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Transcript: Big Nate

Comics: Meet the Artist

Lincoln Peirce
Cartoonist,
Friday, August 27, 2004; 1:00 PM

Join Washington Post Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin online two Fridays each month to discuss the comics pages. From artists to writers to editors, Tobin is joined by a different guest for each show.

On Friday, Aug. 27, at 1 p.m. ET Tobin was joined by "Big Nate" cartoonist Lincoln Peirce for a special back-to-school discussion.


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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Suzanne Tobin: Greetings, comics fans, and welcome to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Lincoln Peirce, creator of "Big Nate," who is joining us from his home studio/toy room in Portland, Maine. I know this because, as I talk on the phone with him while waiting for the 1:00 hour to strike, we can hear his kids in the background.

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Lincoln Peirce: thanks suzanne. great to be with you again.

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Alexandria, Va.: First of all, I'd like to say that "Big Nate" is one of my favorite comic strips. Many years ago, one of my friends had a book of "Big Nate" comics. I have looked recently, and haven't been able to find one. Are there any books of this comic strip that are still available?

Lincoln Peirce: bless your heart for enjoying that first big nate book! Unfortunately, there have not been any big nate books published since that one, which was called "Add More Babes." An editor of mine is working very hard to try to get a new book published soon. So keep your fingers crossed!

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Virginia: Before becoming a professional cartoonist, were you ever a school teacher?

Lincoln Peirce: yes, I taught high school at a boys' school in New York City for three years. I taught art and coached baseball. And I still do some teaching and coaching nowadays.

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Fairfax, Va.: Have you coached kids in a sport? Did you play sports as a kid, and what were you good or bad at it? Also, please share your most embarrassing grade-school experience. Thanks.

Lincoln Peirce: yes, I coach baseball and soccer, two sports I played as a kid. I was a good baseball player, not so hot at soccer. But my best sport, and one I still play in an "old men's league", is hockey.

My most embarrassing school moment? Difficult to say, there were so many. I'll spare you the gory details, but it probably involved getting dressed down in a very public way by some Mrs. Godfrey-ish teacher.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Lincoln. I didn't always like "Big Nate" when I first started reading it, but now it's one of my favorite comics.

What formed the basis for the strip when you started drawing it? And is it getting harder to be funny as some of your contemporaries become more edgy?

Lincoln Peirce: thanks, it's nice to know that Big Nate can "win people over" after they've read it awhile. I think that's true with many strips. It takes a while to get familiar with the characters, but they do grow on you eventually.

Big Nate started out as more of a "domestic humor" strip than it is now. It was my intention to feature a lot of stories about Nate's single dad, and all the comic possibilities inherent in that. But before too long, I realized that the part of the strip that I enjoyed most was the school humor. I'd been a teacher myself, and schools can be very funny places.

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Burke, Va.: Hi, Big Nate is my family's favorite strip. We were all wondering when to expect some new Big Nate Books? We are not fans of the e-book format and would like some more like, "Add More Babes."

Thanks, The Watsons.

Lincoln Peirce: hi guys. Yes, the e-book idea was sort of a failed experiment. I think everyone prefers a good old-fashioned paperback that you can read over and over again. So we'll keep hoping for a publisher to come along who likes Big Nate as much as you do.

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Alexandria, Va.: I've enjoyed your strip for many years, although I must admit I find Nate the least likeable character in it!;

Is "Add More Babes?" the only Big Nate book collection that has been published? I seem to remember that I saw an ad for another one years ago and tried to order it, but the publishing company had gone out of business and my letter was returned. I couldn't find any others listed on the used-book Web sites.

Lincoln Peirce: yes, I try to walk that fine line between Nate being exasperatingly lovable and obnoxious. Sometimes obnoxious wins out. But I think it's important, especially in a strip that features a kid, not to make him overly likable or precious. Then the humor in the strip tends to become cloying or sentimental, and I'm not a fan of that.

A couple other people have asked about Big Nate books, and I wish I could tell you there's another one on the way. But as of right now, nothing is definite.

However, there are a lot of other great Big Nate items available thru the big nate store. go to comics.com/comics/bignate!

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Washington, DC: Why is your last name spelled wrong?

Lincoln Peirce: my name's spelled right, it's the rest of the world that's screwed up.

No, seriously...my name is spelled Peirce and it's pronounced "purse." I probably would have changed it years ago, but I'm named after my father and grandfather, and so to change the spelling or the pronunciation would not be respectful.

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Suzanne Tobin: Lincoln, were you a fan of Mel Lazarus's "Miss Peach" when you were younger? Setting a strip within a school certainly does give one a wealth of storyline possibilities. Lincoln Peirce: For awhile as a kid, I didn't even realize there WAS a strip called "miss peach." My local paper carried Mel's other strip, "Momma", and I had never read "miss peach." I discovered it years later and enjoyed it, but I don't think it influenced my work.

