Alaska News

Alaska's 'Tundra' reaches an international audience

The man who is arguably the most widely read living Alaska author is also Alaska's most viewed artist. If you're like the majority of Daily News readers, you already checked out his contribution to today's paper before you turned to this section.

So did legions of fans around the world.

As of this month Chad Carpenter's "Tundra" comic strip has officially expanded to 503 newspapers 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.

Earlier this week, Carpenter summed up his success from a garage-top studio apartment with a fine view of the Chugach Mountains, attached to his large home near Finger Lake in Wasilla.

"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 on May 28, 1967, Chad Douglas Carpenter moved to Alaska with his family when he was 4. His father, a state trooper, moved around the state until settling in Wasilla when Chad was about 11. He described himself as not a popular kid in school, but said his cartooning skills helped the other students tolerate him.

One of his first known panels was sketched on the bottom of an eighth-grade science paper. It showed a mad scientist "going bonkers" and carried a voice balloon from one side saying, "I told you not to lick the spoon."

The tone is right in line with some of his recent slapstick cartoons in which someone often gets hurt -- or soon will. Earlier this month two panels showed wolves evaluating the most vulnerable members of caribou herds based on the goofy clothes some of the animals were wearing. The Tin Woodman of Oz was about to swing his ax at the Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion for teasing him about his braces. An office worker had clobbered a colleague with a telephone in "extreme phone tag."

There was also the word gag, another Carpenter staple, one mummy admiring another's outfit and the admired mummy demurring, "What? These old rags?"

And the ever-popular potty humor panel. "The boy who was raised by cats" squats in a litter box while an onlooker notes, "But we don't have a mouse problem anymore."


Carpenter graduated from high school in 1985 and considered a career in law enforcement as he bounced among various jobs: night security guard, process server, urinalysis monitor. He spent a short while in Florida where he connected with several professional cartoonists -- 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 the strip. The quirky comic with its cast of slackers thinly disguised as wild animals and regular references to Alaska was popular with 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 convinced him to stick with the strip. The CBS television show "Northern Exposure" was having some success and Carpenter talked about riding "the show's coattails to fame and fortune."

'"Northern Exposure" went off the air in 1995 and fame still eluded "Tundra." So Carpenter began to 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 was about to change.


Bill Kellogg, a friend, entrepreneur and talented salesman, started traveling around the Lower 48 and pitching the strip to major papers. It took $10,000 to bankroll the project, which Carpenter described as "Whoa, kind of scary. I thought about it. Either I do it, just spend the money and take the chance or I would always wonder."

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 still avoids single-panel comics, but now it's a matter of ethics. He doesn't want to be accused of copying anyone else, he said. "Sometimes I'll get an idea and I'll think, 'Did I think of it? Or did I read it?' "

He gets some inspiration from nature shows, he said, the Discovery and History channels. His studio also includes DVD collections of the sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond" and the oddball detective series "Monk."

(The name of the newest member of the family, 11-month-old Castle, was selected before the child was born, Carpenter says, not connected to the television series. The rest of the Carpenter brood include wife Karen, son Zack, 19, and daughters Pherrari, 17, and Sarah, 14.)

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 sanctuary. 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."

Other ideas come from readers and his assistant, Zack Lanphier, whose name is included in several comics where he supplied the gag, like the "Boy raised by cats" cartoon.

Lanphier has been a "Tundra" fan since he was 10 years old. "He could come up to the booth and talk and talk and drive me crazy," said Carpenter. "I'd give him $2 to go away for two hours. Then he'd be back. But eventually he grew on me. Like a fungus."

"Stalking pays off," said Lanphier. Lanphier is often the guy manning the "Tundra" booth at fairs and shows nowadays.

"He's a better salesman than I am," Carpenter said.


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.

Previous "Tundra" books are in Calendar Clubs and Walmarts. "Tundra" greeting cards are sold at Target stores. "Tundra" Christmas cards will be marketed later this year.

Success as a cartoonist has brought a level of industry attention to Carpenter. The USO has sent him on morale-boosting trips to Iraq and Kuwait (the "Band of Boneheads" tour) and military hospitals. He meets and sketches for the soldiers along with artists associated with Disney, Mad Magazine and Warner Bros., as well as other comic strip creators like Mason Mastroianni, who now does "B.C."

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 drew 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.


"It's a great excuse to get a bunch of cartoonists together and have fun," Carpenter said. "But we learn a lot too. We have some fantastic speakers lined up."

His 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.


Chad Carpenter talks about his work

Video by Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.


Anchorage Daily News

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham has been a reporter and editor at the ADN since 1994, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print.