Friday, November 26, 2010


The Autumn Society recently had the pleasure to review Joe Fly Private Eye 2 (In Big Hairy Drama), written by Aaron Reynolds & illustrated by Neil Numberman.

The book is a fun blend of humor, noir, mystery solving, and of course bugs! A perfect formula for a graphic novel for kids!

Aaron and Neil were super nice enough to answer some questions about the new book and their creative process in this exclusive Autumn Society interview. Aaron & Neil will also be visiting the blog frequently, so please feel free to leave comments or ask any questions you have for them.

What a scoop! (Interview by Chogrin)

What first inspired you to be an artist / writer?
Neil: Probably the first crayon I ever picked up. It didn’t take much.

Aaron: I started as an actor and did lots of live theatre for kids and loved it. From there, I started writing plays for kids and that was only a short jump to writing kids’ books.

How did you two meet or start collaborating?
Neil: Aaron and I actually did not meet until earlier this year, well after the first Joey Fly’s release! And we barely collaborated, in the traditional sense. The entire process went through our editor at Henry Holt, Reka Simonsen, who pretty much had final say on all matters. She’s actually the one that paired us together.

Aaron: Yep. When I first saw Neil’s sketches of Joey Fly, I didn’t care for them at all. I was stumped by the fact that he had no pupils in his eyes and no mouth. How was he going to sustain 800 panels of a graphic novel when the main character didn’t have any pupils or mouth!? But when my editor expresses my concerns to Neil, he proved me wrong fantastically…he sent the editor 50 thumbnails of Joey in various states of emotion. Then he did 2 sketches of Joey MY way…with normal eyes and a mouth. MY way sucked. There was no doubt he knew what he was doing. The result was a character far more funky, fun, and unique than any I would have come up with. I’m thrilled with how Neil has created these characters.

Neil: Woot! Aaron gets to see the character designs in the beginning, then the sketches when I’m finished with them, and then the finals, but that’s it. I’ll get notes from him during each phase, but there always filtered through the publisher. Reka did a great job with that, too, making sure we were both happy with the outcome without letting us get ahead of ourselves. I suppose that’s one great advantage to working that way.

What successes or experiences did you learn from the first book?
Neil: I learned it’s worth working extra hard on a book. Unlike an editorial illustration, which ends up in tomorrow’s recycling can, a children’s book can be very important to some people. I’m still hanging on to most of my books from when I was a kid, and I’m sure those artists are happy they went the extra mile too.
And that can be difficult, putting in all that work. Back when I was starting Creepy Crawly Crime, putting in twelve hour days just to get one page finished, years away from the book ever building an audience, it was tough. But now I’m happy I did. Because that thing’s out there, with my name on it!

Aaron: From a writing perspective, I learned that mysteries are hard. This was my first mystery book in a traditional sense, and it would have been easy to write the ending first and then backtrack and make sure all the clues lined up…I was tempted to do that many times. But, in the end, I made myself discover the mystery along the way, just like Joey Fly. I knew what had happened in the crime, but I had to let Joey discover it for himself.

What is your ultimate goal for this series? How many books?
Neil: I’d just love to have the opportunity to work on more of them. It’s so much fun! But for that to happen, they have to be profitable for everyone, so I guess my ultimate goal is that the series becomes self-sustaining.

Aaron: Agreed. We both have ideas for many more, but before we can jump there, the publisher needs to see a following being built. You read ‘em, we’ll keep making ‘em.

Cartoons? Movies? Toys? Activities? Plush? Puppets?
Joey Fly Dolls
Neil: That’d all be fantastic! I had a great time making the book trailer last year, and would love to do that on a larger scale. There’s been some talk of movies, but I’m not holding my breath.

Aaron: Yeah, no breath holding. If it happens, it happens.

Neil: I’m having a lot of fun working with the characters. We’ve made some paper dolls, masks, ornaments, etc. My friend made me some dolls a couple years ago for my birthday, and that was really cool!
I’d be into mass marketing stuff like puppets or action figures, but Joey and Sammy have sixteen limbs between the two of them, so that won’t be easy!