A strip I WAS aware of was "wee pals", which I enjoyed because of the very specific personalities of the characters. And, of course, Peanuts was hugely important to me.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Peirce -

Any plans on having a "very special" Big Nate strip, in which Nate deals with the trade of Nomar to the Cubs? I know it would be helpful to a lot of us.

BTW, thanks for this past Sunday's Yaz birthday strip. It was terrific, and it's always nice to find someone else who knows how to spell "Yastrzemski" correctly.

Lincoln Peirce: I could talk Red Sox for hours, as a long-suffering fan of the Olde Towne Team, but I'll save that for another time. I will say, though, that I've always wanted to get Carl Yastrzemski's name into "Big Nate" somehow. He was my boyhood hero. And I finally did it last Sunday, Yaz's birthday.

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Deanwood: Hi, Mr. Peirce. Thanks for taking my question. Do your own children show any interest in art, or in following in your own footsteps? I ask because I see that cartoonists sometimes pass their strips down to their children. Would you like to see someone else continue to draw Nate if you decided not to do it anymore?

Lincoln Peirce: My son, who is ten, has become very interested in reading comics -- he's devouring all my old 50-cent Peanuts paperbacks -- but he's shown no interest in drawing comics. My daughter is a little young yet.

But in any case, I don't think I'd want either of them -- or anyone else -- to continue Big Nate after I retire or die.

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Federal Triangle: So where has Artur been lately? I've missed seeing Nate doing a slow burn as he mumbles, "Oh, how I hate him..."

Lincoln Peirce: Artur has become a very popular character, and don't worry -- you'll be seeing more of him soon. But I need to find other ways besides chess for Artur and Nate to have conflict, because I think I may have exhausted my repertoire of chess jokes.

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Washington DC: The school scenes in "Big Nate" remind me so much of my experience as a Peace Corps teacher in a Russian school!; The interactions between the kids and the reactiosn of teachers are so universal. Is the strip currently being marketed/published outside the U.S.?

Lincoln Peirce: Big Nate does not appear in any foreign-language newspapers (in other words, papers in which it has to be translated), but it is in some English-written newspapers in Pakistan, Malaysia, and a couple of Pacific rim countries.

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Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada: What ever happened to Nate's girlfriend? Will she ever be featured again?

Lincoln Peirce: Good question. Nate has actually had two girlfriends during the 14 year history of the strip. He had a girlfriend named Angie, a new girl in school, and that romance lasted about 6 months. She ended up dumping him. Then, a few years later, I hooked Nate up with a girl he met at soccer camp...but Nate ended up breaking up with her because he just couldn't get over the longstanding crush he's had on Jenny. Jenny is the girl Nate keeps coming back to, but she has no interest in him whatsoever.

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Frederick, Md.: Mr. Peirce, regarding the spelling of your last name...Have you ever thought of having Mrs. Godfrey do a spelling lesson about "i before e except after c"? Also, have you ever accept ideas from others and used them in your strip? There are alot us out here with some good gags, but we can't draw and don't want to work as hard as you have to. It would be a kick to actually see one of my gags published.

Lincoln Peirce: I've never accepted gags submitted by readers of the strip, I guess because I'm just too much of a control freak to cede such an important part of the process to another person. but I certainly have been inspired by real-life incidents or comments from people who have no idea they'll end up in the strip. The one that comes immediately to mind involves the name of Nate's baseball team. They were called "Chez Linda", much to Nate's embarrassment. A young girl at my kids' school thought it was "Cheez Linda." I thought that was funny, and so the next year I had the name misspelled on Nate's uniform as "Cheez Linda."

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Lyme, Conn.: Now, when can you get Rico Petrocelli's name into your strip?

Lincoln Peirce: Rico! Good ol' number 6. Somewhere in my office I've got his 1971 baseball card.

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D.C.: As a former baseball coach, what are your thoughts on baseball returning to D.C.?

Lincoln Peirce: I'm 100% in favor of the Expos moving to Washington and being re-named the Senators. It might be sad for the 3 or 4 Expos fans who actually go to games in Montreal, but it would be great for baseball. And the Senators, despite their overall woeful record thru the years, are a huge part of baseball history.

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Washington, DC: You wrote: "my name is spelled Peirce and it's pronounced 'purse.'"

You're a -man-, for goodness' sake. It's pronounced "European carryall".

(with apologies to Seinfeld).

Lincoln Peirce: You're right. But Lincoln European Carry-all just does not roll off the tongue.

