April 11, 2019


Max & the Midknights. By Lincoln Peirce. Crown. $13.99.

Big Nate: A Good Old-Fashioned Wedgie. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Lincoln Peirce is one of those people who seem unable to leave well enough alone. Not content with having a highly successful comic strip, Big Nate, which has been around for more than a quarter of a century, Peirce has repeatedly expanded the Big Nate universe by creating Nate-focused illustrated novels. These are not graphic novels, as might be expected of a cartoonist, but instead are through-written books containing Nate and his friends and environment, with multiple illustrations but without the panel-by-panel progress characteristic of comics and the graphic novels derived from them. In other words, Peirce has actually written entire novels about Nate, having the words carry the story in exactly the way that the pictures tend to carry it in comic strips – or, more accurately, in exactly the opposite way. Why does Peirce do this? Well, his name is pronounced “purse,” but that does not necessarily mean he is money-hungry. He seems genuinely interested in doing more with the Nate universe than everyday strips can encompass. How much more is evident from a new book that does not contain Nate or any of his cohorts as characters at all – but that is 100% drawn (both artistically and in the sense of “derived”) from Big Nate sensibilities. This is Max & the Midknights, a very amply illustrated novel in which fans of Big Nate will immediately recognize the plotting, characterization, and (in the illustrations) poses and facial expressions – even though the book is set in the Middle Ages rather than modern times, and neither Nate nor any Big Nate characters appear in it. Well, except on the very first page, when Peirce offers a kind of “framing story” in which Nate presents a paper to his teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey, explaining that it is a book report on Max & the Midknights – to the suitable consternation of both Mrs. Godfrey and Nate’s student nemesis, Gina.

     After that, though, no more of Nate appears in Max & the Midknights, at least under the name Nate; no more Big Nate characters appear, either, at least in modern dress. One of the many delights of the book – and it is delightful – is that readers completely unfamiliar with Big Nate can have a great time with it, while readers who know Peirce’s contemporary comic strip can enjoy both the story and the ways in which the characters in it reflect the ones in Big Nate. That is most noticeable in certain patented (or should-be-patented) Big Nate poses: on page 75, the open mouth, splayed hands and one-eye-open-one-eye-closed look of bewilderment; on page 83, the one-eye-more-open-than-the-other, mouth-wide-open-with-tongue-almost-sticking-out look of disbelief and anger; on page 125, the jumping-in-the-air-while-leaning-back, hair-sticking-straight-up look of surprise; on page 165, the blushing half smile and red-cheeked look (red cheeks obvious even in black-and-white) of acute embarrassment; and many more. Place Peirce’s cartooning skill at the service of a story involving the rescue of a good king who has been deposed by a bad one thanks to a wicked sorceress – a tale complete with an inept good magician who inadvertently turns Uncle Budrick, the sort-of-father-figure here, into a goose – and you have a pretty good idea of what happens in Max & the Midknights. But only a pretty good idea, because Peirce grafts enough surprises and twists onto the familiar good-medieval-characters-defeat-bad-medieval-characters model to make the book highly entertaining. For one thing, Max is a girl – and is determined to become a knight, which unfortunately is not allowed in her time period. Uncle Budrick, for his part, is a troubadour – a feckless one, akin to Nate’s dad in Big Nate – who had a chance to become a knight and wanted no part of it. The magician, Mumblin (a neat twisting of “Merlin” plus mumbling), has retired, but un-retires because of (what else?) a prophecy involving none other than Max. And then there are the Midknights, three kids who join Max in a quest to save the kingdom. Why “Midknights,” aside from the pun on “midnight”? Well, in trying to name their group, the four realize they are not real knights – but are really about to do real knightly deeds, such as invading a heavily fortified castle. So they are not full knights but also not “play” knights; they are in the middle. Hence “Midknights.” Throw in good king Conrad, bad king Gastley (who really is pretty ghastly), onetime royal-guard leader Sir Gadabout, three sword-bearing zombies, evil sorceress Fendra’s age-reversal spell, some walking gargoyles, and a few other suitable appurtenances, and you have a marvelous collection of characters – drawn with substantial individual touches, but all in Peirce’s immediately recognizable style – proceeding through a real page-turner of an adventure. It even has faint echoes of The Lord of the Rings (in a climactic dragon invasion) and some chances for Peirce to showcase art that goes beyond anything in Big Nate (such as a looming castle at night: it is very well drawn and looks nothing like the art that Peirce usually produces). Max & the Midknights is a standalone novel, but it will be a surprise if readers, whether familiar with Big Nate or not, fail to clamor for more of the same.

     Max & the Midknights may be longer and more elaborate than the Big Nate comic strip, but the strip loses nothing by comparison – and, as noted, the novel gains something for readers who know the strip. This is easily seen in a comic-strip collection such as Big Nate: A Good Old-Fashioned Wedgie, which has Nate and friends and frenemies and enemies on familiar, decidedly non-medieval territory. One of the pleasures of Big Nate is the way Peirce varies the expected interactions among the characters so well that readers, however well they know the strip, are constantly being surprised and amused. It is, for instance, obvious that school bully Randy will try to get Nate and friend Francis upset by writing something nasty in Francis’ yearbook – but not obvious that it will turn out that Francis is carrying Mrs. Godfrey’s yearbook around rather than his own. It is obvious that Nate’s unending series of crushes on girls throughout his school will continue unabated, but not obvious that his primary crush, Jenny, will move back from a planned relocation to Seattle and sweep all thoughts of other girls out of Nate’s head (well, most thoughts, anyway). It is obvious that when Nate’s grandfather comes to spend some time with Nate and his dad, there will be parallels between Nate’s relationship with his father and his father’s with his dad – but not obvious that the three will compete for Choco-Chunk ice cream or that Nate’s father’s name will turn out to be Marty. It is obvious that Nate’s basic good-heartedness will lead him to suggest that he and his friends go on a diet along with Chad, whose grandmother is requiring him to eat soy nuts and kale and similarly unappetizing fare – but not obvious why the plan will not work (because Nate cannot bear the thought of living without Cheeze Doodles, although maybe that is obvious). It is obvious that self-centered Nate will be sure he has a secret admirer when a piece of a note turns up containing the partial words “ate” and “dorable,” and obvious that Nate will prove wrong about the whole secret-admirer thing, but not obvious what the note will turn out to say. But that is just fine, since it gives Nate-the-detective a chance to “dress like Sherlock Holmes and smoke bubble pipes.” Peirce’s drawing style is more finely honed than ever as Big Nate moves toward its 30-year anniversary in syndication (it started in 1991). And neither Nate nor the other characters show any sign of getting old (as in dull), much less getting older. Peirce really can rest on his laurels as long as he keeps Big Nate going with such consistently high quality. The fact that he chooses not to be content with his considerable success, leading to the production of a book such as Max & the Midknights, just puts him an additional cut above run-of-the-mill cartoonists.

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