After writing and illustrating eight novels about irrepressible sixth grader Big Nate, Lincoln Peirce takes a different thematic and temporal tack in his latest fictional outing. Due this month from Crown with a 150,000-copy first printing, Max & the Midknights centers on a 10-year-old who begrudgingly serves as a troubadour’s apprentice, aspiring instead to be a knight in the medieval kingdom of Byjovia. When the troubadour, Uncle Budrick, is kidnapped by the cruel King Gastley, Max and a band of intrepid adventurers—the Midknights—embark on a quest to rescue Budrick and restore Byjovia to its former glory. Peirce talked with PW about venturing into the Middle Ages with his would-be knight, his ongoing Big Nate comic strip, and what his creative future might hold.
Moving from Big Nate’s contemporary world to the 14th century is a significant leap! What inspired your choice of setting for Max & the Midknights?
When I stopped writing Big Nate novels after doing eight, I took a little break and then began casting around for an idea for something different. Years ago, I had fiddled around with a kind of spoof story on The Sword in the Stone, and I dug that out. I remembered that I’d enjoyed working on it, but the story had never gone anywhere. It was an upbeat spoof about a boy named Conrad who doesn’t realize that he’s destined to be king.
Did Conrad morph into Max?
Not exactly. As I reread the story, I realized I was less interested in the Sword in the Stone aspect, and more interested in a medieval adventure with a comedic twist. I started working on the story again and pushed the Conrad character into the margins to create a new protagonist. Actually, the title, Max & the Midknights, came to me first, and I really liked it, so I went from there.
After publishing eight Big Nate novels, was it a challenge to face a clean slate as you created Max’s story?
It was very exciting, but a little daunting too. From a drawing standpoint, it’s always a challenge to design a new character and figure out what he or she will look like and how they are going to move. I have to consistently teach and remind myself how to draw the character, while with Big Nate’s character, who was so familiar to me, there was no danger that the drawings would change over the course of book. With Max, I had to be very diligent. I was telling a story in a different time period and was telling what is first and foremost an adventure story, which is something I hadn’t done before. The Big Nate novels have plenty of action, but they aren’t adventure stories. I wanted Max & the Midknights to be an old-fashioned, almost quest-like story.
Once I knew the story I wanted to tell, I got very excited about it, and really enjoyed diving into researching the historical aspects—what the architecture and the characters’ clothing might have looked like. It was not a deep dive, but it was really interesting and fun.
What, from your perspective, is the intrinsic and enduring appeal of medieval times and heroes to young readers?
I’m not exactly sure, though it’s something I have thought about a lot. It’s a period that many people become intrigued by as children. In my case, I became aware of the Robin Hood story at a very young age. I remember watching a Looney Tune cartoon where Daffy Duck was Robin Hood—and that really imprinted itself on me. And then, when I was eight or nine, I stumbled upon The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. I was totally enchanted by the swashbuckling element of the story, and the idea that action and lighthearted comedy can coexist so happily. I watched that movie again recently and realized there’s something I really love about that combination of humor and medieval times.
Your biographical sketch in the book notes that the illustrations in Max employ “the language of comics.” What does that mean to you?
To me, it means that the visuals are working in concert with the text. There is a progression to the panels, from up-and-down and from side-to-side. You see beads of sweat, lightbulbs going off, and of course speech balloons. All of these were invented on comics pages.
Despite your new book’s departure in setting and genre, the pages echo the look of the Big Nate novels, featuring a similar balance of words and pictures. How do you describe that format?
“Hybrid” is the word I usually use. The books I’ve written are not pure graphic novels, since they include text that is separate from the art. But they are also not illustrated books, in which an illustration would sit just as well on page 55 as it would on page 56. I like using a comics format that goes back and forth with the text—it’s a fun challenge to make them work together seamlessly. This is a format I like reading and I like creating. Again, hybrid says it best. When I visit schools and stores, I often see my books on the graphic novels shelf—and that’s fine with me. But in my own mind there is a distinction. I do love graphic novels, and someday I’d like to write a straight graphic novel.
You’ve blogged that, though you’ve stopped creating Big Nate novels, your syndicated Big Nate comic strips will continue to appear for as long as you’re able to hold a pen. Why the certainty?
I grew up reading and loving comics, and creating comics has such a hold on me. I think if you ask any cartoonist around my age how they first became interested in comics, they will start talking about Peanuts and how important that strip was to them. I am no different. Charles Schulz was hugely influential to me, and when I talk about falling in love with comics, more specifically, I fell in love with the rhythm of Schulz’s four-panel format in his daily comics.
Did you gravitate toward that same format yourself?
Yes, when I began my own comics, I made them four panels. When you’re writing comic strips, you have to figure out how the dialogue is going to play out over four panels. If you decide what will appear in panel four, you then have to figure out exactly how you’ll get there in panels one, two, and three. I love that challenge, and I also like the challenge of, as Schulz put it—and I’m paraphrasing very freely here—telling the same jokes over and over while keeping it fresh, and revisiting the same themes without repeating yourself. One of the charms of creating comic strips over many years is making them familiar enough that readers can almost predict what will happen—but still be surprised. When that happens, it means I’m doing my job well.
You obviously have lots of experience juggling creative projects. While continuing your Big Nate strips, might you tackle another novel about Max and the Midknights?
Initially, I signed a one-book deal, though I have since agreed to rewrite another Max book. I plan to take it one book at a time. I certainly don’t foresee a series that would go on as long as Big Nate, though I thought the first book in that series was a one-off. I’m about to start a seven-city book tour, and then I’ll regather myself, start work on the second Max book, and then decide what’s next. But I will say that I’ve really enjoyed all the time I’ve spent with Max and these other characters.
Can you give any clues as to where Max’s second adventure may lead?
The storyline is still totally up in air. In this first book, Max travels with Uncle Budrick, and I realize that kids may wonder what happened to the protagonist’s parents, so I may write about that. And I will definitely have to come up with a couple of new villains, since Max dispatched the villain in the first book quite handily. I do look forward to seeing what Max does next!
Max & the Midknights by Lincoln Peirce. Crown, $13.99 Jan. ISBN 978-1-101-93108-0