September 30, 2021


Big 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 through before.

     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!

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