Arts Desk

Meet a Visiting Cartoonist: A Chat with Lincoln Peirce

Big Nate is joining the ranks of Peanuts, Little Orphan Annie, and The Amazing Spider-Man. A musical based on Lincoln Peirce's comic strip premiered this month at Adventure Theatre MTC in Glen Echo Park.

Big Nate has run for years locally in the Washington Post. The Post's Michael Cavna has written about the play's creation. I'm no theater critic, but I enjoyed the show. A total of six actors ably portray Nate and his friends Teddy and Francis, his nemesis Gina, his ideal girlfriend Jenny, and her boyfriend Artur. They also act briefly as Nate's teachers, speaking behind masks of the teacher's faces.

The show opens with Nate having accumulated 22 detentions and suffering from nightmares about his teachers. His group, Enslave the Mollusk, wants to win the upcoming battle of the bands, but 25 detentions will disqualify them. Nate's band is pitted against Gina's as the show moves along quickly. The music is catchy, the stage design and costuming are clever, and the judicious use of Peirce's cartoon drawings is very well done. The hour-long play is aimed at children, but on the day I saw it, adults were laughing just as often.

Lincoln Peirce came down from Maine for the world premiere of a musical based on his strip, and spent a few minutes talking with City Paper before the show.

Washington City Paper: So I’m told your name is actually pronounced ‘Purse’?

Lincoln Peirce: It is. Here’s all I really know about it. My brother found out that our spelling and our pronunciation was actually quite common in New England about 120, 140 years ago. There were more Peirces (“purses”) than there were Pierces. I don’t know that that’s true, but my brother says it is so I’m just go with him. I guess over the years the Pierces replaced the Peirces so it has been one of the giant pains of my life to correct people on the pronunciation and the spelling all the time, and frankly I would have changed my name except I’m named after my dad and my grandfather. I’m Lincoln the third, so it would not have been cool to all of a sudden become ‘Lincoln Smith’ or something like that.

WCP: You’ve been doing the strip since 1991… how did you get started on it? Was it your first job?

LP: It was my first strip. I had actually gone through college and then graduate school to get a master of fine arts. My first love was always cartooning, but it just seemed really hard to get your foot in the door. So I thought I’d get this degree and maybe teach college art. I had some mentors in college and they seemed to have a great life—come to campus a couple of days a week, teach a couple of painting classes and go home... But I ended up right out of grad school teaching high school for three years. I knew that wasn't for me long term so I really started redoubling my efforts to get a comic strip going. It's pretty much the same story that a lot of people have. I sent in stuff, got back form letters, kept trying, got back more encouraging letters and eventually what led to Big Nate was submitting a strip called Neighborhood Comics. It was loosely based on the neighborhood in New Hampshire where I grew up with an ensemble cast of kids and parents. The woman who eventually became my first editor at United Media, Sarah Gillespie, said, 'Why don't you pick one these characters to focus on?", and I chose Nate. My nickname for my older brother when we were growing up was Nate. I really liked the name, I liked the character so I recast it as Big Nate and I got a development deal out of it.

WCP: You were with that syndicate for only a short time?

LP: No, what happened was—United Media at the time had two syndication branches. They had United Features Syndicate, but they also had NEA and NEA was a subscription service where you're part of a package. I started out at United Features Syndicate and after about three years, I was sort of treading water and a spot opened up in NEA. My editor said, "I think this might be a good spot for you. The upside is you'll end up getting into a lot more papers and you'll have a steady income. The downside is you probably won't pick up any big new clients because a lot of the big papers, they don't subscribe to NEA because NEA is almost like a budget thing for smaller papers to afford strips." I said "I'll take that trade." So that's how that worked.

WCP: How many papers did you start in, and how many do you have now?

LP: I think I started in about 110 maybe, which was a good debut and then I lost half of them over the course of the next year and a half. So I was down to a client list of 50 or 60 and now I'm back up to probably 350. It's pretty good.

WCP: How do you keep it fresh after those 20 years?

LP: The bottom line for me is ... obviously you're aware of the fact that other people are reading your stuff, but I never think about that. I only think about cracking myself up. That for me is how I keep it fresh: Do I think it's funny? Because it's a solitary profession, for me it is anyway, so if I'm not cracking myself up in the privacy of my office at home, what am I doing it for? To me that's the end-all and be-all. When I started the strip and I made him the specific age—he's 11 years old and in sixth grade—my own memory of that time in my life was that it was a pretty eventful time. I said I think I'm going to be able to keep a lot of ideas going for a long time because school is a funny place. A lot of things happen. That's one of the things that keeps the strip fresh. It's not just Nate in this big school world. It's his other classmates, it's the teachers... unlike in some comic strips, where the teachers are disembodied, they're not real characters... for me, that's a big part of keeping it fresh. It's not just Nate, but the other characters that play a role.

WCP: Has anyone disappeared from the strip? Were there any characters that didn't work?