Joey Fly Xmas Ornaments (Print & Cut out!)

Joey Fly Xmas Ornaments (Print & Cut out!)

Watch the animated trailer!

What inspired you to create this world in the first place? Tell us some of your influences in noir / bugs / art, etc.
Neil: I knew when I first read the script of Creepy Crawly Crime I’d have to brush up on my film noir. The film that’s helped me the most as far as camera angles, lighting, city backdrop, would be The Maltese Falcon. That movie has it all, plus some pretty hilarious “fight” scenes.
I really want Bug City to be rich in detail. More than anything, Martin Handford’s Waldo books really inspired me through the first two Joeys. He’ll draw thousands of people, animals, and monsters in a single spread, and every one of them is involved in a gag! Whether they’re antagonizing, or suffering, or reacting, everyone is involved. That was a huge inspiration for the world I created.
Big Hairy Drama mostly takes place in a theatre, and as I spent five years working at the Merriam Theatre while I went to school at UARTs, it was a subject I knew well! So I got in touch with my former bosses, took a day trip down, and took hundreds of references of the inside of the theatre. More than half the book, really, takes place at the Merriam!
Recognize it?

Aaron: I’d been a fan of farce mystery…Scooby Doo of my youth, the Clue movie starring Tim Curry, even the real stuff like Agatha Christie. Christie’s Evil Under the Sun is fantastic. As far as bugs go, they just make great characters. There are so many different kids and they’re so funky and unique. It gives you a limitless diverse cast of characters to work with, each with their own physical differences, defenses, and hangups.

What are some of the most gratifying things that you get from what you do? Seeing kids smile? Inspiring kids?
Neil: The best moments for me are when I’m touring or out promoting the book and kids start drawing Joey and Sammy on their own. And that’s the highest form of flattery. I know, because when I was their age, if I was drawing popular cartoon characters, like the Ninja Turtles, or Garfield, or Mario, it meant I truly loved them. I’ve gotten some pretty great fan mail from kids, and that always makes my day, especially when they reference a part of the book. It justifies all those late nights I put in!
Fan art! Isaac © 2009

Aaron: I LOVE seeing kids plowing through the book, excited and pulled into the characters. But I think the most satisfying thing for me is holding the finished book in my hands. It really is a work of art, just as an item itself, like a painting or a sculpture. I admire the deftness of the panel flow, the smooth-shiny feel of the cover, little moments of detail (for you actors out there, did you notice the spike-marks Neil put all over the stage in those scenes…a thing of beauty.) Just as an object of art, commercial or not, it’s quite special.

What recommendations can you give to aspiring writers & illustrators that would like to do what you're doing? Contact Art Directors? Post Your Stuff everywhere? Get in contact with people you want to work with?
Neil: Just be committed. I know that’s trite advice, but watching my peers from back in my UARTs days, they drop off one by one from the art world, and that’s depressing. These were talented people! It’s a rocky road right out of school, but you have to put your 10,000 hours before the real fun work starts to come in.
I’ll stick to giving advice to the children’s book illustrators here, though: The children’s book industry is full of passionate people who absolutely love what they do, and if you do too, it will show. Get out to any and all children’s book events, because publishers are there, trust me. Pass around your card (my card is how I first got my foot in the door at Henry Holt), reference your favorite books and shows and artists when you were growing up, and get emails. Oh, and make a website. You instantly have a 4000% better chance getting a job when there’s a place anyone can see your work.
And make sure you introduce yourself to the people who are hiring illustrators, not just other illustrators!

Aaron: There’s little I can add to that except prepare for rejection. But the path to success is truly paved with rejection. I got over 300 rejection letters over the course of 5 years before I sold my first book. It’s just how it works.

When your first started this project, did you pitch it to a publisher? Or did a publisher come to you to do it?
Neil: I just happened to be meeting with the publishers around the time his script was making its way around the office, and so Reka asked if I would do some samples. I still remember, she wanted one sample page, sketched, and one sample page, finished.
I went all out. There was no way I wasn’t getting this job. I gave her character sketches, a real polished sketch page, and a finish that even then had the monochromatic look. I basically put everything else on hold in my life to make sure I represented myself as best I could.

