Nate: Aloha! By Lincoln Peirce.
Andrews McMeel. $11.99.
In the Nate Wright multiverse-that-never-changes, where sixth grade is
an infinite loop and much-looked-for summer vacations end only to dump Nate and
his friends right back at the start of sixth grade again – presumably a
different version of sixth grade – Lincoln Peirce continues to find clever ways
to provide variety within the 30-years-and-counting of sameness that is the Big Nate comic strip. The latest
book-form variations on a theme appear in Aloha!
The characters are mostly the same as usual; Nate’s endearing combination of
self-centeredness and positivity is mostly the same as usual; the predictable
foibles involving friends Francis and Teddy, Nate’s feckless father and his
largely inconsequential teenage sister, Ellen, are, well, predictable; and the
ways in which Nate accumulates a series of small triumphs and small failures
are as varied as always.
Yet Peirce finds ways to emphasize elements of the strip and its
characters that are different from what they have been elsewhere (or elsewhen),
and this is precisely what makes Big Nate
an ongoing success: it is all the same, but not quite the same, and the small differences add up to a large portion
of enjoyment that feels familiar but is not identical to what Nate has gone
For example, Nate’s peculiar hair – seven tufts that sprout from the top
of his head, a small one in the middle and six larger ones, three on each side
– is an identifying feature of the character and the strip. In the latest
collection, all the tufts disappear – temporarily, to be sure, but no less
surprisingly for that. This happens when Nate’s dad gives him money for a
haircut, friend Teddy suggests Nate spend the money at the arcade instead, and
Teddy says he can give Nate a haircut
so Nate can use the money for game-playing. This is, as a narrative panel
points out, “the beginning of a very very very very very bad idea.” It is also
a very very very very very amusing one, as Teddy predictably messes up the trim
after proclaiming, “You have incredibly weird hair, dude.” And it is incredibly weird, but Peirce does not
usually draw readers’ attention to that. And soon, with a zwanng and a whoops and a
bzzzonk, the haircut proceeds about
as badly as might be expected, leaving Nate completely bald and causing his
father to remark, upon seeing what has happened, “Sweet sticky molasses!” That
is somehow a very Nate’s-father comment. And the eventual outcome of the entire
lengthy haircut series is somehow very Nate-ish, as Nate first tries to conceal
his haircut (to predictable mockery at school), then comes to accept his fate,
then makes the best of it as girls “come feel how fuzzy.” And then Nate’s hair
gets some accelerated regrowth thanks to Nate’s usual poor performance on a
social-studies test administered by his nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey (“I think you
just added an inch,” observes Teddy – correctly).
The haircut story is not the only one here that is out of character for Big Nate – or, more accurately, that
expands the characterization of the strip’s central preteen (who is 11 in this
collection; he has sometimes been 12 in other parts of the multiverse). Another
extended sequence has Nate catching a shoplifter at the comic-book store where
Nate is an intern – and the boy is one of Nate’s least-liked classmates, Randy.
Randy’s attempt to weasel out of responsibility, Nate’s way of taking advantage
of the situation while still remaining true to his basic-good-guy personality,
and the eventual deal between Nate and Randy to reduce their enmity – a deal
that quickly unravels – all make perfect sense in a Big Nate context, even though Peirce has never before done a series
quite like this one.
The new collection also includes variations on themes that Peirce has explored before: Nate’s misadventures with girls, his family relationships (including the discovery that his IQ is slightly higher than his sister’s or his father’s), his involvement in sports and music, his dealings with distinctly odd neighbor dog Spitsy – all these elements are here. And eventually, Nate and Francis get together for some end-of-summer back-to-school shopping, in which their very different personalities again are made abundantly clear as the two of them get ready to go, for the umpteenth time, to sixth grade. How long can they and Peirce continue running on this endless hamster wheel of sameness-that-is-different? Certainly for quite a bit longer: neither Nate nor Peirce shows any sign of slowing down. Aloha!