Guest Post: Neil Numberman on Illustrating Big Hairy Drama (Joey Fly, Private Eye, Book 2)

By Neil Numberman

When I first read Aaron Reynold’s manuscript for the second Joey Fly, Private Eye (Big Hairy Drama (Henry Holt, 2010)), I was blown away.

The characters were exceptionally crafted, the plot had the twists and turns like the smartest “C.S.I.” episode and the wit and irony of the best “Frasier” episode, and best of all, it almost all takes place in a theatre!

Little did Aaron know, I have a background in theatre too. Besides a ton of school plays I participated in, I worked at the famous Merriam Theatre in Philadelphia for over five years while in college.

It’s like he wrote this thing for me!

Beautiful, isn’t it?

So the first thing I did after I read the script (which is pretty much what it looks like, with “stage directions” and all), I called my old bosses at the Merriam and asked if I could stop by for the day and shoot the outside and inside of the theatre with my camera.

I took a day trip from New York, and spent a couple hours shooting everything, dressing rooms, backstage, box office, lobby, secret hallways and dark storage spaces. I was armed with plenty of reference going into this book!

Ah, the Merriam.

The next step was to thumbnail the entire book. There’s a good reason they call these sketches “thumbnails,” but even though they’re super tiny, they do give me a number of things I need to know before starting the real sketches. They help me pace out the entire book, to make sure scenes and act breaks end at the end of a page or spread. I also need to roughly figure out where everyone in the scene will be and their word balloons, in each panel.

It may not seem like it, but it’s a real pain to make sure the character who speaks first in a panel is on the left, and continues to be throughout the scene.

The thumbnails also give me another chance to read the script more in depth, and make notes in the margins to remind myself later for the sketch stage, like hiding hints and jokes, or an expression I know I want to give Sammy (usually along the lines of rage, confusion, or hunger.)

Our editor, Reka Simonsen, always requests to see these little thumbnails. I love that she wants to be so involved in the process, and she claims she loves looking at my thumbnails, but I have no idea how she gets anything from these sloppy little drawings.

What’s going on here?

Next up, I needed to create the panels and word balloons for the book’s designer, April. It’s a step I skipped with the first book, and I regretted it. I miscalculated the size the word balloons would be, and I had to expand them after the sketch stage, which meant I had to move a lot of the characters around to avoid being covered up by their own balloons!

But this time around, I created every single page, with every single balloon or caption box, sans any art whatsoever. Then April can throw the type in and make sure it works before I ever have to draw a thing.

Seen here, with text.

After that, it’s sketch time! That’s the best part, for me, of the whole undertaking. This is the most creative part, where I get to flesh out the characters and the world they live in, without having to worry about pacing and compositions, because I already took care of that with the thumbnails and empty panels.

This period involves a lot of research into the insect and arachnid kingdom, not to mention architecture, theatre, and old film noir movies. I don’t think that’s a very common crossover!

Insects and crime, who woulda thought?

The sketching took me about three months, which is pretty good time considering it’s a 128 page book. That’s almost a page and a half a day, and taking into account all the other junk one must get accomplished in daily life, I’m quite impressed with myself. The same would not be true for the finishes!

So, after the sketch stage, I hand ‘em over to Reka, and she hangs onto them for a month or two, making notes and passing them around to other folks at the publisher, so when I get it back, I have a giant printout of the entire book, with little stickie notes on them. There are often a lot of notes, but nothing major, since she’s been so hands-on from the beginning.

I can then make those changes as I start the finishes. This is by far the longest and most tedious part. The finishes require a steady hand for the inking, careful scanning, and pretty repetitive digital coloring. I’ve often been told I should get an intern for this stuff, and I even had one for a little bit, but I think it’s best if I take care of it on my own for now, especially because there’s a very specific look I’m going for with the Joey Fly universe.

So I print the sketches out at about 140%, trace them with a careful pencil line. Most artists use ink here, and I still call it “inking”, but I find I get the same results from pencils, a tool I’ve been using non-stop since I was two or three and can’t move on.

Then I scan those in and start the coloring.

Seeing this makes my hand hurt.

What makes the coloring stage even more boring, though, is that I actually color the entire thing in grayscale first. This makes it easier to get the monochromatic colors I need at the end, but whoa boy, it’s not exactly a party filling in 800 or so panels in graytones.

And how long do you think the finishes took? If you guessed something around six months, I commend you for thinking it took me that long. But you’re wrong. It took me longer. All in all, almost a year. Granted, I had other projects and jobs going on, but I at least spent a few hours a day on the book, and at most, twelve or thirteen.

Getting there…

Then I had to figure out what colors I wanted for each scene, and exactly how I wanted to get those colors. It was mind-numbing and technical, but after many back-and-forths with the art director and a printing specialist, we found some great tones to use in the book.

The first Joey Fly was mainly filled with a dark blue and rose colored monochromatic schemes. I got to have a lot more fun with the monochromatic palette this time around. Our blues are much more of a cyan, to really highlight that a cold snap that blows into Bug City. The inside of the theatre is a warm, royal orange. I also assigned different colors for each of the characters’ dressing rooms, borrowing from their personalities and interests. There’s also a major scene that takes place completely in the shadows back stage, and I used a deep purple to contrast with the warm oranges I use out in the theatre lights.


The most tragic part of the whole process came at the very end, though, when I made what I thought was a perfect cover. It borrowed elements from the first, but was wholly its own. I fell completely in love with it, and as I’ve been told as an artist, I should never do that.

I cry just looking at it.

Because, of course, it got rejected by the publisher’s sales team. They thought it would look too similar to the first book. And I have to say, they know more about marketing then I do (I hope), so I must defer to them. I made a second, decent cover.

Finally, my job was complete. But I still had to wait six agonizing months to see the book in all its glory. Once I got my copy, the first read was a nerve-racking one. I get very nervous, looking for mistakes on my end, or even typos. But y’know what? Not a single mistake!…

Well, a few, but no one would ever notice them except me. And my ladyfriend and I read the entire thing, each playing particular characters throughout, and I gotta say, this is my proudest accomplishment as an illustrator.

And major big-ups to Aaron, who wrote an incredible story, and Reka, whose patience throughout kept me going.

And, hey, maybe we can take that original cover and make a poster out of it some day, when Joey Fly is in the hearts and homes of every ten-year-old in the country!

Or, say, a giant Sammy Stingtail.

Cynsational Notes

From the promotional copy:

A cold snap has blown into town like an unwanted house pest. But there’s only one guy in the bug city with the power to put crime permanently on ice: Joey Fly, Private Eye. He’s always on the lookout for trouble, and he runs into it when he meets Harry Spyderson, proprietor of the Scarab Beetle Theatre and director of the much-anticipated Bugliacci.

Greta Divawing, the four-winged, long-legged leading lady, has gone missing. Harry hires Joey Fly and his assistant, Sammy Stingtail to crack the case. Can they find Greta in time to save the show?

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