ED. NOTE: The 44th annual San Diego Comic-Con International — the king of the American comics and pop-culture conventions — is expected to draw more than 125,000 fans to the Convention Center through Sunday. Today, Comic Riffs focuses on talented creators in attendance. (Full disclosure: Comic Riffs is a judge for the event’s Eisner Awards — aka “comics’ Oscars” — on Friday.)
LINCOLN PEIRCE has arrived for his first experience at the granddaddy of the American comics conventions. He’s hopeful that visiting one of the granddad’s spawn has helped prepare him properly.
“I attended the New York Comic-Con last year, and that was my baptism of fire,” Peirce, creator and author of the popular “Big Nate,” tells Comic Riffs. “A couple of friends had done their best to describe the Con scene to me in advance, but I still was surprised by everything about it -- mostly the sheer numbers of people and the fact that most of them seemed to be wearing Batman costumes. I was amazed, too, by how much I saw there that was completely new to me. ...
“Everyone tells me that SDCC is two or three times bigger than the New York Con, so I’m mostly just looking forward to the sights and sounds,” Peirce continues. “I realize that 99.9 percent of the people out there won’t be attending to see ‘Big Nate,’ but there will be a few of them.
“I’ll find my tribe. Or they’ll find me.”
Comic Riffs caught up with Peirce ahead of his panel appearances to talk about his dizzying midcareer success in the digital realm, his recent popular book franchise -- and why he became “pen pals” decades ago with the man who would create “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”:
[COMIC-CON AS CULTURAL FORCE: Futurist/author Rob Salkowitz sizes up the Con’s magnetic pull on pop culture ]
[HOW-TO-CON: A USER’S GUIDE: Cartoon Art Museum’s Andrew Farago on how to curate a good experience]
MICHAEL CAVNA: So I'm curious, Lincoln: Is this Nate's first trip to Comic-Con, or is he a San Diego veteran? And what does you most look forward to this time?
LINCOLN PEIRCE: First time. I attended the New York Comic-Con last year, and that was my baptism of fire. A couple of friends had done their best to describe the Con scene to me in advance, but I still was surprised by everything about it — mostly the sheer numbers of people and the fact that most of them seemed to be wearing Batman costumes. I was amazed, too, by how much I saw there that was completely new to me. I try to stay on top of what's out there in my own orbit — newspaper comics and children's books. But in the realms of video games and MMPORPG and anime and manga, I'm completely out to lunch. So seeing so many devoted fans of stuff I was completely unfamiliar with was eye-opening. Anyway, everyone tells me that SDCC is two or three times bigger than the New York Con, so I'm mostly just looking forward to the sights and sounds. I realize that 99.9% of the people out there won't be attending to see Big Nate, but there will be a few of them. I'll find my tribe. Or they'll find me.
MC: You've cited your advice to a budding Jeff Kinney as the beginning of a beautiful, and fortuitous, friendship — to crib liberally from "Casablanca.” Do you remember what it was about Jeff's letter that prompted you to respond so thoughtfully, patiently? LP: Yeah, because I've still got the letter. I kept all the letters he wrote to me over the roughly two-year stretch that we were "pen pals." That first letter he sent me stood out for its earnestness, its complete lack of guile. You get used to receiving letters from people who just want you to autograph an index card, so when you hear from somebody who so clearly wants to become a cartoonist, and is so genuine and unaffected in those aspirations…well, to say his letter was different from others I'd received is an understatement. Plus, Jeff's letter was filled with all sorts of flowery compliments about “Big Nate,” so he knew how to get to me.
MC: As so many syndicated cartoonists try to navigate a commercial bridge from print to digital, you have — within just a few years — crossed that span but gloriously. Can you speak to why you think “Big Nate” found such a hugely receptive audience on PopTropica? LP: I attribute that almost entirely to the phenomenal success Poptropica was already having by the time Jeff Kinney — whose life as one of the most successful authors in history doesn't keep him nearly busy enough — invited me to get involved. The site was still relatively new at the time, and Poptropica's creative team had rolled out four or five islands, all of them created in-house. I was the first outside creator they'd worked with. One thing we talked about right away was creating an island that was a bit easier to navigate than some of the others, as a way of making the site accessible for younger kids. That proved to be a very good decision, I think, as did the idea to include an archive of “Big Nate” strips as part of the island. But I don't think Big Nate Island became a hit on poptropica because the kids had prior knowledge of the strip and the characters. I think it succeeded because Poptropica is such a great site in general, and the creative team did such a good job on the tech side as we were putting the island together. It certainly had nothing to do with my digital savvy. As we've talked about before, I'm a Luddite.
. MC: You're also on the Team Cul de Sac panel, of course. What do you appreciate or admire about Richard Thompson's work, and how have you felt being a part of this project? LP: You know, I was talking with [editor] Chris Sparks at the Reubens back in May, and we were playing the age-old parlor game: Who are the five greatest cartoonists of all time? And we both had Richard in our top five. He's a genius. It's really something when a cartoonist's work can make other cartoonists say to themselves: I wish I could draw like that. I mean, consider the whole package. He's a brilliant illustrator and caricaturist. He's a trenchant observer of the human condition, whether in the social or political realm. He's an uncommonly gifted storyteller, poet, and satirist. He created [The Post’s] “Richard's Poor Almanac.” And then, by the way, he brought us the best comic strip to come along since “Calvin & Hobbes.” I don't even know Richard very well, but if the measure of a man is the impact his work has had on others in his profession, then it's clear he's a giant. And having a chance to honor that legacy while also contributing in some small way to the fight against Parkinson's is a real privilege.
MC: What comics or otherwise illustrated works — from strips to graphic novels to YA stories to webcomics — are you enjoying reading now? LP: I've just started "The Daniel Clowes Reader, edited by Ken Parille. It's fantastic. And I've spent some time recently re-reading my collections of Ben Katchor's "Julius Knipl" cartoons. He's another genius, and he's got the MacArthur grant to prove it. And Chris Ware — what can you say? "Building Stories" is a towering achievement. The guy is so prolific. How does he do it? He's like Winsor McKay on steroids. I confess I don't read webcomics — for no other reason but that I've never liked reading comics on a screen. I'm old-fashioned that way. In the good ol' newspaper comics department, my current favorites are "Monty" and "F Minus." . . MC: What's next for “Big Nate”? Any future multimedia or screen projects — or anything else new? LP: I guess the next frontier would be TV or a movie, but it would have to be a perfect fit. There have been several offers to do “Big Nate” as a live-action movie, but I have no interest in that. It's animation or nothing. So we'll see. Otherwise, the strip and the books are keeping me plenty busy. I'll be on tour for the new AMP compilation in October, and then I'll tour for the next Harper Collins book in March.