LP: Well, the question I'm asked most frequently is "Where is Nate's mother?" He's never had one in the strip. I made reference to the mother a couple of times in the early days of the strip, that this was a divorce family and that Nate lives with his dad. I thought maybe down the road I would bring the mother in somehow, but I realized I didn't want to. And then there have been characters who have been short-lived presences in the strip and I've phased out not because they didn't work, but because they part of a specific storyline. In a couple of cases, Nate had romances, but I didn't want those girls to become long-term characters because the character of Jenny is Nate's Holy Grail of potential girlfriend and I always wanted to keep the focus on that. The one thing that I consciously decided that I would phase out of the strip was the lined paper drawings of Nate because the smaller that newspapers shrink strips down—it was just hard to read them, hard to see, and I just thought this has run its course in the comic strip. Then when I began doing the chapter books I had the perfect format to go back to that and I do a lot of that in these books.

WCP: Regarding the chapter books, you had helped out Wimpy Kid's Jeff Kinney at some point...

LP: Yes, he wrote me fan mail when he was 19 years old so we became like pen pals.

WCP: Did the success of Wimpy Kid's chapter books seem like a business model to you?

LP: No, I never thought I would write chapter books. What happened was, Jeff and I got back in touch—I reached out just to say "congratulations on your success," and he still was holding down his day job with Pearson Publishing. He had created this website called Poptropica, and he invited me to take part and create a Big Nate presence. He said, "You know, we could maybe get you a book deal out of this," and I said, "Great," but both of us were thinking compilation books. I don't think either of us were thinking chapter books, but inevitably out in the publishing world people were thinking "Hey..."

So when I got my offer from HarperCollins to do chapter books, one of the things that Jeff and I talked about was Jeff saying, "I would be horrified if people thought you were ripping off Wimpy Kid because Big Nate has been around for all these years." And I said, "I feel like the books I have in mind are going to be different enough from Wimpy Kid that people won't see me as ripping you off." And I think that's largely been true. A lot of times when people review my books, they'll say if your kids love Wimpy Kid, they'll like Big Nate. They'll make the inevitable comparisons, but I don't think that anyone has connected those dots and said that, "Oh, Lincoln Peirce saw what Jeff Kinney had done and tried to cash in." For me, it's been great. It's created a whole new audience for Big Nate.

WCP: I'm glad to hear that, because a lot of comic strips are just not clicking with kids anymore.

LP: It's true. Sad to say, it's true.

WCP: Speaking of the book collections, you were putting out standard collections for a while?

LP: No.

WCP: No? You didn't do any of those? They've always been the odd-size ones?

LP: No, what happened in the very early days of Big Nate, United Media had a little in-house publishing imprint called Pharos Books. Back then, they would put out their own collections of basically all their strips. So I put out a collection in 1992 of the first year's worth of Big Nate strips and then 16 or 17 years went by with nothing. So during all that time, I was in the newspapers, I was making a living, but if you walked down the street just about anywhere in the US, especially big cities, and asked "What do you think of Big Nate?" no one would have had any idea of who you were talking about. It wasn't in the big papers, it wasn't in reprint books... it had a following, but I would find myself thinking, "Is there anyway to grow this thing?" That's why the Poptropica thing was manna from heaven, because I wouldn't have been able to concoct a way to get Big Nate in front of so many eyeballs as Poptropica did.

WCP: Would you say the smaller and thicker format of your collections is more successful than the standard ones because of your audience?

LP: I know that the Big Nate books are Andrews McMeel's best-selling compilations now.

WCP: Regarding the musical, this was not your idea? They approached you?

LP: Right. I was approached and, as I think I said to Michael Cavna, I was initially a little skeptical but I think they did a great job. I consulted a little bit on the script and the dialogue, but I didn't fuss with the songs at all. Once I wrapped my head around the fact that there's going to be adults playing these roles, which took me all of about 15 seconds to get over that, I thought they did a great job.

WCP: A local interest question—you did a run of strips for Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac when he was starting to have more trouble with Parkinson's. How did that happen? Did someone from the syndicate approach you?

LP: From the syndicate. John Glynn, who is our editor there, sent out an email to six of us and said, "You're the people who are Richard's wish list for people who might pitch in while he's getting back to it. Let us know if you can do a Sunday, or a week's worth of dailies." I said I could do a Sunday and a week's worth of dailies, and then it was just a matter of trying to do something... Richard set the highest bar that there is, so I just wanted to do something that fans of Cul de Sac wouldn't think was just an absolute abomination. I was happy with how it came out. I did a couple of strips about Petey and his shoebox dioramas, some about March coming in like a lion and out like a lamb, and a Sunday page that was about an ice cream truck. I've only met Richard in person a couple of times. I don't know him well, but he's a huge hero of mine. He's one of the greatest cartoonists ever. I put him in the pantheon with Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson... to me, he's one of the greatest ever.

The show runs to June 2 at Adventure Theatre. $19.

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