LINCOLN PEIRCE IS A HUGE HIT in the digital realm. Millions of kids flock to his “Big Nate” features on the site Poptropica.com, reveling in the interactive play with his strip-born characters. Yet for Peirce himself, this aspect of his success is all rather abstract. That’s because while Peirce may send his cartoon kids to some of the coolest digital digs around, he is determined to stay enrolled in the old school.
“I am,” the 40-something cartoonist author Lincoln Peirce tells Comic Riffs, “relentlessly low-tech.”
So much so that when the publisher of his bestselling “Big Nate” franchise approached Peirce a year ago about creating his first app, and then followed up with developing iterations of that app, Peirce had no way to view it. So the developer and publisher had to send their work to his same professional address:
The old school.
“As Night & Day Studios developed the app and had updated versions, they would send it to HarperCollins, which needed feedback,” Peirce tells us. “I don’t have a smartphone or an iPad, so my editor would send me her iPad with the newest version of the app and instructions on how to play it.” Peirce would write Post-It notes of reaction, then e-mail his feedback to his editor.
“It was,” the New England-based creator says, “so ridiculous.”
Today, though, all the snail-mail back-and-forth over a rabbit-fast app reaches fruition. On Thursday, HarperCollins will announce that the franchise’s first app — titled “Big Nate Comix by U!” — is being made available.
“It still doesn’t seem real, even when it’s available,” Peirce says. “Even that is still an abstraction in a way to me.”
The success of “Big Nate,” however, is no longer an abstraction. The ”Big Nate” book series — based on Peirce’s syndicated comic strip — has spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list, selling more than 3.5-million “units.”
And for “Big Nate’s” many young fans, the very interactive app will be very real indeed.”It asks the user to be very involved,” Peirce tells Comic Riffs. “You’ve got to contribute something here.” True to its title, “Comix by U!” invites the user to write dialogue, assemble characters, choose panels and formats. “The users,” the cartoonist says, “are really the driving force behind it.”
The app works on several levels, based on the user’s comfort zone and preference. One level provides a “framework” of panels and asks for some dialogue. A second level has a “story jump-starter” that provides the user with the first panel to kick off the creative process. And a third format lets the user start from scratch — offering an array of props, sounds and other special effects. The app also allows users to save their comics to a gallery and e-mail the work to friends.
“Comix by U!” has a decidely warm, retro design. That is very intentional, Peirce says — a consistent look that has distinguished the strip since United Media launched it two decades ago. And which has continued through the “Big Nate” books and Poptropica incarnation.
“In each format, I want [fans] to feel as if whatever they enjoy about the strip is there — whatever that same thread is.
“I hope that’s the case.”
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For Peirce, all the recent digital and hardbound success has meant altering his professional life to accommodate new demands.
“My life has changed in terms of time commitments ... ,” Peirce tells Comic Riffs. “There are really quite punishing deadlines for HarperCollins. ... I’ve learned that kids don’t want to wait.”
The former high-school teacher debuted “Big Nate” two decades ago, and the strip enjoyed brisk pre-launch sales to newspapers before one of the syndicate’s sales reps died — and Peirce learned the salesman had been ringing up phony sales. Suddenly, his sales list plummeted, and United Media “rescued” the comic by moving “Big Nate” to its packaged NEA syndication.
Peirce hung in there for years, carefully crafting his cherished playground characters — even as another United Media strip signed about the same time as “Big Nate” began to rack up big sales in the ‘90s. By the middle of that decade, “Dilbert” had become a cultural phenomenon.
During this time, though, Peirce responded to a fan letter from a Maryland college cartoonist who was seeking advice. Peirce wrote back, willing to mentor the young talent. Several years ago, that professional relationship paid off in unexpected ways.
The Maryland cartoonist was Jeff Kinney, now the man behind the hit “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” franchise. Kinney called, wanting Peirce to join his wildly popular Poptropica site. “Big Nate Island” debuted on Valentine’s Day 2009, and soon crashed the site’s server. Within weeks, millions of young readers discovered the interactive world of sixth-grader Nate Wright, “self-described genius” and “all-time record-holder for detentions in school history.”
From there, “Big Nate’s” Poptropica popularity begat the book-publishing series.
Now, the low-tech cartoonist has somehow successfully migrated to the digital world, even as many other newspaper comics struggle to find new audiences.
“You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines — there is an ebb and flow to this business,” Peirce tells us. “There was that epic period when in 1979, six of seven ‘Garfield’ books were on the bestseller list at the same time. That was a high-water mark.
“No one cares about ‘Garfield’ now,” he continues. “No one cares about ‘Dilbert’ now. ... Even as much as I owe a debt to Sparky [Schulz], who was my childhood hero, I don’t care about seeing reruns of ‘Peanuts’ in my local paper. It belongs in the treasuries and the books.”
“Big Nate,” despite its newspaper roots, has found a way to ‘belong’ in the digital world. “Comix by U!” is viewed as a way to strengthen that connection to tween readers.
“It’ll be interesting to see what they create,” Peirce says of young users. ”Though it’s an app, it’s a very old-fashioned kind of activity — you are able to tell a story, and there’s a certain [retro] quality.”
Peirce could be speaking not only of “Big Nate” but also himself when he then says with a certain satisfaction:
“It’s kind of old school in a high-tech world.”