It’s time for science class at Public School #38, and sixth grader Nate Wright is describing to the teacher an article he read about sleep research and, especially, the importance of sleep for children. His not-so-subtle point is that he should be allowed to take a nap, and that’s more or less Nate in a nutshell, always trying to game the system in his favor. For more than 30 years, Big Nate comics have taken readers into the daily misadventures of the titular character and his classmates. In another instance, Nate runs outside to chase down the ice-cream truck, only to find that it’s actually a mobile library, playing the ice-cream-truck soundtrack. Things tend to not go his way. “Even though the strip has come to be thought of as a kids’ strip, I’ve never thought of it that way,” says Portlander and Big Nate creator Lincoln Peirce, who noticed that his early readership was mostly newspaper subscribers in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. “It had a fairly powerful nostalgia element to it. I would hear from a lot of people who would talk about the strip’s depiction of middle school and how that brought back memories for them.”
When he was a kid, Peirce devoured Peanuts, and he’d sketch Snoopy and Charlie Brown in the margins of his comic books. Ideas for a strip of his own started kicking around his head, and in college, at Colby, he drew cartoons for the school paper. Nate began as part of an ensemble pitch called Neighborhood Comics, inspired by Peirce’s time growing up in New Hampshire, but an editor suggested he pare down to one central character. Nate debuted in black-and-white in 1991 after getting picked up for syndication, mainly in smaller-market newspapers. The four-frame installments, Peirce notes, “fit in the tradition of the troublemaking kid, the lovable prankster, like Dennis the Menace or Calvin and Hobbes,” and they developed a modest but loyal following.
Among early admirers was Jeff Kinney, who, as an undergraduate, wrote fan mail to Peirce. The two became pen pals, and Kinney went on to author the best-selling illustrated series Diary of a Wimpy Kid. On a 2008 visit to Portland, Kinney met up with Peirce and suggested that Peirce put Nate into books. Since then, Big Nate has taken off. Peirce spun the comic strip into a best-selling tweener series of his own and now does books for younger kids as well. A theater company in Maryland created a musical about Nate. And this year, Nate is getting his biggest break to date: an animated Nickelodeon series that recently premiered on the Paramount+ streaming service.
Peirce is a creative consultant on the show, reviewing scripts for the small-screen version of Nate’s exploits. He gives notes on everything from character interactions to dialogue to jokes. Sometimes, the scriptwriters take his suggestions, he says, and other times they don’t — television is a whole different arena. “All I could ask for is my voice to be included,” he says. Nickelodeon recently greenlit another show based on Peirce’s other hit book series, Max and the Midknights, about a medieval apprentice troubadour who wants to become a knight. Peirce admits that, initially, he was hesitant about the idea of computer-generated animations of his characters, who had only ever sprung from his pen. But when he saw the on-screen version of Nate for the first time, he felt a surge of happiness. “I was practically in tears,” he says.