“The Hockey Saint,” a new graphic novel by Pittsburgh-based author Howard Shapiro, is a story about being the best hockey player in the world.
“And so … now what? What do you do when all your dreams come true?” asks Jeremiah Jacobson, alone atop the sporting world at age 21.
Any similarity to a certain local superstar is purely intentional — but only to a point.
“He’s got this Michael Jordan/Wayne Gretzsky-like ability,” Shapiro says. “But he’s also kind of the anti-Sidney Crosby, who wants nothing to do with the league. He just wants to play hockey.”
Shapiro, who has written four children’s books, intended “The Hockey Saint” as a sequel to “The Stereotypical Freaks,” another teen-oriented graphic novel about a bunch of very different high-school kids who start a rock band together.
The main character, Tom Leonard, is now a few years older, playing hockey (on the fourth line) in college, when he strikes up an unexpected friendship with Jacobson.
Jacobson quietly visits a community food bank, VA hospital and children’s hospital when he’s not playing. He also has a serious drinking problem and a few other secrets that hockey writers and opposing teams would love to know about.
“I love sports,” Shapiro says. “But the over emphasis, and the over analysis of sports, the idea of the athlete being a brand — I wanted to write about that. There’s much more important things in the world, which Jake exhibits through his charitable acts. I wanted to come up with a character who’s not a cookie-cutter, not what people perceive these guys as.”
“The Hockey Saint” is published by Animal Media Group (animalmediagroup.com), which was spun out of Animal Inc., a visual-effects studio based Downtown. It began with “Blood Brother,” a documentary about a young man (Rocky Braat), who decided to dedicate his life to helping children with HIV in India. The film won the Special Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. It inspired a companion book, “I Was Always Beautiful,” and the publishing house was built from that.
“I’d done self-published books about hockey,” Shapiro says. “I love hockey so much. I have a bit of a following from those books, which had done well.”
He was doing a school appearance for one of those books when he talked to a librarian about what kids were into these days.
“The librarian was telling me to look into writing a graphic novel,” Shapiro says. “Kids, especially boys, go crazy for them. They can’t keep them on the shelves.”
“I didn’t know what that was, so I went down to the Carnegie Library. I was always a comic book fan. I got two out — ‘The Big Con’ and ‘Garage Band.’ They looked a little different. I was completely blown away by the storytelling, and it got me interested in trying to do that.”
He tried to get an Italian illustrator to do the illustrations, but he was booked. The artist did, however, recommend his wife, Marica Inoue, who gives the book its distinctive manga/anime-style look. He would email her instructions for each page, and she’d send back her sketches.
She told him she had never seen a hockey game, but Shapiro says there are only a few pages with hockey action.
“I told her to rent ‘Miracle.’ I though about ‘Slap Shot,’ but decided against it,” he says.
One of the most fun parts for Shapiro was coming up with the names for all the characters. Jeremiah Jacobson came from one of his favorite movies, “Jeremiah Johnson,” in which Robert Redford plays a vengeful mountain man.
A crusty, old-school TV commentator, Norman “Pie” Lacroix — who endlessly criticizes Jacobson’s leadership — is pretty clearly based on Canadian icon Don Cherry, who has criticized Sidney Crosby.
A sportswriter, Ross Rabey, has a really familiar-sounding name. … OK, Trib sports columnist Rob Rossi, if you hadn’t guessed.
“It’s definitely a tip of the hat to him,” Shapiro says. “A shout-out. I’m a big fan.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.