Lincoln Peirce ’85, of Portland, Maine, is the creator of Big Nate, a comic strip published in daily and Sunday newspapers nationwide since 1991. Peirce also is the author of a series of graphic novels for young adults starring the 11-year-old sixth-grader with a good heart—and the record for school detentions.
How did Nate first reveal himself to you?
I’d started trying to get a comic strip syndicated during my freshman year at Colby, and from that point on I submitted strip ideas to syndicates on a fairly regular basis. Most of those early efforts were pretty bad, honestly. But my work slowly improved, and the rejection letters grew more encouraging. Eventually an editor told me to write about what I knew best, and so I came up with a strip called “Neighborhood Comix.” It was loosely based on the neighborhood in New Hampshire where I grew up, and it featured a pretty unwieldy cast of characters. I got a letter back from the woman at United Media, who eventually became my first editor, who liked the strip but thought there were too many characters. She suggested I pick one character to build the strip around. So I chose Nate.
What is your day-to-day like as a professional artist?
It’s solitary, because I work alone at home. I have an office next to our dining room, and that’s where I spend nearly all my working time. The radio keeps me company. It’s a fairly uncomplicated profession. I’m either trying to think up ideas or I’m drawing. But it’s become a little more hectic over the last couple years, because now, in addition to the comic strip, I’m writing Big Nate chapter books for young readers. There’s more to accomplish each day.
Did Colby help you as an artist?
On my second day on campus, I found the Echo office and asked if I could do a comic strip for the paper. I’d read that Garry Trudeau, of “Doonesbury” fame, had done a strip called “Bull Tales” while an undergraduate at Yale, and so I thought maybe I could follow a similar path. I did a strip called “Third Floor,” and it was really the first time I’d ever seen my stuff in print. And having a deadline, even a relatively flexible weekly one, was good practice. But even more important to me was the Art Department at Colby. I was an art major, and I loved my teachers. They were very supportive. Harriett Matthews was my advisor for a Jan Plan independent study I did about comics. David Simon, Hugh Gourley, and Michael Marlais always went out of their way to say a kind word about my strip in the Echo. And Abbott Meader was my mentor, someone I deeply admired.
What moments or people really defined your Colby experience?
I saw the lives that my art teachers were leading—Abbott and Harriett were both on campus a couple days a week, and they had beautiful studios out in the country where they were creating their own work—and it really inspired me. I was never a great artist by any means, but with their help I began to think of myself as an artist with something to contribute, whether it was through drawing or painting or comics. And so I created a workspace for myself. There was an old printing room on the top floor of Bixler that wasn’t being used, and I asked David Simon if I could clean it up and use it as a studio … and he said yes, so that’s just what I did. I was given a key so that I had twenty-four-hour access, and Abbott and Harriett would come visit me there and critique my work. … It really fueled my aspiration to make a life in art for myself, somehow.
How long were you writing Nate before you made it to the papers?
I first drew Nate in 1988, and the comic strip debuted in newspapers in January of 1991. What followed was seventeen or eighteen years of very modest success. The strip had a loyal but relatively small readership, and it wasn’t all that widely known, because it wasn’t in very many major-market newspapers. But I always felt fortunate to be syndicated and to be making a living as a cartoonist, because it’s a small fraternity.
How has Nate grown as a character since you created him?
Nate hasn’t aged at all. In twenty-plus years, he hasn’t progressed beyond sixth grade. And his personality—that of a wisecracking, troublemaking, but ultimately lovable eleven-year-old boy—has remained largely intact. But the strip itself has changed quite a bit. When it started, I imagined it as sort of a “domestic humor” strip, with the lion’s share of the attention focusing on Nate, his single dad, and his older sister Ellen. But, maybe because I was working as a high school art teacher when I started developing the strip, I quickly realized that what I enjoyed most was writing jokes about school—Nate’s classmates, his teachers, and so on. It wasn’t long before the strip was almost entirely comprised of school jokes and themes.
Do you draw from your own experience as a child?
My short-term memory is terrible, but I’ve always had almost photographic recall of my own childhood, particularly middle school. Sixth grade seemed like the most eventful year imaginable. That’s when you transition out of elementary school and everything changes. For the first time, you’ve got a different teacher for each subject. You’ve got a locker. You’ve got intramural sports. You go to dances. You experience soaring triumphs or crushing humiliations on an almost daily basis. When I created Nate, I made him a sixth-grader largely because I thought, with a kid that age, I’d never run out of material. And, so far, I haven’t.
Your graphic novel novels are in a perfect format for comic lovers.
We’re living in the golden age of graphic novels. Fifteen or even ten years ago, it was difficult to convince schools and libraries to buy children’s books that included comics, because comics weren’t considered real reading. But that’s changed, thankfully. The Captain Underpants books and the Wimpy Kid series were real eye-openers for publishers; suddenly they saw that hybrid books of this type were popular not only among kids who love to read but among the so-called reluctant readers. Comics are a great pathway to other kinds of books, and they’re a fantastic teaching tool when you’re trying to introduce young kids to the concept of storytelling. So publishers are very open to formats like this now. It wouldn’t have occurred to me ten years ago to write a Big Nate chapter book; back then the goal for comic strip creators was to get a book deal for a compilation or a treasury of previously published strips. I’m happy that’s changed.
What are your hopes for the series and future plans for Nate?
Well, I’ve signed on to do eight books. The third one goes on sale in August, so that leaves me five more to write. That takes care of my future plans for the next three years or so. My most fervent hope is that I can keep coming up with ideas. I think the fear for any storyteller is that he wakes up one day and can’t think of any more good stories to tell. But, so far, so good.