There’s an old song by the Carter Family called “Hello, Stranger.” It’s more or less a musical greeting in which the singer tells whoever is listening: “We don’t know each other, but let’s be friends.” I’m no singer, as anyone who’s heard me can surely attest. But I like the song. And I like making friends.
So: Hello, stranger. Welcome to my blog.
As I write this, it’s early January 2015, which means that my comic strip, Big Nate, has been in print for almost exactly twenty-four years. I’m pleased and proud to have hung around that long, because cartooning is not necessarily an easy way to make a living. But even at a young age, I got the feeling that it was an occupation that would suit me. I remember reading a quote from my boyhood idol, Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame, which went something like this: To be a cartoonist, you need to be a good artist, not a great artist; and a good writer, not a great writer. And I thought to myself: “I’ve found my dream job.”
But, finding my dream job didn’t mean I practiced a lot. The drawing shown here notwithstanding, I wasn’t one of those kids who spent countless hours mastering my craft. I loved to draw, but I enjoyed plenty of other things, too – like playing sports, watching Saturday morning TV shows, and having the occasional near-death experience while climbing trees or riding bikes. So even though I identified myself as a cartoonist starting in about 2nd or 3rd grade, I always knew there were plenty of other people who could draw better than I could (as Charlie Brown’s lower body in this masterpiece clearly indicates). To be honest, I spent more time reading comics than I did drawing them. I collected a few comic books avidly – Uncle Scrooge, Batman and Spiderman were some of my favorites – but my real passion was newspaper comic strips. Peanuts was at the very top, of course, but I read ‘em all. I loved B.C., Doonesbury, Andy Capp, Tumbleweeds, Blondie and Fred Basset. Later, in high school, I began to learn about the great strips from the Golden Age of comics, like Krazy Kat, Thimble Theatre, Terry and the Pirates, Little Nemo and Polly and Her Pals. And I read plenty of comics I DIDN’T like, too. That’s a good education in its own right.
My progression as a cartoonist through my teens and early twenties was not particularly noteworthy. In high school, I drew comics savaging the teachers I didn’t care for. (Good taste prohibits me from including any of them here.) And in college, I created a weekly comic strip called Third Floor. Here’s a sample:
It was basically a Doonesbury rip-off. And this might be the worst drawing of a moose in comics history. But that’s okay. Imitating other cartoonists’ styles, either consciously or unconsciously, is a stage most everyone goes through. So is drawing stuff – like a moose – you have no clue how to draw.
Speaking of having no clue, I’d begun submitting ideas to the major syndicates by this time. They were all terrible. I’ll give myself a small amount of credit for making incremental improvements with each submission, but progress was slow until I created a comic strip based on my childhood in New Hampshire. The characters, most of them kids, were loosely modeled on friends I’d grown up with. It was, literally, a neighborhood comic strip. I named it Neighborhood Comix. What an imaginative title!
Among the cast were two brothers: Nate on the left, and Marty on the right. Does Marty’s shirt look familiar?
Here’s what happened to Neighborhood Comix. United Media liked the strip, but thought that Nate looked too much like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. So I decided to turn the two brothers into one character. I kept Nate’s name, but made him look and act more like Marty, who had a bigger, more outrageous personality. Then I changed the name of the strip to reflect the fact that Nate was now unquestionably the main character. “Big Nate” was what I’d called my brother Jon when we were kids (long story), so I was already attached to the name. Neighborhood Comix was out. Big Nate was in.
(Quick note: This process actually took about a year and a half of blood, sweat and tears, but for brevity’s sake, I decided to limit this epic tale to one paragraph.)
And here’s the first-ever Big Nate daily strip, from January 7, 1991:
Check out Nate’s long, skinny legs! Poor kid, he’s actually grown shorter and stubbier with the passage of time. (And, thank goodness, my drawing skills have improved.) Anyway, back then the strip had only a handful of characters: Nate, Dad, Ellen, Francis, Jenny, Mrs. Godfrey and Mr. Rosa. Characters who have since become important contributors – Teddy, Chad, Coach John, Artur, Gina, Mrs. Shipulski, Principal Nichols, Spitsy, Mrs. Czerwicki, School Picture Guy and others – have been added along the way. Some of them are really fun to draw and write for, and it’s impossible for me to imagine the strip without them. But Nate is the star of the show, and always will be.
