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An interview with Joey Fly creators
Aaron Reynolds and
Neil Numberman

Last year Aaron & Neil taught us how to create a graphic novel with a demonstration from their 2009 debut Joey Fly. Well, the creepy-crawly duo is back and so is Joey, in his new buggy sequel. Aaron & Neil shed some insight on the process of creating a second book in a series.

If you like Aaron & Neil’s buggy caricatures, be sure to leave a comment. Neil will create you in buglife! For every 10 comments, we’ll randomly select one caricature winner. Good luck!

Aaron and Neil, in creating the Joey Fly sequel, what cues did you take from the first book?

Aaron: I had established Joey and Sammy in the first book, and obviously that was staying the same, but I wanted to build on their relationship and take it to the next level. I think we did it…Sammy develops a love interest, but he’s in over his head. Joey still considers Sammy as much hindrance as help, but his concern for Sammy continues to deepen along the way.

I also really wrestled with the format of a customer showing up on the doorstep with a case for them to solve. That’s a very clear format for these types of books, a kind of throwback to old detective mysteries, Encyclopedia Brown, Scooby Doo, and Veronica Mars models of mystery, and works well for a kids’ mystery. In the end, I decided to keep things in that format, but I’ve also been intrigued to explore the idea of a mystery evolving right around Joey and Sammy, like you see happen in old Agatha Christie movies. I’m exploring that for an upcoming book in the series.

Neil: There were a lot of things I wanted to bring from the first book for consistency’s sake. I start and end each book off with a one panel spread, which is an attempt to bring the readers into our world smoothly. We also stuck with the monochromatic look, which keeps that film noir vibe, but with many new colors in this book for many new themes. It’s actually something I wanted to get away from with this second book, but our editor, Reka Simonsen, was very smart and steered me back. I’m glad she did, especially based on the reception of the first book. Folks seem to dig the look, and it’s ours now! It lets us stand apart from the other kids’ graphic novels out there.

What things changed?

Aaron: I think the mystery itself is better. I was torn in the first book between whether the mystery was too easy for a kid to solve before the end, or just right. That’s further complicated because this is a series that’s really accessible to mid-elementary kids, but also a great read for the 4th-8th grade set. In book #2, I feel like I got the balance just right. Writing mystery is a challenge unto itself. I hope, like all things, the more I do it, the better I get!

The other challenge is that, unlike many kids’ books, these characters aren’t kids. They live in an adult bug world…so the challenge becomes to create situations and obstacles that are kid-friendly and kid accessible, that you still believe these characters would encounter in the world we’ve created.

Neil: On my end, the quality in the art has really evolved, for the better. The character design has tightened up for Joey and Sammy, the city scenes are more involved. My favorite change, and I mentioned it above, is that I get to use the monochromatic look a lot more. Sometimes it’s used to set mood, sometimes as symbolism (the color I chose for Trixie Featherfeelers’ dressing room was very deliberate), and sometimes just to set up a joke.

I also played around with the panels a lot more, trying to make it more fun. I was so nervous with the first book, and I was very worried that my decisions would ruin the story, so the panel boxes are very tight and rigid. I had a lot more fun with the visual narrative in this one; tall panels, short panels, heart-shaped panels, no panel borders, it was a lot more fun.

As far as the actual drawing, this book takes place during a cold snap, so I got to draw a lot of bugs in scarves, jackets, and snowcaps!

How did you develop new characters?

Aaron: I knew I wanted to set the book in a theatre, and that was a cue for the characters that evolved to tell the story. I wanted a ridiculous Alan Rickman from GalaxyQuest type character…addicted to the craft of theatre…and that came out in Fleeago. But it’s also fun playing with ethnicity and age. So we have a South American tarantula, and a geezer skeeter. Bottom line…bugs make fantastic characters and give you so much to explore because they themselves are so unique.

Neil: The characters Aaron made in this one are brilliant. I’ve always been fascinated with great characters, from Charles Dickens’ to J.K. Rowling’s, and Aaron really knows what he’s doing there. There’s nothing more fun in the process than creating the character sketches; a grandiose, dramatic tarantula, a villainous stinkbug, a love-struck gypsy moth, and a geriatric mosquito. They were a lot of fun to draw over and over again. Oh, and let’s not forget, an entire bedbug chorus.

Since you had already been paired for the first book, with the second title, did you collaborate more?

Neil: There was about as much collaboration between the two of us directly as there was with the first Joey Fly… none. The entire process of the books goes through the editor, and I think that benefits all parties involved. And of course, the publisher has every right to look over all communication, since, y’know, they’re paying us!

So I don’t see the manuscript until it’s basically whittled down to what you see in the book. I might request a line here or there to help the flow of the art. From then on, Aaron gets some say on the art, especially the character design, but really doesn’t see much until the finishes. And after that it’s just minor changes and adjustments that he requests.

