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”:
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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: Your session at Con will chart "Big Nate journey." I now Big Nate was syndicated about two decades ago via United, but when was Nate — the idea, the inspiration, the brainchild — actually born?... LP: You know, Michael, it's the story of a very shopworn but valid piece of advice that most cartoonists and authors have heard at one time or
another. An editor at one of the syndicates told me: "Write about what you know." So I scrapped some of the truly awful strips I was trying to develop at the time and turned my attention to something called "Neighborhood Comix," a sort of nostalgia-driven strip based directly on my own childhood in New Hampshire. It featured an ensemble cast of characters, most of them kids, and although I didn't realize it at the time, it was difficult to determine who the main character was. I did some revising, a lot of tweaking, and eventually chose a character named Nate to focus on. "Nate" is the nickname I gave my older brother Jonathan when we were kids, and I've always really liked the name. But the character shares virtually nothing else in common with my brother. I changed the title from "Neighborhood Comix" to "Big Nate," and was offered a development deal by United Media in 1990.
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: “Big Nate” has also adapted so well to the hybrid text/graphical book format that Jeff seemed to repopularize, or at least infuse with a new energy and voice. Why do you think “Big Nate” has been such a natural fit for this format? LP: I'd never written a novel before, obviously, when HarperCollins gave me the opportunity. But I didn't have any doubt that I could do it
because, at that point, I'd already been living with all the characters for nearly 20 years. It was just a matter of acclimating myself to telling longer stories, and working my way into the process of combining the visual vocabulary of comics with good old-fashioned text. That's what makes it interesting for me. There are plenty of children's books hitting the shelves nowadays that present themselves as "hybrids," but they're really just novels, with illustrations that happen to be kind of cartoony. And that's completely fine, but that's not the kind of book I want to write. I want to make books in which the text can't work without the comics, and vice versa. I want there to be comics on every single page. I want them to be fun to read. And I want to take advantage of the format — I love being able to make full-page or very complex drawings that I'd never be able to do in the comic strip.
MC: Can you speak to how your writing is different for a comic, a text-hybrid book and game design? Do you approach them each differently in terms of creativity, and character, and viewer/reader engagement? And beyond the characters' themselves — from their looks to personalities — are there common traits you try to retain? LP: Well, I don't think I can claim, in good conscience, to have created the game design for Big Nate Island on Poptropica. They asked me to
come up with a simple storyline, which I did — the player has to complete a sort of scavenger hunt leading to the discovery of a long-forgotten time capsule — and then I made sort of a "flow chart" for myself to make sure I wasn't inadvertently creating any dead ends in the game. But from there, it was the Poptropica creative team who actually "wrote" the story, if you know what I mean. They had to translate into technical realities the bare-bones narrative I'd written: “If ‘A’ happens and ‘B’ happens, then ‘C’ happens. But if ‘A’ happens and ‘B’ doesn’t happen, then ‘D’ happens." That kind of thing. For the comic strip, it's really a rhythm sort of writing. I always work in four panels — except on Sundays — and after all these years, it's part of my DNA to think in four-panel sequences. There's a rhythm to a four-panel strip that's completely different from a three-panel strip or a single panel. It's like music. At least half the time, I come up with the punch line first. I'll think up Panel 4, then work backwards. For me, it's almost entirely about the dialogue. Before I ink a strip, I have to feel completely satisfied with the dialogue — that it sounds like a natural conversation, not something "forced" just to get to the joke; that it "scans" well, so that the transition from one panel to the next feels smooth and natural; and that it's funny. The novels are by far the most challenging kind of writing I do, because there are more balls to keep in the air. A “Big Nate” "hybrid" is 216 pages long, and telling a straight-ahead, linear story for that many pages would really be a grind. So in addition to the main story arc, I try to fold in smaller arcs that go off on little tangents of their own, then loop back. Probably the most stressful part is that I don't map out the entire story in advance. I just make it up as I go along, and I submit the chapters to my editor one at a time. When I was writing the most recent book, I was two-thirds of the way through it, and I still had no idea how I was going to end it. But — knock wood — it's always worked out so far.
. 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.