December 01, 2016
(++++) BIGGER AND BIGGER
Epic Big Nate. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $50.
An exceptional extravaganza of a slipcased, hardcover celebration, Epic Big Nate marks 25 years of Lincoln Peirce’s strip with a mixture of compilation, commentary, discussion, analysis and insight. This is more than a treat for Big Nate fans – it is a feast of epic proportions. There are nearly 500 oversize pages of strips, interviews with Peirce (pronounced “purse”), commentary by Peirce on specific stories, and a truly wonderful year-by-year look at selected strips that shows with abundant clarity how Peirce’s style has evolved through a quarter of a century.
Pretty much everything a Big Nate fan might want to know about the strip and its creator is here: its slow start, the way it eventually became super-popular, its hits and misses in other (non-newspaper) media, Peirce’s contact with Peanuts creator Charles Schulz (including a spectacular four-panel tribute in which Nate’s baseball team plays Charlie Brown’s), Peirce’s mentor relationship with Jay Kinney of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and tons of tidbits from Peirce about how and why he has changed the strip, added characters, and tried to deal with mistakes (for example, hyphenating the last name of Nate’s nemesis, Gina, after realizing that he had given her two different last names at two different times). Readers find out why Nate’s mom never appears: Peirce basically forgot to put her in and now thinks it is much too late to introduce her – in retrospect, he would have made Nate’s dad a widower. They learn why the cast of characters keeps getting larger: Peirce originally thought it would be confusing to have too many characters (he started with six), but when he realized that the centerpiece of the strip would be Nate’s school, he also realized that lots and lots of people pass through a preteen’s school life. They learn why Peirce has, to the disappointment of many fans, stopped showing Nate’s own comics, which were integral to developing his personality in earlier years: after a number of readers commented that they did not understand the strip on days when it featured Nate’s comics, Peirce decided that Nate’s creations “might not be serving the strip’s best interests,” so he phased them out “even though I miss them.” Readers learn a bit more about the never-seen Chester, whose influence and invisibility are taken right from the Peanuts world, where adults are unseen but occasionally potent presences: “Based on Nate’s interactions with him, Chester sounds like a cross between Bigfoot and King Kong. That’s why I’ll never draw him. I couldn’t do him justice.”
There is so much here that it is hard to know where to start. Well, at the beginning is as good a place as any, of course, but the comments by Peirce are scattered throughout the book, and it is not necessary to read them in any particular order. In fact, doing some serendipitous browsing in Epic Big Nate is a great deal of fun. You might happen upon the page on which Peirce explains something about Spitsy, the neighbor’s dog that is never sufficiently doglike for Nate and always wears an Elizabethan collar: “Nate and Spitsy are like opposite sides of the same coin. Nate’s exasperated with Spitsy because he’s not the dog Nate wants him to be, but he loves Spitsy just the same. Turn the coin over and you see the same thing. Nate drives his friends and family crazy, but they can’t help loving him. At the end of the day, Nate and Spitsy are a lot alike.” Or you might turn to the page on which Peirce discusses how he came up with some subsidiary characters: “Take School Picture Guy. He’s this übernerd who originally appeared in the strip as a once-a-year adversary: Nate didn’t like him because his pictures always made Nate look bad. But the guy was so [much] fun to write for, I couldn’t confine him to only one appearance per year. So I started writing him into other story lines.” Another example: “Nate went to soccer camp one summer, and I thought it would be funny for one of the coaches to be a psycho drill-sergeant type. But I didn’t have a character like that in my arsenal. So I invented Coach John. And he’s fun to draw, so he stuck around.” It is clear from these and many other comments that Peirce has a genuine relationship with his characters – yes, he creates and draws them, but they “want to” be used more or less, in various new ways, and even “want to” look somewhat different: Peirce actually says that he did not realize his style was evolving over time, but was just doing what the characters seemed to want done.
Peirce is a jovial and genial host in Epic Big Nate, with enough self-deprecation to come across as charming. He notes, for example, that calling Nate’s school “P.S. 38” was a spontaneous decision that wrongly made it seem to be in New York City (he actually envisions Nate as living in Maine, where Peirce and his family live). On the plus side, he comments, “I’m not sure exactly what was going on in 2008, but the creative juices must have been flowing. I came up with some story lines that year that I’m very proud of.” Peirce is also proud of the fact that he hand-draws and hand-letters Big Nate, and writes all the material himself. It is that constant personal touch that makes the strip so special – that, and Peirce’s continued ability to stay in touch with his inner preteen: “Just because Nate’s young doesn’t mean his feelings are frivolous. You can be in love when you’re eleven. You feel things pretty intensely at that age.” As for the fact that Nate has stayed 11 (sometimes 12) for a quarter of a century, Peirce says he has no intention of changing that: he still has plenty of material to develop based on Nate’s age and school life: “Nate never ages, which I suppose for some people would be paradise. But it also means that he’s trapped in sixth grade with Mrs. Godfrey for all eternity.” That may be hell for Nate, or at least purgatory, but for the many, many fans of Big Nate – likely even more if they encounter the strip through Epic Big Nate – the situation is a little bit of comic-strip heaven.