Chip Dunham, Creator of Overboard

March 17, 2006

    Arrhh. Avast ye matey! The pirates are in our midst! They have been in our midst with cannons blazing, swords clashing and then stopping for a friendly chat since 1989 when Chip Dunham came across the idea that pirates, set in a modern setting, could be really funny. He was right. The Overboard comic strip tickled the funny bones of syndicates almost immediately... a rare and quirky event, especially since Chip hadn't been all that interested in becoming a cartoonist.

   Chip Dunham wasn't much of a comics fan as a kid. He knew the really popular ones, like Peanuts by Charles Schulz and occasionally looked at comic books, but had no particular interest in them. There was no doodling with his little-kid hands, no dreaming of an artistic career. In his early 20s, Chip was leafing through magazines while visiting his brother in hospital. He was sure he could do as well as the cartoons he was seeing. "That kind of sparked an interest. It was soon after that that I began sitting down and seeing if I could come up with any stuff... ," said Chip in a past interview with Tom Heintjes *(1)

    Drawing a set of 12 cartoons, Chip sent them in to Insight, the Sunday magazine section of the Milwaukee Journal. Only a few days later, the editor called to buy half of his submissions. Chip was surprised and, though he knew drawing was not his strong point, confident enough to send off several packages of comics to The New Yorker. Rejection was swift, sent by FedEx only a few days after the submissions. Thinking it was because of his lack of drawing talents - he has no training in art and no "calling" to be a cartoonist - Chip gave up and moved on to new ventures.

   Enrolling in the University of Wisconsin, Chip earned a degree in Journalism, graduating in 1979. He used his writing skills to craft jokes for his brother, a stand-up comic by night, a stockbroker by day. After a short stint in journalism, Chip took up (of all things) house painting.

   The thought of trying cartooning again came seven years later on the urging of Chip's girlfriend. "I drew a panel with some typical businessmen sitting at a table, and a little pirate was sitting at the same table... You put pirates in the modern world and there's some humor there." Especially when they are peaceful, sensitive pirates living on a ship in the ocean and fighting for booty and territory with other pirates. He found there was too much humour for a single panel, and so the four-panel Overboard was born.

    After researching submission requirements, Chip created and sent packages of Overboard in 1990 to all five of the big syndicates. In a week's time, he was contacted by all five syndicates. The Universal Press editor requested another six weeks' worth of strips and Tribune Media declined the strip. Universal offered Chip a full contract - no development contract required. It was his strong skill with writing and humor that won the editors. "They said they liked my writing alot, and they said that just on the basis of doing this everyday that my drawing would improve."


   Chip uses his skill with writing to give the Overboard characters dialogue with rhythm and charm. His pirates, from Captain Crow to the huge Nate and to the enemies, Green Pirates, have speech that is friendly to ear and family-oriented. Chip has made murder and mayhem, look, well, almost fun. They have developed personalities that readers have come to love, right down to the loveable Louie the Labrador dog and his not-so-sweet cohort Raymond. Even during battles with swords and fists flying, the usual blood-and-guts of the pirate world are only hinted at, and words "heck" and "darn" are the worst the reader will notice. It produces even more giggles since we are certain that pirates are usually much more foul. "If I can be funny and add some character at the same time, that's a challenge for me." He seems to have reached his goal. Pirates using a barbecue, having a fridge and having the cartoonist himself on board somewhere are strokes of genius.

Overboard Book 2

    The art of Overboard is on rough side but definitely shows the recognizable hand of its cartoonist. Drawing is not Chip's favourite part of cartooning and he puts in extra effort to get the look he wants. The eyes of his characters are often drawn covered with hats or as single lines rather than open eye shapes. He just couldn't get them to look right for his needs. He has a knack for drawing frightening sea monsters, though, and Louie's begging puppy eyes hit the mark.

    Overboard appears in 180 newspapers around the world. The comic strip was nominated for Best Comic Strip by the National Cartoonists Society in 1993. There are two collections of Overboard (Overboard, published 1991 and Abandon Ship! published 1992, both by Andrews and McMeel, that are now collector's items selling for an average of $65 each.

    The talented Chip Dunham was born Robert John Dunham in LaCross, Wisconsin and now lives in Beverly Hills, Michigan. Bury your treasure! The pirates are coming! And maybe get the barbecue ready, too.

    Have your sword ready and head on over to the daily Overboard:

   Much information for this story is from Chip Dunham's fascinating interview with Tom Heintjes. Have a look for more information on Chip:

   A listing of the characters on Overboard:

© Susanna McLeod 2006