19 November 2015

When Nate Wright Met Greg Heffley

Yesterday’s post left aspiring comic-strip artist Jeff Kinney working at an online “edutainment” company while corresponding with full-time comic-strip artist Lincoln Peirce.

As I described back here, Kinney’s employer saw some potential in a middle-grade novel in diary form that he was working on. At his boss’s suggestion, he added more illustrations and shared the novel day by day on the company’s website.

That story found a young online audience quickly, a book deal only after a couple of years. That was the start of the huge Diary of a Wimpy Kid phenomenon, now stronger than ever.

Kinney continued to work at that company until relatively recently, overseeing the launch of Poptropica. That online videogame platform is built around “islands,” each having its own game and style. Kinney asked his friend Peirce if he was interested in licensing the Big Nate comic strip to the site.

In 2010 the Washington Post reported what happened:
On Valentine's Day last year, Poptropica launched "Big Nate Island," the interactive world of sixth-grader Nate Wright and his adventures as a "self-described genius" and "all-time record-holder for detentions in school history."

Kids went wild. "All I remember is that Jeff called me after the first 48 hours and said: 'You crashed the server,' " Peirce recalls. "It was their biggest launch by 20 percent."

The sudden online popularity of "Big Nate" led to Peirce's long-sought major book deal, with no less than HarperCollins. "Big Nate: In a Class by Himself" just spent 11 straight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
That first Big Nate book series is one of many modeled on Diary of a Wimpy Kid: prose with lots of line art, paper-over-board covers, humorous slice-of-life stories, and so on. Its success prompted the comic strip’s syndicate to finally issue Big Nate comics collections. Meaning that after years of having no books and a daily deadline, Lincoln Peirce had two fast-selling book series and an audience beyond newsprint.

And all because he’d been nice enough to write back to an aspiring young college artist. It’s almost as if this publishing story has a moral.

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