When I’m asked to describe Nate, I often say that he’s his own biggest fan. He’s only eleven years old, remember, and I think most kids that age tend to be interested primarily in their own lives – not because they’re selfish or conceited, but because eleven year-old children aren’t SUPPOSED to be filled with empathy and humility and all that stuff. That’s what adulthood is for, and Nate’s definitely not an adult yet. So I don’t want to make him wise beyond his years, or endow him with traits that an eleven-year-old couldn’t possibly possess. I want him to look, act, and sound like a real kid. Real, but not ordinary. He’s a little more over-the-top than your everyday 6th grader, but after all, it’s a cartoonist’s job to exaggerate.
Soon after I started the strip, I discovered that the jokes and stories I enjoyed the most were the ones that focused on Nate’s school experiences. That wasn’t a surprise, since I’d been a high school art teacher/baseball coach for three years after finishing graduate school. So P.S. 38, the school where Nate attends 6th grade (year after year), moved to the center of the strip and stayed there. I like it that way. Schools can be very funny places. Here are a few strips I like dealing with school themes:
After 24 years of this, I have to admit that coming up with fresh, funny ideas is getting more challenging. But my routine hasn’t really changed. I begin each day by reading the comics in each of the two morning newspapers. (My favorite strip is Monty, by my friend Jim Meddick. Hilarious.) Then I go to my office, which is a three-second commute across the dining room, and get to work. I write and doodle in small sketchbooks or on Post-it notes, and that usually helps spark an idea or two.
And when the time comes to actually draw a strip, I’m still using the same supplies I started with all those years ago.
- 14” x 17” smooth Bristol board
- panel stencil
- wooden ruler
- non-photo blue pencil
- correcting tape
- Staedtler pigment liners
I have made a couple of concessions to technology. I now color my Sunday pages in Photoshop instead of using colored pencils. And I scan my strips and upload them to some sort of magical dropbox called Cyberduck instead of sending my original drawings to the syndicate via U.S. mail. Otherwise, though, I create the strip just the way I did when I started it back in ’91. I sketch it lightly in blue pencil, then do all the drawing, lettering, and shading by hand in ink. Part of that’s due to the fact that I’m a technophobe, but mostly it’s because I just like the way my stuff looks when it’s hand-drawn. And it helps me stay connected to the strip and the characters when I draw each panel individually, rather than use the copy/paste tool to replicate the same drawing time after time.
I’ve been very fortunate. In a day and age when newspapers are struggling and many cartoonists are losing clients, my work has been able to reach an entirely new generation of readers, thanks to a series of illustrated Big Nate novels published by HarperCollins. I wrote the first one in 2009, it came out in 2010, and suddenly – without really knowing what I was doing – I was known as a children’s book author. It was kind of terrifying at first, but I’ve since become more accustomed to the idea. I go on book tours, speak at schools and bookstores, and do signings at events like BookExpo America and New York Comic Con. I’ve attended the premiere of “Big Nate: The Musical” at Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo, Maryland. I’ve even been a guest on the Today Show for taking part in a successful effort to break the world record for the longest comic strip by a team. This highly unlikely mid-career turn of events has been a real blessing for my family and me, and I’m very grateful.
But I’m still a cartoonist, first and foremost, and the comic strip is my real love. Someday soon, I’ll stop writing the Big Nate novels. A book series can’t, and shouldn’t, continue indefinitely. Comic strips, though, are forever, and I’d like to keep mine going for a long time to come. I enjoy my work. I still get a kick out of coming up with good gags and storylines. It’s still a thrill to see my work in print every day. And it’s an honor to meet and become friends with so many other cartoonists whose work I admire.
Big Nate is sometimes described as a “kids’ strip,” and, even though I write it for readers of all ages, I don’t mind that label one bit. Childhood is when most of us first become aware of cartooning, and if my strip gets some young people interested in comics, I’m all for it. One of the joys of my life is getting letters from kids telling me – sometimes in words, sometimes in pictures – that Big Nate matters to them in some way. Which brings me back to how I started this blog. These kids aren’t people I know. Chances are I’ll never meet them in person. But they’ve taken the time to write to me and tell me a little bit about themselves. Isn’t that just another way of saying “Hello, stranger”?
Thanks for reading!