March 09, 2023


Big Nate: Nailed It! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Big Nate: Next Stop, Superstardom! Based on Nickelodeon episodes written by Michael Ryan, Lissy Klatchko, and Emily Brundige. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     Adaptations can be strange things. One would think that people who see the strengths of a comic strip such as Lincoln Peirce’s long-running Big Nate would want to focus on those strengths when adapting the strip to a new medium. But that is not how things work. Big Nate as a comic becomes a jumping-off point for its TV adaptations, but the strip’s structure and emphases are changed dramatically for video purposes. Just how dramatically becomes abundantly clear when looking at the latest comic-strip collection and the latest Nickelodeon-based book. Aside from the exclamation points at the end of both books’ titles, the two have very little in common except for characters’ names.

     Peirce’s reliably amusing school-focused character comedy is everywhere in Big Nate: Nailed It! Nate lives in a perpetually recycled sixth-grade universe, where the strip revolves around his sense of self-importance and his interactions with classmates, teachers, and (to a lesser extent) his family (father and sister). Peirce has become exceptionally adept at keeping the strip fresh by figuring out specific elements, often ones that have existed in the background, onto which he can turn his focus. In the latest collection, for example, there is an extended series about Nate’s weird hair – something with which readers are quite familiar. Peirce draws it in tufts: six larger ones (three to each side) and one smaller one (straight up, in the middle). A new student, on meeting Nate, immediately asks, “What’s with your hair?” And that causes an ongoing series of speculations on why his hair looks like that and what, if anything, can be done to change it. For example, Nate’s father explains, “Your hair’s a quirk! Like someone having tons of freckles! Or an extra finger!” Nate does not find this reassuring. Nor are matters helped when Dee Dee tries to rearrange the tufts: they pop back into place (with seven audible “pops”). Francis and Teddy are not much help either, saying Nate’s hair is “weird” and looks “like pieces of licorice rolled in cat hair.” The especially amusing thing in all this is that the cartoon characters are exactly right – Peirce draws the hair so it does look just the way they describe it. Nate, of course, eventually decides that his hair is one thing that makes him unique (which it is!), so why change it? This sort of mini-adventure, exploring one element of Nate’s life before moving on to another, is what the Big Nate comic strip is all about. The new collection also has recurring themes, such as Nate’s relationship with Artur, who is dating Nate’s longtime crush, Jenny, and who excels at everything without even trying: Nate wants someone to go with him when he practices batting, and Artur agrees to come even though he says he is not good at baseball, and of course when Artur takes his turn, a pro baseball scout happens by and says he’s “got one of the sweetest swings I’ve ever seen.” In other sequences, Nate’s latest search for some sort of good luck charm that will let him succeed at various things without working too hard turns up a real winner: a pencil with which he finds a $20 bill and gets the captain of the cheer squad to agree to go on a date – before, predictably, everything goes awry. Elsewhere, Nate gets maneuvered into playing chess against Francis’ cat, Pickles; accidentally lets the class hamster escape, leading his student nemesis (Gina) to plan to tell his teacher nemesis (Mrs. Godfrey) unless Nate promises to do Gina an unspecified favor at an unspecified future time; and Nate again proves his mastery of Prank Day, which Peirce handles especially well by never showing the pranks themselves – he only has characters comment on them, allowing readers to think about what must have happened and conjure up their own extreme images.

     But there is no conjuring of images in a TV adaptation: the pictures are right there all the time, and they are what viewers tune in to see. Furthermore, snippets of interactions between Nate and others in his world are not the point in the Nickelodeon series based on Big Nate. There has to be continuity throughout each episode. And that leads the creators of the TV series to make significant changes in multiple characters and in the emphasis of the plots. The latest TV-based collection includes three episodes. One has Nate dreading an upcoming test and creating an elaborate plan to get it cancelled – a plot initially in line with the comic strip. And as Nate thinks, comic-strip-like drawings are seen – and this makes sense, since comic-strip Nate actually draws strips-within-the-strip from time to time (although not nearly as often recently as in the past). But the focus of the episode quickly gets spread out and spread thin: the teachers, and school principal Nichols (who is a much less sympathetic character on TV than in the comic strip), huddle and chant against arch-enemy Jefferson Middle School; Nate helps sister Ellen with baking through his unexpected expertise (which turns out to be very important); Gina plays a much bigger role as nemesis than in the comic strip; and Nate’s father, Martin, is the center of attention through much of the episode – he is a bit player in the strip but much more significant on TV, in line with the usual “feckless father” expectations of TV comedy. Martin dresses as a clown for a funeral, gets arrested, slides into a sewer, tries to rescue Nate from “man-witches,” and so on – playing a much bigger role than he ever assumes in the comic strip. The second episode recounted in the book focuses on figure skating, which Nate hates (as in the strip) but is forced to do (not in the strip) – and which turns out to provide a crucial connection to Chad, a rotund and adorable bit player in the comic strip who becomes central in this episode, much as Nate’s dad has previously been the focus in his clown costume. In fact, Nate’s dad is the other focus here, since the story has him constitutionally unable to say the word “no” to Nate, no matter how outrageous his son’s requests may be: “How can I say no to him without crushing his spirit?” This does not fit the character at all, and things get even sillier (although not more involving) when Nate’s school friends try to teach Martin how to say the word “no.” The Chad and Martin elements eventually get mixed together in an ice-skating conclusion that keeps the focus away from Nate – as is often the case in the TV series (but not in the comic strip). The final TV episode recounted in the book is about the kids’ rock band, Fear the Mollusk, in which Nate is lead singer and so awful that his friends actively seek a replacement despite Nate’s attempts to stay in charge. This somewhat fits Peirce’s view of Nate, whose lack of self-understanding is a defining characteristic – but while the comic strip has Nate simply not knowing when he is bad at things, the TV show has him as a less-engaging character who is well aware of his shortcomings but determined to do whatever he wants anyway. Again, much of what happens here involves making the episode about characters other than Nate: Artur turns out to have a great singing voice but a strong reluctance to use it (much as Chad, in the ice-skating episode, is given great on-ice ability that he avoids using); and Martin is again a pratfall-prone, pathetic central character, lying to Nate by claiming to be a C.E.O. when he is really a bathroom attendant. This TV-based (+++) book will be enjoyable for young readers who only know Nate and Peirce’s other characters from television. But it will disappoint those who are familiar with the underlying Big Nate comic strip, which is richer, less formulaic and better plotted and focused than any of these TV-derived stories. Compared with Peirce’s original strip, the TV show is just not as funny and just not as much fun.

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