Aaron: All true, we never collaborate during the creation of the book itself. It’s amazing what happens when you take two artists, a writer and an illustration, and unleash them completely separately on the same story. They each develop their own vision for it and something truly magical happens that doesn’t quite happen in the same way when you are working side by side on a project. Having said that, I love collaboration and hope Neil and I will have the chance to partner down the road on a project in a more give and take way. Would be fun!

Are there more Joey Fly books in the works?

Aaron: I’ve already written a third book for the series and started a fourth. Neil and I love the characters and hope to continue the series with many more.

Neil: I really hope we get to do another. I suppose it all depends on the performance of this one, but Aaron’s told me some key components of the plot, and I already have a cover and more monochromatic themes in mind. Without saying too much, it involves maybe one of my most favorite things of all time: ghosts. Jeez, I hope I get the chance to draw insect ghosts!

Aaron: Book #3 contains ghosts, taxidermy, a run-down barrio, a pipe organ, a big game hunter, an orphanage in trouble, and two insect nuns. With that much of a sneak peek, you should be able to solve the mystery yourself!

Aaron Reynolds is a human, not a bug, but he often writes about bugs. He is the author of Chicks and Salsa, Superhero School, Buffalo Wings, and, of course, the Joey Fly, Private Eye graphic novels.

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

Be sure to leave a comment for Aaron and Neil. For every 10 comments, we’ll randomly select one winner to receive a bug caricature by Neil! Good luck!

by Aaaron Reynolds & Neil Numberman

(Interior. Aaron Reynolds, a writer of children’s books and graphic novels, is sitting at his writing desk. He’s typing, but suddenly stops when a shadow falls over his screen. It’s a kid, about ten or eleven.)

Aaron: (looking up) Hey.

Kid:     Hey. Whatcha doin’?

Aaron: Um…writing. Who are you? What are you doing in my writing room?

Kid:     I’m just some random kid.

Aaron: Ah. A random kid in my writing room. Okay.

Kid:     Yeah. Act like I’m not here. (pause…Aaron starts to get back to work, but is interrupted) Aren’t you an author?

Aaron: (turning back around) Ignore you, huh? That’s gonna be tricky. Yeah. I write kid’s books and graphic novels.

Kid:     Graphic novels? Like comic books?

Aaron: Kinda.

Kid:     Whatcha writing now?

Aaron: An article about how a graphic novel gets made, but I wanted to write it LIKE a graphic novel, so that’s what I’m doing.

Kid:     But…there’s no pictures. A graphic novel has lots of pictures.

Aaron: Not at first. Not mine anyway.

Kid:     What?

Aaron: Seriously. I don’t draw.

Kid:     I must have the wrong house then. I thought the dude that lives here makes graphic novels.

Aaron: I do. But I don’t draw them….I write them.

(Kid pauses while he thinks about this, then…)

Kid:     That’s messed up.

Aaron: No, it’s not.

Kid:     You can’t make a graphic novel without being able to draw.

Aaron: Well, I do. Like my new graphic novel…it’s called Joey Fly, Private Eye

Kid:     Way to work that in there. Nice plug. Smooth.

Aaron: Yeah, thanks. Well, Joey Fly starts out like this. A script, just like this one.

Kid:     Just the stuff people say?

Aaron: Mostly. I also write in what I see happening in each scene.

(Kid flops into a big cushy chair and puts his feet on Aaron’s writing desk, makes himself at home. He looks at Aaron like he’s lost his mind.)

Aaron: See? Like that. It’s called “stage directions.”

Kid:     Oh cool! Like actions and stuff!

Aaron: Yeah, exactly.

Kid:     Do it again.

(Kid gets up, kind of excited now. He’s putting it all together in his head, but then he notices a fresh sandwich on Aaron’s desk. Goes over, lifts the bread…he’s kinda hungry…but decides he doesn’t like tuna. Flops back down in the chair.)

Kid:     Hey, that’s awesome how you made me do all that stuff! And I do hate tuna.

Aaron: It’s a script. In the graphic novel, I write the story. I come up with the characters. In Joey Fly, Private Eye, I create what happens, what characters are in it, all that stuff. Then I put it into a story…a script like this.

Kid:     But it’s not a graphic novel. No pictures.

Aaron: Not yet. It will be soon. But first, I break it into panels.

Kid:     Panels?

Aaron: Like this. Chunks. How I imagine it will get broken into boxes in the finished graphic novel. This helps me figure out the flow and pacing of the story, helps me cut extra junk that’s not needed, and helps the illustrator figure out how he’s gonna lay out the pictures on the page.

Kid:     Cool. I notice you use lots of words like “gonna” and “whatcha” and stuff. My Language Arts teacher would go nuts on you for that.