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Suburban Soccer Mom: Hi, I think it would be a great idea to have Nate's dad get together with Artur's mom. You've never brought Artur's parents into the strip, but wouldn't it be a scream if Nate had to face the possibility of Artur being his stepbrother? (And I wouldn't even ask for a cut of your pay!;)

Lincoln Peirce: Good idea, but I always return to the advice of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz when I'm contemplating some sort of major change in the strip. He always warned against giving people what they wanted, because then you are taking away an incentive for them to read your strip. Over the years, people begged and begged for Sparky (that was Charles Schulz' nickname) to allow Charlie Brown to kick the football, hit a home run, or get a kiss from the little red-haired girl. But it would have gone against everything the strip was about.

I know this isn't quite what you were proposing with your idea about Nate's dad and Artur's mom, but hopefully you can see what I mean.

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Chantilly VA: Hi Lincoln, keep up the great work!; Your strip is one of the few I ready anymore. I'm dying to see how the big game will turn out.

You live in a great town. My great-grandfather was deputy mayor of Portland back in the 1930s.

How old are you? I might be a bit older because I have some 35 and 40 cent Peanuts paperbacks that I too have been saving for my kids, and now I have twins, born last month. They will also, if they choose, get to read my Archies and my Richie Rich/Little Dot/Little Lotta Harvey comics too.

Lincoln Peirce: yes, Portland really is a great town. I invite all of you to come see why Maine is called Vacationland!

I'm 40 years old, by the way. Almost 41. And, like you, I read all those comics you mentioned. Comic books were great, but comic strips were always my passion. So, as much as I enjoyed Richie Rich, Little Lotta, Casper, etc., I was even more fascinated by the likes of Peanuts, Mutt & Jeff, Fred Bassett, B.C., the Wizard of Id, and countless others.

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Suzanne Tobin: It seems that more cartoonists are using gags based on their craft lately. Stephan Pastis, in "Pearls Before Swine" has had the characters go on strike against him, and I've seen several other examples in the last year or so. Would you ever break that "third wall" and have your characters actually reference their place as cartoon characters? Lincoln Peirce: I never say never, but Idon't see that happening in Big Nate. The strip has never been self-referential or topical, and so I think it would be jarring to break down that wall. It wouldn't be consistent with the strip or with my writing style.

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Clarendon: Regarding your comment about Mr. Schulz warning against "giving people what they want." I don't understand. How would that not give people the incentive to read the strip? Could you elaborate on that?

Lincoln Peirce: Sparky always felt that it made a strip weaker if you eliminated an element that people followed closely...like Charlie Brown's ongoing struggle to kick the football, and Lucy pulling it away. His thinking was that if he gave readers "what they wanted", i.e., if he let Charlie Brown actually succeed, he would be making his strip and his characters less compelling instead of moreso.

The example in comics history that he always cited was Li'l Abner. I don't know if you're familiar with that strip, but Daisy Mae chased after Li'l Abner for 20 years. Finally, the creator, Al Capp, had them get married. Sparky was convinced it was the biggest mistake in comics history. Capp had given readers what they wanted, but the strip was weakened as a result.

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Che Guevara: Hi, Lincoln. Here in washingonpost.com land, on another chat which shall remain nameless, there is alot of talk about trying to get The Post to chuck all the strips whose original creator has died, in order to make more room for fresh young talent. Do you have an opinion on this revolutionary idea?

Lincoln Peirce: I guess I could argue for both sides. On the one hand, I would never advocate for something that would take away the livelihood of some of my colleagues who have taken over strips developed by an earlier generation of cartoonists. In many cases, they are doing great work, sometimes even improving on their predecessor.

But on the other hand, it is the new(er) strips, like Get Fuzzy or Zits, that keep comics fresh. And I remember how difficult it is to get your foot in the door when you're just starting out as a young cartoonist. It is an incredibly difficult business to get into.

My solution would be for newspapers to run more comics, so that there would be room for more new strips to break in.

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Any classroom, USA: So, Lincoln, when are you going to give poor Mrs. Godfrey a kind word? We notice that the male teacher, Mr. Rosa, is endearing, but the female teacher is just a hellion. And where is Mr. Godfrey. She can't be all that bad, if Mr. Godfrey stays married to her, can she?

Lincoln Peirce: I understand your point. Mrs. Godfrey is almost entirely unsympathetic, and for that reason she comes across as perhaps the least realistic of the characters in Big Nate. But I do try to throw her a bone every once in awhile. Oftentimes I try to depict an incident thru her eyes, in which Nate's immature or self-indulgent behavior makes her irritation understandable. However, I don't think a personality transplant for Mrs. Godfrey is very likely. As for Mr. Godfrey, he's one of those characters who shall remain forever unseen and unheard.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Alright Suzanne, what was the deal with Thursday's Fox Trot strip? Some sort of inside joke I imagine. Did that same version run in other papers, too?

