Tuesday, June 2, 2009

20 Questions with Lincoln Peirce

Lincoln Peirce writes and draws the syndicated strip, BIG NATE, which was launched by United Media in January 1991.

If your local paper doesn’t carry this consistently funny and charming comic, you can follow it online at

I started reading BIG NATE shortly after its debut and have been a fan ever since.

I traded originals with Lincoln a couple of years ago, and his strip occupies a place of honor in my family room, right next to a Bud Blake TIGER original from 1968 (which I didn't trade for but bought on ebay).

Thanks to Lincoln for his detailed, informative and thoroughly entertaining answers.

1. When you were a kid, did you want to be a cartoonist? Did you draw?

The notion of becoming a cartoonist began in about third grade. My family was staying at the house of a teaching colleague of my dad's, and the kids in this family had piles and piles of PEANUTS books -- the old Fawcett paperback compilations that sold for 25 or 50 cents.

I'd seen PEANUTS before, of course, but that was the first time I really began reading comics obsessively. And of course the logical step after that was to begin trying to copy Sparky's drawings, so I began teaching myself how to draw Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

By the time I was a fifth or sixth grader, I was beginning to invent my own characters.

2. What was your first paying cartoon job?

I think it was in 1988 or so. A friend of mine was opening a sports bar in Brooklyn (I lived in Brooklyn and taught high school art in Manhattan at the time), and he asked me to create a little character for the menus and advertising. The bar was called the Brooklyn Dodger and the character I came up with was sort of an Artful Dodger type.

Then my friend and his partners got sued by the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, I was subpoenaed and had to give was very dramatic.

I can't remember what my friend paid me, but it wasn't enough.

3. Describe the process you went through to get BIG NATE syndicated.

It was exactly the same process everyone else goes through. I was in college, doing a strip for my school newspaper. I got myself a copy of The Artist's Market, found the mailing addresses of all the major syndicates, and started submitting stuff. I submitted a bunch of strips in sporadic fashion while I was in college and graduate school. Eventually I began receiving some of those so-called "encouraging" rejection letters, one of them from United Media in response to a strip called NEIGHBORHOOD COMIX.

Sarah Gillespie, who was to become my first editor, invited me to lunch and made a few suggestions, the most important of which was that I choose one character from the ensemble cast of NEIGHBORHOOD COMIX and put that character front and center. So I chose a character named Nate, re-named the strip, and ended up getting an offer of a development deal.

4. You've done some animation work. How does it compare to doing a comic strip?

I should clarify here that I'm not an animator. I write stories, design characters, and create storyboards. I enjoy the process of writing a story that will play out over 7 or 11 minutes; it's an entirely different style of writing compared to doing a comic strip. But it's ultimately a frustrating and confusing process, because so many people at the network (I've done stuff for both Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon) read your stuff, and they all have notes for you -- and often the notes are contradictory.

The other harsh reality of writing for a network is that their ultimate goal isn't necessarily making a smart, funny cartoon; their ultimate goal is to find cartoon properties that they can successfully brand and merchandise on a global scale, a la Spongebob.

I've come relatively close to getting a project "green-lighted" to become a series on a couple of occasions, but in each case I ended up being told that my stuff wasn't lovable enough, seemed a little too old for their demographic, etc., etc.

5. What’s your favorite rejected strip or gag?

When I first started BIG NATE, one of the devices I employed quite frequently (but don't any longer) was Nate writing and drawing his own comics in his school notebook. I'd draw the way a sixth-grader could draw, and I wrote the sort of sophomoric jokes a sixth-grader would write.
One of Nate's comic creations was ACTION CAT. The gag was that the only thing Action Cat ever did was get hit by cars. I found these gags hilarious, but my editor told me that people didn't want to read about roadkill with their morning coffee.

6. Where do you stand in the print comics vs. web comics debate?

I can't really speak to it, because I almost never read comics online. That's not an indictment of web comics in any way; I just happen to be a person who dislikes logging time in front of a computer screen. I resent having to click and scroll repeatedly to read a handful of comic strips; and so I've never really read any of the web comics that are out there.

I realize that, as newspapers continue to wither and die, I'll probably have to start getting my comics online along with the rest of the world; but for now I continue to read the comics on newsprint.

7. Newspaper comics are considered pretty tame compared to TV and other media. Do you find this limiting or do you welcome the challenge?


8. Name five of your favorite comic strips or cartoonists.

Ben Katchor, Tom Toles, Richard Thompson, Jim Meddick, Darby Conley. Those are my faves among contemporaries. But I'm also a huge fan of a lot of strips from cartooning's golden era: KRAZY KAT, POLLY & HER PALS, LI'L ABNER, etc. Popeye is probably my all-time favorite comic strip character.

And a totally forgotten cartoonist named Francis W. Dahl, who did very clever cartoons/social commentaries for the Boston Herald back in the 30's, 40's and 50's, was a huge favorite of mine when I was a boy. My grandparents had some collections of his work, and I read them over and over.

9. Who’s stronger, Superman or The Hulk?

Duh. Superman.

