To my son, Big Nate is a very big deal. He pre-orders every new book and, when it arrives, reads it cover to cover in one sitting. Then, for the next month, he’ll share with us stories, poems, and limericks he has memorized from the book, to the point that “One time, in my Big Nate…” has become a running joke in our house. The seventh book in the Big Nate series, Big Nate Lives It Up comes out March 10th. My GeekKid and I got a chance to talk with the author, Lincoln Peirce (pronounced “purse”) about Big Nate, comic strips, and that one teacher everyone had in middle school. You know the one.
GeekDad: You’ve said before many of your ideas for Big Nate come from your own childhood. As your kids get older, are you discovering new material in their lives as well?
Peirce: My kids are just about grown up now — our son is 21, and our daughter will turn 18 in about a month — so the days of finding inspiration in their pre-adolescent adventures are long gone, I’m afraid. Even when they were middle schoolers, though, there were only a few events in their lives that found their way into the comic strip or the books. One part of Big Nate that has a real-life counterpart is Nate’s band, Enslave The Mollusk. That was the name of a band our son joined as a sixth grader. I believe the legendary rock ‘n roll career of the original Enslave The Mollusk lasted exactly one rehearsal. Another time (in the comic strip) Nate had a girlfriend named Kelly, and I made her look kind of like our daughter. But for the most part, I generate ideas by thinking about my own middle school experiences. For whatever reason, I have almost total recall of those years. I remember middle school much more vividly than I do high school — probably because middle school is such an eventful time in most kids’ lives. It’s when you leave that protective cocoon of elementary school, and you suddenly have much more responsibility — and consequently, much more stress — in your life. And stress leads to comedy, which is why I enjoy writing about school situations so much.
GeekKid: Is there a real life inspiration for the character Mrs. Godfrey in the Big Nate series?
Peirce: Sort of. I didn’t have an awful social studies teacher like Mrs. Godfrey in sixth grade. I had her in SEVENTH grade. She looked a bit like Mrs. Godfrey, and her name was similar to Mrs Godfrey’s. But really, that’s where the similarities end. My real-life teacher wasn’t my favorite by any means, but she was probably just an overworked, underpaid person who didn’t like children all that much. Mrs. Godfrey, on the other hand, is a caricature. She’s a monster. She’s the embodiment of everything a sixth grade boy like Nate objects to in a teacher. She’s loud, she’s erratic, and worst of all, she’s unfair. She clearly favors some students (like Gina) over others (like Nate). For a kid, that’s an unforgivable sin.
GeekDad: As someone who writes both a daily comic strip as well as illustrated novels, what’s the biggest difference between writing a strip that might have a three or four day story arc and a novel that has to span 150+ pages?
Peirce: There’s not as big a difference as you might think. They’re different kinds of writing, obviously, but they’re two sides of the same coin. Both the strip and the books are types of storytelling, and all good stories share the same traits. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They have memorable characters. They have crisp dialogue. But obviously, the storytelling becomes more complex when the format is a couple hundred pages instead of just a few panels. In a book, there’s one major story arc, but there are also little subplots that go off on their own tangents and then loop back to the main narrative. Organizing those subplots, and making certain that everything comes to a satisfactory conclusion by the book’s end, can be a little nerve-wracking. But I enjoy the process.
GeekKid: What was the name of your first comic strip? What’s your favorite current strip?
Peirce: My first comic strip was actually more like a comic BOOK, and it was called Super Jimmy. I created it in 4th or 5th grade. Super Jimmy was a buck-toothed, dim-witted fellow who had somehow acquired a few random superpowers, and so naturally he made himself into a crime fighter. His costume was a purple sweatsuit that featured a yellow duck on his chest, and his cape was a terrycloth bath towel that he fastened around his neck with a safety pin. Super Jimmy was never published anywhere, obviously, because I was just a kid. But I consider it my first successful comic venture because I created multiple stories featuring the same character. I probably cranked out a few dozen Super Jimmy stories over about a 3-year span. And I showed them to my friends, who gave me a lot of positive feedback and encouragement.
As for my current favorite comic strip, that’s easy: a strip called Monty by my friend Jim Meddick. It’s hilarious.
GeekDad: With Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, and Where the Wild Things Are all having varying degrees of success at the theater, any chance of seeing Big Nate on the big screen? Would you prefer live-action or animated?
