple of years ago that all changed.
"I was enjoying life, playing golf, doing lots of canoeing and a friend of mine complicated my life by trying to get me in more papers," he said. "Just in the last two years we've picked up over 200 more papers."
Carpenter, with the help of his marketing director, Bill Kellogg, has turned the Alaskan-made comic into one of the most successful self-syndicated strips in the country. Kellogg said he's had industry insiders tell him "Tundra" has become the fastest-growing comic strip in North America since it began syndication just over two years ago.
"I know it's got to be pretty close because they say the average fast-growing strip gets about 60 papers a year," he said. "We've been pretty close to a hundred-a-year average."
They have also employed the services of King Features Syndicate to distribute the comic strip worldwide, and the mainly outdoor-themed Alaska comic can now be read in places like Jamaica and Trinidad. The comic just got picked up this week by a paper in Spain. The Ketchikan Daily News also picked up the comic in the last couple of weeks for the first time.
"When I was in six or seven Alaska papers making a living I was perfectly happy," Carpenter said. "Just the fact that I'm in over 200 now is just still surreal to me and I'm absolutely thrilled."
The new syndication success also provided a surge in creativity, Carpenter said.
"After drawing strips for so long in just the Alaska market I was getting kind of tired, kind of burned out, thinking about retiring, but now there's millions of people that see it every day - which is intimidating in a lot of ways, especially if my strip isn't funny that day. It's reenergized me. It's like a whole new job again and a whole new creative feeling has really boosted me. I feel better about doing what I do now than I have in years, so I'm very excited about that."
The creativity of "Tundra" hasn't gone unnoticed by Carpenter's fellow cartoonists. In May at the 62nd Annual Reuben Awards in New Orleans, Carpenter was awarded the "Best in Newspaper Panels Division" by the National Cartoonist Society.
"The best way to describe it is it's the Academy Awards of the cartoon world, it's just not as glamorous," he said. "It's just more geeky, but it's a lot of fun."
Carpenter, who was mentored by "Mother Goose & Grim" creator Mike Peters and "Hagar the Horrible" creator Dik Browne, said it was fascinating to be around so many people at the awards ceremony who live in the same small cartooning world as him.
"It's pretty cool to think my peers voted for me," he said. "Coming from Alaska where there obviously isn't a lot of cartoonists, it was really neat to be surrounded by so many other people that make their living doing the same thing. I realized that cartoonists like to drink and that makes them a lot of fun as well."
And while the comic strip is now seen by millions more eyes now than it was just a few years ago, Carpenter said the comic edge of "Tundra" hasn't changed.
"I think the humor has stayed consistent," he said. "I don't think that has changed a great deal, at least I try not to. I figure if it's not broken don't fix it."
Kellogg describes "Tundra" as a "break from reality" for newspaper readers who are often left with depressing world events and news to read. It has made it easy to sell to papers around the country, from the L.A. Times to the Denver Post, because it's fun, he said.
"I believe in it. It is consistently funny, where there are very few others out there that are," Kellogg said. "I hear that from newspaper editors all the time. They'll say, 'I looked through a hundred strips and yours is the only one that made me laugh.' That's kind of the one thing that I think sets him apart, in my mind at least, from others."
Carpenter grew up the son of an Alaskan wildlife enforcement officer who was exposed to wild animals at a young age. He said having animals around growing up left a lasting impression on him. The comic has had a number of long-running colorful and complex characters that continue to grace the strip from time to time, such as the swindling Sherman the Squirrel to the dimwitted Dudley the Bear.
"I absolutely love animals and love the outdoors so Tundra has become mainly an outdoorsy strip dealing with nature and people who dabble in it," he said.
Carpenter said he would be more than content with his present syndication success, but said he still has aspirations for the comic strip and its characters.
"It's kind of like collecting baseball cards, you kind of want more," he said. "So now my next goal is 500 in the next three years. I'm hoping for 500 papers."
Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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