And it worked. St. Patrick’s Day, 2006, one of the best days of my life, I was offered not one but two book deals for Joey Fly!

Aaron: It works a little different on the writing side. No publishers come looking for me. I have to write a finished book and then sell it to a publisher. The beauty of that is that I get to write about whatever I want…nobody is telling me to create a book about bunnies.

What are some of the future projects you'll be working on besides this series? Do you plan on collaborating more?
Neil: I’m currently writing a series of heavily illustrated chapter books, and getting close to finding a publisher for them. It’s been a lot of fun to write so far, but has that extra pressure of being completely mine, unlike Joey Fly.

I would love to work with Aaron again! Besides future Joey Flys, I know he’s had me in mind for some of his other projects, but ultimately the publishers get final say.

Aaron: I second that. Neil’s work is fantastic and I really hope we get a chance to work together again. I have several projects in process, including a new graphic novel series about two cavemen (hoping Neil gets in the running for illustrating that one!) and a new mock-horror picture book about a bunny who thinks he’s being stalked by evil carrots.

What is your process in illustrating the book? Do you thumbnail the entire book and then go to final? If so, could you share some of your rough sketches with us?
Neil: The first thing I get is the manuscript, which in this case looks like a screenplay. I start by breaking it up into panels and pages, just by numbering each line and writing notes in the margins.

Then I thumbnail the entire book. I like to do this in bed, because the process is very similar to reading. It keeps me in a very receptive mode and helps the pacing of the story stay relaxed. After all, it’s in that relaxed state that most readers will be reading the book!
After the publishers take a look at the thumbnails (although I don’t know what they get out of them, they’re so sloppy!) I start the sketches.

The sketches are my favorite part. I get to draw all the characters and cityscapes, cryptic clues and crazy bugs. It’s definitely the most creative part of it, but it requires a lot of concentration. It took me three months to sketch out Big Hairy Drama.

Finally, I do the finishes, which can be real tedious. There’s not nearly as much to do creatively, but plenty to do carefully! I have to trace all the sketches, which I do with 2B pencils (instead of ink) and it’s killer on the hand. The coloring, which is done in Photoshop, is mind-numbing as well. Any scene with a crowd, I can expect a long day. To make it even more dull, the entire book is first done in grayscale, so I have flexibility in the end.

But after that, I get to choose the colors for each scene, and that’s a blast. We really had a lot of fun with the color choices in this book, to create different moods and atmospheres depending on the scene.
And when that’s all done, I wait six months to see the finished product! And I couldn’t be happier. Joey Fly and the Big Hairy Drama is my proudest achievement as an artist to date and I hope it’s as well-received as the first book!
finish... And thus begins another adventure…

Buy Joey Fly on Amazon HERE
Follow Joey Fly on Twitter (


Aaron Reynolds is a human, not a bug, but he often writes about bugs. He is the author of Chicks and Salsa, Superhero School, Snowbots, and, of course, the Joey Fly, Private Eye graphic novels. Visit him at his website at

Neil Numberman is a termite currently residing in New York City. Joey Fly, Private Eye his first graphic novel series, but he is also the author/illustrator of the picture book Do NOT Build a Frankenstein. Stop by his website at


Anonymous said...

So awesome! I see your city backgrounds are involved, specially the buildings. What's your inspiration when drawing them?

pw! said...

Heck Yeah! what an amazing epic post!!!

if anyone accidentally slept on the first Joey Fly, do yourself a favor and grab BOTH of these. i can't wait to get #2 delivered. Joey Fly puts me back to just the right impressionable age when i had some peculiar book that just stuck with me forever underneath the influences. anything by Numberman (and Reynolds) always make me laugh out loud and wanting to read more, and Neil's art has so much to take in.

i really appreciate getting to read this interview. a lot of us would kill to be published authors illustrators and cartoonists and it's just awesome seeing other Autumn and Uarts alum out there working hard and making things happen.