Peirce: I’ve already turned down a couple of offers to do a live-action Big Nate movie. I’m not interested in that at all. Nate’s a cartoon character, and so any project along those lines would absolutely have to be animated. I’ve always thought Big Nate would be an ideal TV show for kids, and there are actually some discussions going on about that right now. But if nothing ends up happening, I’m completely fine with that. I’m telling the stories I want to tell in exactly the way I want to tell them. A TV show or a movie would be exciting, but I don’t necessarily see it as a natural next step.
GeekKid: Do you think that Nate will ever find romance with Jenny?
Peirce: No, I do not, and here’s why. My hero, Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame, was asked repeatedly during his career why he never allowed Charlie Brown to succeed. Why couldn’t he let Charlie Brown win a baseball game or kick the football just once? And his answer was always the same: because losing is funnier than winning. That’s sort of what I was getting at earlier when I said stress leads to comedy. Nobody wants to read about a kid who gets straight A’s, wins every game, and wins the heart of the prettiest girl in school. That’s why Nate has so many struggles, not only with Jenny but in all areas: because it’s more interesting (and funnier) to see people fail than to see them succeed. Having said that, I think it’s important to give Nate his share of victories, too — especially in the books. Kids don’t want to read a 216-page book only to see Nate fail in the end. So Nate definitely wins more than Charlie Brown — but it’s never easy.
GeekDad: Can you tell us a little bit about your workflow? Do you use pencil and paper, digital, or combination of the two? One of the joys of reading a comic over a span of several years is watching the style of the characters change. When an artist can quickly call up a library of all his characters and various poses, is there a risk of losing this character evolution?
Peirce: I’m old school all the way. I do all my drawing in ink on bristol board, and every drawing is entirely original; I don’t have a library of characters and poses. Nor do I have a digital alphabet to automate my lettering. I letter everything by hand in the comic strip and the books. Part of the reason for this approach is that I’m kind of a technophobe, and I really don’t enjoy trying to learn and master new programs, new software, and so on. But more importantly, I just like the way it looks when I do it the old-fashioned way. Conversely, I don’t enjoy looking at strips that rely heavily on the copy-and-paste method. They’re just boring from a visual standpoint. And you’re right about character evolution. I’m 51 years old, and I’m still improving as a cartoonist. I draw much better today than I did even a few years ago. I sort of cringe when I look at my work from the early and mid 90’s, because I couldn’t draw very well. But I kept plugging away, and eventually I arrived at a style that I think suits me. It’s more time-consuming to do it this way, but to me, it’s worth it. My only concessions to technology are: 1) I now color my Sunday pages in Photoshop instead of using Prismacolor pencils, and 2) I scan my strips and upload them to some sort of space-age FTP site instead of sending the originals to the syndicate via US Mail.
GeekKid: In the Big Nate series, Nate is also a cartoonist and you include many of his comics in the books. Are Nate’s comics ideas you have had that you never used, ideas you have used in the past, or ones you hope to write?
Peirce: Of all Nate’s comic creations, the only one I actually invented when I was Nate’s age is Doctor Cesspool. The idea of an inept doctor performing surgery with a chainsaw seemed funny to me as a sixth grader, and it’s still funny to me now. All the other comics are created specifically for whatever storyline is unfolding in either the strip or the books. My favorites are probably the ones that profile famous historical figures. In the strip, Nate’s written comics about Abe Lincoln, George Washington, the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, and so on. And of course, Nate’s comics about Ben Franklin were a major part of the second novel, BIG NATE STRIKES AGAIN. But here’s my confession: Nate’s comics are actually much better than the comics I drew as a sixth grader.
GeekDad: Anything you want to share with the readers about the new Big Nate book?
Peirce: BIG NATE LIVES IT UP began with a pretty simple idea: what if Nate is selected to be the “buddy” for a new student? And what if that new student and Nate share almost nothing in common? That’s the jumping-off point of the story, and I think readers will enjoy some of the other details. There’s a centennial celebration for P.S. 38, some 100 year-old comics, and an epic scavenger hunt that could change the school’s fortunes quite unexpectedly.
The seventh book in the Big Nate series, Big Nate Lives It Up comes out March 10th. Thanks to Lincoln Peirce for taking the time to talk with us.