In Praise of Big Nate

In 1994, at the last book fair I ever attended in Houston, I picked up a comic strip book that I knew nothing about. It was a collection of Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate strips. The strip didn’t run in Houston papers and it wouldn’t run in any paper I’d ever read. As a result the book felt like a strange artifact from another world to me.

I read it and it cracked me up.  The book was one of the things I leaned on heavily during the move to Conway, in fact. Over time I memorized every word in the book. But that was the only book in the series and indeed through my childhood that was the only book that was ever published in the series. In time the book was packed away and I might vaguely recall it but nothing more.

In March 2010, I was at the library in North Little Rock when I stumbled upon a book that felt like a lightning bolt from my past. It was a hybrid comic/prose novel, the first in the Big Nate series. My childhood memories demanded I check it out so I did and within an hour consumed the book, thoroughly satisfied with an unexpectedly funny work.

7 years later, there’s now a mountain of books. Digitally, 17 years of the strip have been released in $4 collections. There’s 7 prose novels, a series which recently ended. There’s no end of collected volumes of the strip in print too. I’d argue no comic strip has been as easy to find at any time in print in fact.

So with that epic preface, let me finally get into why this strip is my comfort food. Big Nate is like almost all comic strips, a fairly formulaic strip with largely one joke that reiterates itself in various situations. What makes the strip work is it’s a funny joke: the male ego blinds itself to reality.

Over and over again, Nate Wright stumbles through a world he thinks he understands but has no idea about. He thinks he’s an art prodigy. (He’s not.) He thinks he’s a star athlete. (He’s terrible.) He thinks he’s irresistible to women. (He’s a creep.) He thinks his teachers are unfair to him. (They’re completely fair.)

This is something that I have to admit I find extremely entertaining. Nate’s continual obliviousness socially has to strike a chord with me as I frequently don’t get the world. I understand Nate Wright. I get living in your own world.

But the strip has far more virtues to offer beyond one good premise. Over 26 years, Peirce has crafted a world filled with great characters. Chad, the lovable nice guy. Gina, the brain. Artur, the “perfect” guy who is. The unseen Chester. His girlfriend Kim. These are hilarious characters. 

The strip has lost something over time. There was initially a greater focus on Nate’s art and I loved that. I do miss Doctor Cesspool. But I get why it’s gone. The strip evolved. 

What it became truly is wonderful. Big Nate isn’t adult and I love it for that. It’s a middle school comedy. But it’s a funny, smart one that makes me happy it’s there. It takes me back without condescension. And it was worth the wait. 

2 thoughts on “In Praise of Big Nate

  1. I grew up in Norther VA and Big Nate was an integral part of my morning routine as I went through The Washington Post comic section. After devouring all of Calvin & Hobbes, I needed a new comic and Big Nate was a great follow-up. I didn’t know there were novels! If I ever get through my ever increasing queue, I’ll have to give them a read.

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