Lincoln Peirce remembers the transition from fifth to sixth grade as seismic.

The girls were prettier, the boys bigger and the humiliations crushing.

“There’s a lot to write about in those years,” Peirce said, barely suppressing a chuckle at the unpleasant memory.

Peirce brings those humiliations to the printed page in the form of his comic strip “Big Nate.” The strip has evolved into a series of books, and this week Portland Ovations brings a touring musical production of “Big Nate” to the big stage of Merrill Auditorium.

It’s the latest success for 51-year-old Peirce, who lives in Portland with his wife, painter Jessica Gandolf.

“Every cartoonist in the world has thought, ‘If I could only get my stuff in front of more people.’ That’s happened for me,” he said.

Adventure Theatre of Glen Echo, Maryland, has turned Peirce’s comic strip into a traveling musical for families, in which Big Nate Wright attempts to win over a would-be girlfriend by facing down a schoolboy rival in a Battle of the Bands contest. Portland Ovations presents the 60-minute show for school groups Friday morning and for a public performance at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Peirce – pronounced “Purse” – called the experience of having a comic strip turned into a stage show exciting and humbling. “But what’s most satisfying is the idea that this thing that is really accessible to kids is out there,” he said.

Gretchen Berg, director of Portland Ovations offstage programming, said it was an easy decision to bring “Big Nate” to Portland. It’s a good family show, which are sometimes hard to find, so Portland Ovations likely would have booked it regardless of Peirce’s residency here, she said. His living here made the decision all the easier.

“We spend a lot of time making sure whatever we bring connects to our community,” she said. “In this case, we get to connect in so many ways. Lincoln is our hometown hero. He’s right here.”

More than 400 newspapers, including the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, run “Big Nate.” In 2010, Peirce began a series of chapter books. So far, he’s published six, and is working on a seventh.

And now there’s a musical.

In the interest of full disclosure, Peirce had little to do with creating the musical, other than hatching the original idea that led to it. He got a call less than two years ago from Michael Bobbitt, Adventure Theatre’s producing artistic director. Bobbitt liked the “Big Nate” the comic strip and thought the title character would translate well to the stage.

Peirce admitted feeling trepidation with the idea. “You’re always worried when you put your stuff in the hands of other people,” he said.

Nonetheless, he gave his consent, asking only for the chance to review the dialogue after the script was written to ensure Big Nate and his buddies sounded on stage as he heard them in his head.

He traveled to Maryland to see the show and loved it. He knew it was being prepared for a tour, but only when Portland Ovations called to let him know it was coming to Merrill did he learn that the touring version had actually launched.

In the strip, Big Nate is forever 11. He doesn’t age. He lives in a city that dedicated readers might recognize as Portland, but Peirce never names it. Instead, he sprinkles his story with hints. The leaves fall in autumn. It snows in the winter. Big Nate is a big Red Sox fan. And he sometimes walks streets that look like real-life Portland streets.


While the strip is meant for a general readership audience, the books target kids a lot like Nate: 7- to 12-year-olds who are discovering the world beyond their playrooms and neighborhood playgrounds.

They are coming of age in complicated times.

Peirce has drawn a fair amount of himself in the strip, modeling it after some of his adolescent experiences.

He grew up in Durham, New Hampshire, the son of a college professor. He’s a lifelong Red Sox fan and has maintained an interest in music since college. He’s a wannabe musician and counts among his life goals learning to play the guitar or another instrument. He reveres the Beatles and hosts a vintage country music show on Monday mornings on the community radio station WMPG-FM.

He named Big Nate’s band Enslave the Mollusk, which also has a true-life story.

“Our son, when he was in sixth grade, came home from school one day all excited and said, ‘Dad, I’m in a rock ‘n’ roll band!’ I said, ‘A rock ‘n’ roll band? What do you mean? You play the viola.'”

The band lasted one rehearsal, but the name survived.

Growing up, Peirce read Foster’s Daily Democrat, published in New Hampshire, and the Boston Globe. He became interested in comic strips by reading “Peanuts” every day in the newspaper. His allowance was $1 a week, and “Peanuts” books cost 50 cents. He bought two books a week.

Later, he became a fan of “Doonesbury” and old-time strips, such as “Li’l Abner” and “Krazy Kat.”

His library shelves are lined with CDs and comic and illustrated books.

Peirce and Gandolf moved to Portland from New York in 1992, looking for a fresh start. Peirce was just coming into his own as a cartoonist, and Gandolf was complementing her art career by waitressing tables.

Moving to Portland meant he could continue his strip, which had just been syndicated, and she could concentrate solely on painting.

Their son is a senior at Bowdoin College and their daughter is a senior at The Waynflete School. Both were born in Portland, and raised in the family’s home in the Deering neighborhood.

“We love Portland,” Peirce said. “We have found Portland to be a great art town and a good town to be self-employed. We felt right at home because there are so many people in Portland who were like us: They were in their 20s and trying to find a way to cobble together a living.”

The comic strip is his first love, and he wants to keep it going as long as newspapers want to run it. Conversely, he thinks his books will come to a close “before much longer.”

“There’s a point at which you don’t want to repeat yourself,” he said.

Peirce is an old-school cartoonist. He calls himself a Luddite, because he draws by hand. He sketches lightly in pencil, then inks his illustration. He makes one concession to technology, using Photoshop to color his Sunday strip, but he hand-draws dialogue. These days, many cartoonists create a font on the computer and type the dialogue. Peirce likes the old-style approach. “It’s like receiving a hand-written letter in the mail,” he said.

Peirce plans to attend both performances of “Big Nate” in Portland and will greet fans and sign books after Saturday’s show.