September 05, 2013

(++++) GO, NATE!

Big Nate: Game On! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     What makes Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate – the 11-to-12-year-old central character of the eponymous comic strip – so much fun to read about is that he is at the same time completely self-unaware and surprisingly endearing. Nate, a sixth-grader and budding cartoonist (as Peirce says he himself was at the same point in his life), worries as much about being in a “smack-talking slump” as he does about playing basketball; gets as much satisfaction from being hit by a pitch and thus breaking up the opposing team’s perfect game as he would if his team could actually play baseball well; panics when he cannot find his lucky socks before practice; finds himself on a team called the Doormats; needs to shovel snow so he can find the ball during spring training; and has a series of run-ins with always-unseen Chester, the ultimate bully, who apparently weighs 600 pounds and has nicknames such as “the hammer” (“because he beat up the wood shop teacher”).

     A lot of these incidents may be vaguely reminiscent of classic Peanuts strips, including the important unseen character and the desperate-loser teams; and certainly Peirce (pronounced “purse”) is aware of Charles Schulz’ classic productions – as is every modern cartoonist. But despite occasional vague references to the Schulz ethos, Big Nate has a very different sensibility. For one thing, there are plenty of adults in the strip – ranging from the helpful ones (the primary sports coach) to the crazily intense ones (“Coach John,” fat and loud and always screaming at the “ladies” on the boys’ teams) to the purely inept ones (Nate’s father, who in one strip turns Nate’s baseball uniform pink by washing the whites with a red sweatshirt – making readers, if not Nate, grateful for the fact that Big Nate: Game On! is in full color throughout).

     Basketball, baseball and soccer – the three sports in which Nate participates in this book – all bring out his overly generous opinion of himself; his worries and peculiarities (such as his fear of cats); and his proclivities where his teammates are concerned (he feels constant rivalry for the super-nice Artur, so when he yells “Let’s Go” to each of his soccer teammates by name, Peirce uses very small letters when Nate is “encouraging” Artur and very large ones for everyone else). Nate is generally good-natured – one of his redeeming qualities. But things tend to go wrong for him when he isn’t, as when Artur scores the winning soccer goal through luck (a ball bounces off his head) and Nate later complains about Artur’s never-ending luck to the coach – not knowing that Artur is nearby, hears everything and is truly hurt because “I thought we were friends.” Or then there is Nate’s determination to prevent other teams from scoring when he is goalkeeper, leading to him calling himself “Mister Zero,” leading to his friends complimenting him on the nickname “because you can apply it to so many parts of your life.”

     In reality, though, Nate is not a zero – just a rather mixed-up almost-teenager whose hormones have not fully kicked in yet (although they are getting there) and whose sense of his own importance is somewhat overdone. Peirce takes that overdoneness and overdoes its presentation just enough so that even when his team loses – and even when Nate is to blame for the loss – readers will consistently find that Nate himself is a winner.

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