Carlson was raised in West Bend, Wisconsin and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1978 at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. After graduating, Carlson worked as a cartoonist for the West Allis Post/Star and as a reporter for the West Bend News.
Carlson came to the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1983, and stayed with the company after it merged with the Milwaukee Journal in 1995. During the course of his career there his awards included the 1995 John Fischetti Award; his selection as the nation's best cartoonist in 1991 by the National Press Foundation; numerous best cartoon of the year honors from the Milwaukee Press Club; the 1986 Robert W. Gillespie Sentinel Staff Award for Excellence; and the 1988 University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee's Young Alumni Award.
Carlson accepted a buyout from the Journal Sentinel, and departed from the paper on August 1, 2008. As of 2009, Carlson did freelance work and illustrated a humor column for UWM Today, the alumni magazine of his alma mater.
- "Introducing Carlson & Resler." UWM Today v.11 no.2 (Fall 2009), p. 19
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