Smash Pages Q&A: ‘Benny and Penny’ creator Geoffrey Hayes

Brigid Alverson shares a previously unpublished interview with the creator, who passed away last weekend.

Geoffrey Hayes, the creator of TOON Books’ Benny and Penny series, died last weekend at the age of 69. I met him just once, at the American Library Association midsummer meeting in 2010.

I was actually a longtime fan of his work, because my children loved his Otto and Uncle Tooth picture books. Geoffrey came to comics fairly late, after an artistic dry spell—Francoise Mouly somehow knew to call him and have him create the Benny and Penny comics for TOON Books. But he had always lived a creative life; while I was doing research to write an appreciation, I ran across this essay in which he talks about how he and his brother, Rory Hayes (who was known as an underground cartoonist) spent their childhood creating stories together.

When I heard about Geoffrey’s death, I went through my files looking for a photo of him, and I was surprised to find an interview that I had done in 2010 but never published anywhere. So here it is, seven years later. As delightful as it was to relive that moment, I was also saddened when I got to the end, where he talks about the graphic novel he was working on. That book, Lovo and the Firewolf, was to be his magnum opus, and Fantagraphics was going to publish it next year. His death leaves it incomplete.

How did you come to do picture books?

I loved books when I was growing up. My mother had a nightly ritual of reading to my brother and myself, and even when we were eight or nine we loved them. There was something comforting about the sound of her voice. She was a wonderful reader. She had good inflection; she put drama into it but it was not a performance.

I had always loved comics and I thought I was going to be a comics artist, but at the time I was coming of age there were only superheroes. The kind of books that were for young kids were dying out. I didn’t think there would be an opportunity for me there, so the next best thing was children’s books—by “next best” I mean something that would incorporate my writing skills, my love of fantasy, and my drawing.

In New York in the early 70s, I was working for an architecture firm, and I was laid off. This was the first and only time in my life I was receiving unemployment benefits, and I decided I would take my portfolio around. I went and saw a lot of art directors at publishers, and they were very enthusiastic. An editor named Edite Kroll was the first one that was willing to work with me to get a book out of me rather than [just] say “I love your work.” She and Charlotte Zolotow at Harper worked with on my first book, Bear By Himself. That has been in print for 13 years, and more followed. Edite is now my agent.

About ten years ago, I got really disillusioned. I did not enjoy what I was doing any more. A lot of my recent books hadn’t sold well, hadn’t been marketed well. I just stopped and started working on art for myself, and I regained my love of writing children’s books—and a lot of what was in my portfolio was comics. Then out of the blue, Francoise Mouly contacted me—I think she Googled me, and I was teaching a writing course at the time, and the phone number of the school came up.

She told me what she was doing. She was familiar with my books and had read them to her children when they were younger.

Benny and Penny were in my portfolio. Their names at the time were Tyler and Bella. I had done it as a strip, and we adapted it into a Toon book.

What is different about the way you put a comic together, as opposed to a picture book?

Actually, very little. I usually start out even with a regular book doing storyboards and strips to get a feel for the book. The difference with a comic is it starts out as a comic.

I used pen and ink and watercolor for years, and I was never happy drawing on watercolor paper. It’s not good for drawing; I always found my pictures end up kind of stiff. I love drawing with pencil. I usually draw on copy paper, then I photocopy them onto nicer paper and add the color. What I like about that is I can make the pencil look like pencil or if I’m very careful I can make it look like ink. That is the technique have been using on Benny and Penny: They are all photocopies that are colored after they are printed.

Why do you take the extra step of photocopying?

It darkens the line, and if I did a pencil drawing and put colored pencil over that, the graphite would smudge onto the paper. It would get darker. Sometimes I use a darker black pencil on textured paper, but if I put watercolor on top of that, the texture disappears, whereas if I photocopy it and then add color, I maintain the integrity of it.

What I have not done is go to a good copy printer, print on really nice watercolor paper, and then try watercolor over the photocopy

You do have the advantage with colored pencil of being able to erase.

Where did Benny and Penny come from?

Out of nowhere. My imagination.

What about Otto and Uncle Tooth?

My brother and I had a corduroy alligator that had all these teeth, so when I went to write my Uncle Tooth books, I thought of him, and since he had all those teeth I called him Uncle Tooth. Otto came from a liquor store where my brother and I bought comics. In San Francisco a lot of liquor stores sold comics. They sell groceries [too]; it’s more like a corner market.

What comics did you read as a kid?

Little Lulu, Dennis the Menace, Uncle Scrooge, Dick Tracy, Sugar and Spike, and I read a lot of Classics Illustrated and a lot of Dell movie adaptations. And of course Archie and Superman and all of those, but they were probably on the second tier.

What are limitations of the comics medium as opposed to picture books?

I don’t know it’s necessarily the limitations of the medium, I think it would be more with the voice—you’d want a certain narrative voice that might work better as a picture book. I’m doing a reader now that’s just a regular text with illustrations, and I like the voice of that. It’s more what would fit the story than limitations.

Does writing for children impose limits?

It did impose limits, but I think they were good ones. When writing for children you can’t have flashbacks, you can’t have an interlude where the character is thinking, you can’t have ambiguity, and you have to keep the story moving. I have often thought it would be a luxury if you were writing for adults because you can go off on a tangent if you wanted to. You can’t do that with children’s books, but I think that is constructive. It requires very concise, clear writing. There is a certain thing when you limit yourself to three colors or just do it in black and white it frees up your creativity by imposing these restrictions on you.

What’s next?

I’m working on two regular books, the reader for Random House and a picture book, a nighttime book. It’s going to be a glow-in-the-dark book. I have already written the text. And I am working on a graphic novel for children. It doesn’t have a publisher at this point, and it’s been a real labor of love. It’s my main focus for the moment. It’ll get there—I am restructuring the story at this point. It’s for the next group up from Toon, 7 to 10 or 7 to 11. It’s longer, it’s darker, and yet it’s a fairy tale, so it’s got a lot of magic and charm.

A page from Lovo and the Firewolf

One thought on “Smash Pages Q&A: ‘Benny and Penny’ creator Geoffrey Hayes”

  1. Unlike many artists, Geoffrey was just as sweet and gentle as his books are. He was a caring friend and a devoted creator. I’m really sorry none of us will ever see what was in his mind’s eye with “Lovo and the Firewolf.” I’m sure it would have been spectacular. Thanks for publishing this interview; it brings him back to life, if only for a few paragraphs.

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