Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Chad Carpenter: "Tundra"

Also putting in his annual appearance at the Tanana Valley State Fair was Alaska's most valuable export, famous cartoonist Chad Carpenter, who creates the feature "Tundra."

This was a great opportunity to corner Chad and ask a few questions about his work in light of the exploding popularity of his feature and especially what with the professional recognition his peers in the industry have awarded him. Recently the National Cartoonists Society presented Chad with a coveted Reuben for "best newspaper panel of 2007," and the strip now appears in over 300 newspapers, signed with King Features for overseas syndication and if that wasn't enough, the Alaska Legislature blessed him last year with the title "Alaska's Cartoon Laureate." All the accolades aside, he's still the same guy with a wry, self-effacing sense of humor, and still spends twelve hours a day at the routine of juggling multiple projects.

Watching Chad in action out amongst his legions of adoring fans was an important lesson in the importance of self-marketing which regardless of medium, all artists, writers and musicians stand to learn from. Arguably his fortunes have been rising along with increased exposure largely as a result of hiring a Marketing manager to do the footwork of getting newspapers to run the feature, but in the meantime and all along, Chad has been relentlessly spending time in the trenches constantly maintaining a presence in the public eye.

For instance, this was the 16th consecutive year Chad has had a table at the fair, located in the same spot, and along with his other venues at the Palmer State Fair, local Craft Markets, and a seasonal gift store setup at Anchorage's biggest mall, these are the largest economic opportunities (and according to him, the funnest) to provide the lion's share of income derived from peddling his wares. Items such as tshirts, mugs, prints, calendars and books ("I'll sign anything") account for the majority of his sales, as opposed to the comparatively smaller income stemming from the actual cartoon appearing in newspapers ("Merchandise is where it's at"). This all ultimately amounts to enough to support his family and pay for a manager's services through sales commissions. Also an important additional element in any venture worth taking like this is the enlistment and invaluable assistance of family, as his brother occasionally helps with the writing of material, and his wife in particular not only oversees contractual details and money, but handles inventory and even Photoshops the colored Sunday panels as well. What is truly inspirational (or depressing as hell, depending on one's outlook and expectations) is the fact he still drives around by himself setting up/breaking down the booths, schlepping stuff back + forth, taking orders, bagging memorabilia, making change, printing receipts; all the details one has to do on top of interacting with people and oh yeah, drawing the cartoon. Again, if one isn't similarly prepared to consistently put out the required time and energy devoted towards building up a fan base and maintaining a client list, then your only hope is to wait to be magically discovered as a true genius, and well, like I tell my own students - good luck with that.

On a more technical level, I was surprised that Chad uses only four tools to draw the strip on Bristol: a non-repo pencil, a Sharpie, a Micron and some white-out. Somewhat refreshing to observe after my own retentive habits and experience with other pen & inkers that obsess over the archival quality of their originals. This is the same system that Chad's primary inspiration in cartooning, the late Dik Browne, creator of Hägar the Horrible used, and Chad has successfully adopted it as his own method. Another interesting observation was was the attention to personalizing individual drawings made in lieu of just simply signing books with an autograph ("Why write something?") - something that I've only recently begun to do myself at signings and felt massively abashed at the obviousness of. Yet another benefit of actually meeting with fellow practitioners - discovering and sharing the many little quirks and foibles of the trade.

We also talked about the potential for maintaining or losing the unique "Alaskan" aspect of his material: being Alaskan is certainly a marketing angle that's only shared amongst a relative few other cartoonists, but at some point there is the balance between content that is specifically regional versus humor that can also still be easily understood by non-locals. What with the spread of his feature's popularity I've been curious as to how this will play out, as in my experience it's been a double-edged X-Acto: what makes for a funny gag with tremendous local appeal, as in "you gotta live here to get it" caliber, by definition will automatically render it pointlessly obscure to anyone anywhere else, thus limiting one's range of distribution and appeal. This is an extension of my opinion on what's been the overall effect of syndication - the gradual watering down of the genre by catering to the lowest common denominator. Insofar as humor goes, this can result in generic work that lacks any sense of place or individuality, which isn't necessarily equated with a corresponding loss of value, just a factor in critiquing. At least he's kept Sarah Palin out of the strip, which avoids the Dixie Chicks syndrome, dodges controversy and the political risk of alienating certain fans. I was surprised to hear him recount complaints from readers over material I never would have ever even remotely considered risqué, and was reminded again of just how weird other people can be. Not cartoonists, mind you - we're actually pretty normal. And that suspicion was confirmed once again over meeting with Chad, who definitely is an outstanding example of where talent, skill and determined effort can take someone to well-deserved success.

"I have no other skill" - Chad Carpenter

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