Suzanne Tobin: Uh, Suzanne?

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Suzanne Tobin: Well, I asked the cartoonist, Bill Amend to answer this himself...

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Bill Amend: Let's just say that after 13 years of begging the Post to
carry FoxTrot, I'm not above a little sucking-up to ensure I
stay in the paper for at least a little while. And Suzanne
and her associates DO deserve a nod for running such a
great comics section in this era of shrinking comics pages.

Lincoln Peirce: Thanks goodness for the Washington Post, I always say. It has caried Big Nate since February of 1991!

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Chantilly VA: Thanks for answering my post. I'm 44. Pretty good guesswork, huh?

Who needs carbon dating? Just ask someone how much they paid for their first Peanuts books, comic book (12 cents), or MAD magazine (35 cents- CHEAP!;).

Lincoln Peirce: Exactly. Years ago there was a collection of B.C. comics called "Life is a 50-cent paperback". The title eventually had to be changed to "Life is a 75-cent paperback", and I assume the price (and the title) went up from there.

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Sunday reader: Hi, Lincoln: When Nate does his drawing, I love the content, but I can't stand the ruled paper that it's drawn on...I get the idea that he's writing in a notebook, but please, please, the rules are just too distracting!; Please save all our eyes, and drop the rules!;

Lincoln Peirce: That part of the strip -- Nate drawing in his notebook -- has become less and less featured in the strip over the years. I've received only a handful of complaints like yours, but I certainly understand, given the size of the comics these days, that the "ruled paper" look could make it difficult to read.

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Johnny Come Lately: Hi, Lincoln, I hope I can still squeeze in my question this late in the chat. Will Nate and his buddies ever age? And will he ever get the dog of his dreams? Spitsy seems like such a cruel joke on this poor kid who is just dying to have a canine companion. Maybe you could let him rescue a pet from the shelter???

Lincoln Peirce: Nate is eleven years old, and has been in the sixth grade for fourteen years now. I admire strips in which the characters age, but I don't foresee that happening in big Nate.

You don't like Spitsy? Spitsy is becoming one of the most beloved characters in the strip, according to the emails I get. I just thought it would be funny if Nate, who is always wishing for a dog, got saddled with the most dysfunctional dog I could come up with. He's not going to get a more functional dog for the reasons I was stating earlier about not giving readers what they want.

Besides, there's already a really good strip out there about a boy and his functional dog called Red and Rover.

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Lexington, Kentucky: I actually read "Add More Babes" after reading Big Nate for months on-line. We don't get it here. Getting to questions. How do you handle being a cartoonist with a family. I try to do my own strip and really struggle to balance family and working on the strip. What is that aspect like for you and how hard was it for you to get used to the gruelling schedule of producing a strip everyday. Yea, yea, I know 6 weeks of dailies and a month of sundays. What was it like getting to that point?

Tom

Lincoln Peirce: I've never found it grueling, to be honest. I just do my best to be productive in the time that I've got. Sometimes that means working very late at night, but so far (knock wood) I haven't run into the sort of prolonged writer's block that would cause me a lot of stress.

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Washington. DC: Thanks for the occasional hockey humor in Big Nate!; I'm a lousy, but enthusiastic hockey player myself, and appreciate the strip's sports humor. What age is your main audience? I realize it's kid-themed, but the humor is certainly appreciated by adults.

Lincoln Peirce: that's music to my ears. I've never thought of Big Nate as a "kids' strip." It's important to me that adult readers can appreciate and enjoy it as well. But I do really depend on young readers to let me know if I'm being authentic or not. when they email me to let me know that Nate gets into situations just like they do, or that they have a teacher just like Mrs. Godfrey, I figure I'm on the right track.

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On the Waterfront in Southwest DC: You said earlier you still do some teaching. Can you tell us where and what subject. I assume it's Art, but do you teach cartooning or painting or what?

Lincoln Peirce: I go into schools and do cartooning workshops, which is a lot of fun. Comics are a great teaching tool, especially as far as creative writing is concerned. I've also done some teaching at a local art camp off-and-on over the years.

Well, it's two o-clock and I really should try to go work on Big Nate. (I'm drawing Christmas strips these days.) Thanks, everyone, for participating. And thanks, Suzanne, for having me. So long.

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Suzanne Tobin: Thanks so much, Lincoln, and I'm sure all of us look forward to seeing Nate both in the funny pages and in the bookstores VERY SOON. I hope you, and all our readers, will join us again in two weeks when Patrick McDonnell of "Mutts" will be our guest on another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist."

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