Joey Fly is a takeoff on hard-boiled detective movies, a genre the intended audience would hardly be familiar with. How did you get the idea, and why did you think it would appeal to kids?
Well, I love mysteries, especially funny goofy ones that throw back to my days watching Scooby Doo, and I love bugs, so a smash-up of these ideas seemed perfect. But you are right…kids aren’t familiar with the film noir genre that these books poke fun at. And yet…what I’ve found is this: when you take gags or bits that are references or parodies of a certain genre, but are still funny just in their own right….even if the kids don’t get the original reference, they respond to the inherent humor that’s there anyway. In fact, it creates double layers of humor, some for adults who might be reading, and a fresh simple layer of ha-ha that kids really respond to at face value.
You see this all the time in the most well-done family movies. Take Shrek, for example. Half of Donkey’s lines are pop culture references that would go over a kid’s head…he sings “On the road again” by Willie Nelson, talks about needing some serious therapy when this is all over, even his rendition of “Baby got Back” (that’s the “I like big butts” song at the end of the DVD)…all of this is there for the adults. But even without getting the specific reference, it’s just funny stuff to a kid. That’s what I’m trying to do in Joey Fly, and lots of the things I write. I think these layers make a deeper, richer, sillier book all the way around. Even if the kids don’t know all about film noir…they’ll find that the vibe of the story and the situations that happen to the characters are just funny in their own right.
Why did you decide to do this as a comic rather than an illustrated book? What did the comic format add?
I originally wrote Joey Fly as a chapter book. It was my editor at Henry Holt that had a vision for it to become a graphic novel…and I’m so glad she did! I had written graphic novels before, with my Tiger Moth, Insect Ninja series, so this seemed a great choice. In the end, I’m so delighted with it. I love the graphic novel format and think it reaches an even broader audience in this form (reluctant readers, boys especially) than it would have in straight chapter book form.
There are a lot of sight gags in the comic, as well as a delightful bug-sized world. How much of this was your idea? Or was it all Neil?
I wrote some of the gags into the story, things like Sammy knocking Joey over and almost accidentally stinging him to death with his big lumbering tail. Sammy is like a puppy who’s feet are too big for his body, and I definitely wrote him that way. But MUCH of the visual things you see, especially the wonderfully detailed backgrounds of the bug city, all the funny bits that go on in the periphery, were all Neil’s brilliance. He went so beyond creating great illustrations for the story…he created an entire world that is just as quirky and funny as the story and characters themselves. Really, his world is another whole character in the story. It’s really fabulous.
Was there anything particularly challenging about writing a story about bugs, as opposed to cuddlier creatures?
Not to me. I picked bugs because there are endless options for unique characters, personalities, humor, gags involving six to eight legs, stingers, webs, too much arachnid body hair…the list goes on and on. I don’t find bunnies and bears nearly as hilarious and full of possibility.
How did you come up with the plot?
It kind of evolved. At first, the story was much more about the relationship with Joey and Sammy and Sammy’s frustratingly unteachable attitude as Joey’s new assistant, but as I wrote, I realized that this was actually only a sub-plot and the real plot had to be the mystery itself. Also, the characters are clearly not kid bugs (which is unusual in a kids’ book), so I wanted a mystery and plot that kids would find highly relateable, even in this world of adult bugs. The issue of jealousy over someone stealing your best friend that bubbles up as the story goes on seemed like a very natural direction to pursue.
Writing humor can be hard, especially with a distinct voice like this—if you don’t get it just right, it falls flat. How did you overcome that—did it just flow naturally, or did you have to polish it a lot?
Truly, the voice just seemed to flow, once I knew where I was headed, and much of the humor just naturally falls out of the characters mouths. Again, that’s part of why I picked bugs…they naturally have a unique point of view of the world that is both different and funny to us. Having said that, after my near-final draft is done, I do go back and do what I call a “gag pass” over the whole story again…just making sure it’s funny enough, that all the gags work, checking to see if there are places I can up the humor, making sure I’m not repeating any gags twice, that kind of thing.
I realize you may not know this, but I was wondering if you had a sense of where people are discovering Joey Fly—in schools, in libraries, on the internet?
My perception is a little bit of everywhere. Joey has gotten a nice buzz (pardon the pun) from a number of teaching resources, so librarians and teachers seem to be discovering it through word of mouth and word of web. Kids are definitely finding it in libraries. Many libraries still have fairly limited graphic novel collections, so when a new exciting one pops up, kids who read graphic novels grab them fast. From there, the word spreads to kids who maybe aren’t regular fans of things like Bone and Babymouse, but see the unique look of the book and want to read it for themselves.
And, needless to say, all the nice reviews are very helpful. Publishers Weekly’s starred review of Joey Fly helped it to get more notice right out of the gate, which was wonderful.
What’s next? I hear there’s another Joey Fly story in the works. Will you be focusing on graphic novels from now on?
There are more Joey Fly books in the works. The second book in the series is written (Neil is illustrating it as we speak) and I’m currently working on a third. I also have a new graphic novel series in the works. I love graphic novels and hope to continue writing many more of them. But I’m still very much a picture book guy and don’t think I’ll ever abandon that genre. I just finished a silly mock-horror picture book that Chronicle will be publishing. It’s called Evil Carrots, and it’s about a bunny who thinks he’s being stalked by sinister root vegetables.
I guess I was wrong before. Maybe bunnies can be funny after all!