Aaron: Yeah, well… I try to write how people really talk. I think that’s important, especially for a graphic novel. It all depends on the character. Like, Joey Fly says some gonnas, but he also uses lots of detective-y phrases…

Joey:    Life in the bug city. It ain’t easy. Crime sticks to this city like a one-winged fly on a fifty-cent swatter.

Aaron: Like that. That’s his opening line in the book.

Kid:     Okay, that’s pretty funny.

Aaron: Well, I try.

Kid:     But it’s still not a graphic novel.

Aaron: Man, for a random kid who shows up in my writing room, you’re seriously pushy.

Kid: Do you know many eleven-year-olds? We’re all like this.

Aaron: That’s right. Not being one, I forget sometimes.

Aaron: Well, now that it’s all broken into panels, I give it to my publisher. And once she’s happy with it, she sends it off to the illustrator and he starts drawing.

Kid:     You tell him what to draw?

Aaron: No.

Kid:     You tell him what the characters should look like?

Aaron: No.

Kid:     What do you tell him?

Aaron: Nothing. Most of the time, we never even meet.

(pause…the kid’s mouth is hanging open.)

Kid:     That is seriously messed up.

Aaron: That’s how it works. Unless you are the writer and the illustrator (which I’m not…I don’t draw, remember?), that’s how it works.

Kid:     So what happens then?

Aaron: The illustrator looks at it and begins to sketch out what he thinks the characters look like.

Aaron: Like, for Joey Fly, Private Eye, the illustrator is a guy named Neil Numberman.

Neil:    Hey kid. What’s up? Hey Aaron.

Aaron: Hey Neil. So, Neil might decide after reading this script that you look like this:


Kid:     That’s me?

Neil:    Yep.

Kid: You made me a bug!

Neil: Well, we’re talking about Joey Fly, Private Eye, so I’m thinking in bugs. It’s my job to use my imagination, to come up with my ideas of what Aaron’s characters and story look like.

Kid:     Cool.

Neil: And as I start drawing and figuring out what it all looks like, Aaron’s story moves away from being a script and I start creating real characters…


Neil:    …and pretty soon, I take Aaron’s written words and begin to put them into the mouths of the characters I’ve created.




Aaron Reynolds is a human, not a bug, but he often writes about bugs. He is the author of Chicks and Salsa, Superhero School, Buffalo Wings, and, of course, the Joey Fly, Private Eye graphic novels.

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

Joey Twitter iconSammy Twitter icon

So there you are, folks. That’s how to make a graphic novel. Thanks, Aaron & Neil. (And Joey & Sammy, too.)

PiBoIdMo’ers, maybe you’d like to approach your next picture book idea in graphic terms. Your story doesn’t have to be a novel to fit the format. Author/illustrator Sarah Dillard penned Perfectly Arugula in this style, with perfect results.

So, how’s it going today?

It’s Day 2 of PiBoIdMo. I hope you already have idea one down with more brewing. So go grab your coffee (and spoon) and sit down for the next piece of juicy inspiration.

(Yeah, today I’m making you sit down. Tomorrow I might make you jump up and run outside again. Ya never know. This month is gonna be crazy. Crazy like a Fox in Socks!)

joeyflyToday author Aaron Reynolds and illustrator Neil Numberman are stopping by to talk about their new book Joey Fly Private Eye (in Creepy Crawly Crime).

And since it’s Day 2, I’ve even got 2 blog posts for you!

First, I asked Aaron and Neil where the idea for Joey Fly originated and how it developed.

Aaron: It started for me with just a title…which was, at the time, Joey Off, Private Fly (get it, Off? Off bug spray?…get it?) Anyway, I loved the idea of a goofy mystery, having grown up with a steady diet of Scooby Doo and movies like Clue (and I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan). Bugs seemed the perfect cast of characters…all freaky and different, each with their own personalities and weird physical traits. From there, the story just took off.

See that, folks? The idea started with just a title.

Neil: When I first got Aaron’s script, I started buying all the film noir movies I could get my hands on, and creepy insect books from dusty old bookstores. That, and a couple books on city architecture in the 40s, and I felt good to go! I had my arsenal of bug characters and buildings to fill the street scenes, and noir-esque shots to compose many of the panels. I knew I wanted some Martin Handford (he of Where’s Waldo fame) type shots in there, too, because his books were always the greatest to sit and stare at for hours, and I want to bring that to Bug City.

OK, let me get this straight. Old movies and dusty books?

Eureka, picture book writers! Run to your local thrift store! (Sorry, I’m making you jump up today anyway. I told you things might get crazy!)

Got your idea yet? Well stay tuned, kidlit lovers. Aaron and Neil will be back later today with a graphic novel about how to create a graphic novel.

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illus by Mike Boldt
July 2021

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