June 16, 2011


Big Nate: From the Top. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Big Nate Out Loud. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     One of the more attractive child-oriented comic-strip characters found on today’s funny pages (or funny Internet sites) is Nate Wright, aka “Big Nate,” a sixth-grader on the cusp of hormonal insecurity and already very much involved with authority defiance, impossible schemes that he is sure will succeed, and a vastly inflated sense of self-importance. Lincoln Peirce’s creation is drawn with unusual simplicity, more or less in Charlie Brown mode (except that Nate’s head is oval, not round, and his seven tufts of hair are his biggest distinguishing characteristic). Nate’s adventures are simple, too, revolving around comic-strip standards such as verbal byplay with friends (primarily Francis and Teddy); an unrequited crush (Jenny); a really nice schoolmate who is unfailingly polite and whom Nate, for that reason, cannot stand (Artur); mildly irritating home life (Nate has a father and a big sister, Ellen; no mother is ever mentioned); and various school-based irritants (primarily Mrs. Godfrey, a good teacher who insists on challenging Nate and thus earns his unending enmity, which expresses itself in constant misbehavior that gets Nate sent repeatedly to detention or the principal’s office). The plots are reminiscent of Peanuts plots in some ways, even to the inclusion of a character who, like Charles Schulz’s adults, remains “off screen” at all times (in Nate’s case, this is a hulking and violent student named Chester whose antics, if you can call them that, are nevertheless funny when they intersect Nate’s sense of joie de vivre). There is even a dog in Big Nate, but this is no Snoopy: Peirce’s Spitsy spits all the time, always wears an Elizabethan dog collar, refuses to behave as Nate thinks a dog should (he loves cats, for example), and is generally considered by Nate to be a poor excuse for a canine.

     The elements of Big Nate are simple, but Peirce mixes them up entertainingly and with consistent, gentle humor, sometimes revolving around the idea that Nate himself is a cartoonist (as Peirce was when he was in sixth grade) and often using a one- or two-week set of strips to take Nate through some mini-adventure or other. In the first Big Nate collection, From the Top (both collections are presented in the shape of a traditional softcover book, not the thinner and wider comics-collection format usually favored by Andrews McMeel), Nate spends several days trying to show Artur how to do a “yo mama” smackdown, but all Artur can come up with is, “Peter! Your mother makes very delicious oatmeal cookies!” This sequence ends when Nate promises to hurl a “yo mama” insult at the next person to come around the corner of the hall at school – who turns out to be Chester. In another sequence, Nate’s comic-book action-heroine crush, Femme Fatality (who is occasionally described but never seen), turns out to be the crush not only of Ellen’s boyfriend, Gordie – but also of Nate’s dad. Then there is Nate’s attempt to write a Valentine’s Day poem to Jenny, his longtime real-world crush – who doesn’t return his feelings at all. Nate ends up writing that Jenny is his “destiny” and that “one day we will be mated” – and then rhymes “mated” with “Nated,” which earns him a trip, courtesy of Jenny, into a school trash can.

     One reason Big Nate works so well is that Nate, unlike Charlie Brown, is not a loser at everything. He is a chess savant; can identify foods solely by smell (except school-cafeteria food); and occasionally comes up with an outlandish idea that actually works – such as gently tapping angry or upset people on the head with an empty plastic bottle and “easing their psychic pain.” In Big Nate Out Loud, the second collection, it turns out that Nate also has a way of persuading teachers to hold class outdoors on a nice day; has a remarkable but selective memory (he has total recall for pop-culture facts but cannot remember anything school-related); and is the school’s “nickname czar,” who explains that “a good nickname works on many levels.” Also in this volume, Nate – a total slob, albeit one who can find anything in the complete junk heap that emerges whenever he opens his locker – is hypnotized into becoming neat, and soon drives everyone crazy with his transformation; and starts a rock band, but sings so badly that he is soon demoted to tambourine player (with Artur becoming lead singer). There are no grand societal themes in Big Nate; indeed, there is no major exploration of anything of consequence. That is a big part of the strip’s charm: it is determinedly old-fashioned in many ways, but has enough of a contemporary feel and enough goofiness in Nate himself and in the supporting cast to be a great deal of fun, day in and day out.

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