10. How do you develop ideas? Which comes first, words or pictures?

Words, always. I usually come up with ideas by sitting quietly and trying to imagine lines of dialogue, or trying to invent a situation or an environment in which Nate might find himself. Usually I end up thinking of the punchline first; then I construct whatever dialogue I need to get me to that punchline.

11. Do you ever worry about running out of ideas?

I worry about running out of FUNNY ideas. I come up with plenty of unfunny ones.

12. Who do you want to play Mrs. Godfrey in the BIG NATE live-action film?

At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, I pray that there's never a Big Nate live-action film. I think it's always problematic when flesh-and-blood actors depict cartoon characters. It's not nearly as jarring when you're talking about the superhero realm, because -- visually speaking -- actors can approximate the look of comic book characters. But if I were watching a child actor -- a normally proportioned kid with ten fingers, whose head isn't the same size as his torso -- and that child actor were playing the role of Big Nate, I know that would upset me.

But climbing down off my soapbox, I think a younger Cathy Bates would make a pretty good Mrs. Godfrey.

13. What kind of editor do you prefer, hands-on or laissez-faire?

I've never had a hands-on editor, so I can't really answer the question. For me, what's most important is feeling that I can trust the person, and that he/she genuinely cares about comics and isn't simply a numbers cruncher or failed salesperson who landed in an editorial position by accident.

14. What are your favorite books, TV shows, songs and films? (Yes, that counts as one question.)

Good lord. Well, in the books and TV show categories, the ones I remember most vividly are from my childhood. Two books that were very significant to me were Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman and A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The first I read for the first time when I was about 12, and I read it many, many times throughout my teens. The second was published in 1980, when I was a junior in high school, and (this sounds a little corny) it really changed the way I looked at the world.

I watched a fair amount of television as a child and watch almost none now. Back then I loved Bonanza, Hawaii Five-0, and the Bob Newhart Show. I was very fond of the show Barney Miller. I watched reruns of old shows like The Rifleman and Perry Mason. I loved staying up and watching The Tonight Show. And, of course, those early years of Saturday Night Live were pretty great. In recent years, the only show I really watched religiously was a show called Homicide.

I host a radio show every week devoted to vintage country music, so I have hundreds of favorite songs. But if I had to choose one, it would be Neil Young's "Heart of Gold."

My favorite movie is Tender Mercies, starring Robert Duvall.

15. What are your tools of the trade?

Non-photo blue pencils, Staedtler pigment liners, smooth-plate 2-ply Bristol board, a ruler, and a radio. And the computer, I guess. That's about it.

16. What's the best part about being a cartoonist?

Although I love people and am blessed to have many friends, I'm a solitary person in many ways; I enjoy working alone, trying to create a consistently funny and authentic product without having to jump through hoops or operate as part of some sort of work team. I'm very grateful that my profession does not ask me to go on "team-building" retreats where a bunch of people have to pass an orange around a circle without using their hands or feet. That is my idea of hell. That and being a museum guard.

17. Have you met any of your cartoonist idols? Under what circumstances?

I had a number of phone conversations with Charles Schulz over the years, and that was always a thrill. I finally met him in person at the 1996 Reubens, which is the only Reubens weekend I've ever attended. That was the year Garry Trudeau won the Reuben -- finally -- and I had the chance to meet him briefly.

18. What advice would you give aspiring cartoonists?

I always equate cartooning to baseball. There's an adage that baseball is 90% pitching. I think cartooning is 90% writing. You see a lot of disappointed faces when you tell a group of young cartoonists to concentrate on their writing, but that's the key as far as I'm concerned. There are countless examples of great strips in which the artwork is simple, rough, or downright mediocre -- but the writing is outstanding, which makes the strip outstanding.

Look at Trudeau's original Yale cartoons. The artwork is very scratchy, almost primitive -- but it's 100% appropriate for the tenor and tone of the strip, and the writing is great. MORE than great. Trudeau really revolutionized comic strip writing in some ways.

19. How important are awards?

I've never won any, so I'll say not at all.

20. What’s something that nobody knows about you?

With only one more hole in my JiffyLube punch card, I will receive a free oil change.


Robert Gidley said...

Woah! Thanks for posting this interview, Scott! I, too, have loved and followed "Big Nate" for many years (I even bought some of the e-book collections which have plummeted in value because the software no longer works right), but it's hard to find anything on-line about Mr. Peirce.

I discovered that you can read all the "Big Nate" archives at (well, back to Jan 1, 2000, anyway) which is great fun.

I find it funny that to me "Big Nate" is a web comic, but Mr. Peirce doesn't read any web comics.

BTW, just how the heck do you pronounce his name? P-eye-rce?

Scott Nickel said...

That's a good question. I assumed it was pronounced "Pierce," as in Benjamin Pierce, Hawkeye Pierce, etc., but I could be wrong.

Maybe I should have made it 21 Questions.


Unknown said...

Hey Scott, Vic Lee here - great interview with Lincoln, loved hearing from him. He and I did a comic switch about 12-13 years ago when I did I Need help (a great NCS switcheroo day). Count me in for PMP.

Anonymous said...

The correct pronounciation of Linclon's last name is "Purse".