Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


October 6, 2014

Illustrating a Modern Problem

Howard Shapiro's new graphic novel examines the athlete in the new media age.

Elliot Magruder

As his first post-retirement venture, Derek Jeter has launched "The Players Tribune," an online publication designed to help athletes disseminate their stories in an "unfiltered fashion." "Unfiltered" might be the last word anyone would use to describe the former Yankee captain, but you don't need a personal gift basket to that see he's been on the frontlines of the changing sports-media-celebrity landscape.

Howard Shapiro
"Old media has this sort of sneering attitude toward new media because deep down they are scared."

Howard Shapiro

Howard Shapiro confronts the complicated and often vexing relationship between athletes and the public in his new book The Hockey Saint. He takes an uncommon approach, however, in presenting his work as a visually enticing graphic novel.

The Hockey Saint is focused in significant part on exploring the relationship between star athletes and the fans who worship them, the media who fixate on them, and the Darren Rovell types who encourage them "promote their personal brand." Specifically, this graphic novel focuses on the unlikely friendship between a teenage hockey player and the star player he idolizes, one whose disdain for the media—and its propensity to misinterpret and sensationalize the most mundane and private aspects of his life—is matched only by his prowess on the ice.
In the following interview, which was edited for length and clarity, Shapiro tells Gelf why he was drawn to incorporate classic rock into the story, what old media doesn't understand about new media, and which hockey players he'd like to see open up.

Gelf Magazine: The plot of The Hockey Saint centers on the relationship between a college-aged hockey player and an NHL star. When you were growing up, or even now, is there a particular athlete with whom you'd like to have a similar friendship?

Howard Shapiro: Not really, I just always thought those guys were living in completely different worlds and so there is really no basis for a friendship. In the book there is a common bond that unites Jeremiah and Tom and deep down, because of Jeremiah's reclusive nature, he is really looking for a friend. There was this part of the book that we, unfortunately, had to edit out and it was Jeremiah and Tom talking about why Jeremiah didn't hang around with his teammates or have any friends. During that conversation, Jeremiah recalls how he had really wanted to meet Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart from Rush. One time, he walked up to Alex Lifeson and told him how much he enjoys his guitar playing and Lifeson said he enjoys watching Jeremiah play hockey and ... that's it. They looked at each other awkwardly and then they moved on because there's nothing else there. They don't know each other and this isn't a basis for any type of friendship. Then Jeremiah went over to Neil Peart who mumbled something to him. The point, he tells Tom, is that sometimes it's better not to meet your heroes.

Gelf Magazine: Jeremiah, the star hockey player, refuses to speak to the media for fear they will distort or misinterpret his remarks, and because their questions are often laden with banalities. Do you feel the same way about the sports media's role today?

Howard Shapiro: Well, I think that members of the sports media do their best but the players are so robotic in their answers that in the end nothing is really asked nor are there any answers of substance. That's why I hope that Joshua Ho-Sang makes the Islanders and plays the full season in the NHL. He's one of the few young players who will actually speak his mind. I heard these quasi-interviews with Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid and their answers were straight out of the Sidney Crosby School of answering the question without really saying anything. I love Crosby and to his credit he always makes himself available to the media, but all the non-answers add up to the big nothing. It's not just him, though. Across all sports, all athletes are guarded in their answers and so the media in most cases just ask the most vanilla and banal questions and thus get the same thing back.

Gelf Magazine: The Hockey Saint often speaks unfavorably of old media, but favorably about new media. Can you explain why you seem to prefer new media over old?

Howard Shapiro: I do prefer new media. I think the best writers and most complete and interesting coverage is being done in new media sites like Deadspin and the other Gawker sites. If I need the most up-to-date and the best hockey info I'm going to Puck Daddy and Down Goes Brown before the local newspaper's beat writers or columnists or even The Hockey News—although there are some great writers with the Hockey News. Also, over the years the old media has this sort of sneering attitude to new media because deep down they are scared and realizing that there is competition now which is beating them at their own game. Would the mainstream press have broken that the Manti Te'o dead girlfriend story was completely made up? Not a chance.

Gelf Magazine Every chapter of your graphic novel starts with a number of songs labeled "recommended listening." How did this idea come about?

Howard Shapiro: I actually did this with the last book I wrote, the graphic novel The Stereotypical Freaks and it kind of went hand in hand with that book because it was about four disparate kids who form a band to play in their school's battle of the bands. Some of the songs listed were songs that the kids in the story were playing in that particular chapter or they were songs I listened to while I was writing that chapter. I'm more influenced in my writing by music, listening to music while I write really improves my productivity and gets me excited to write so that was also one of the reasons I listed them. Lastly, I've always been a TV and movie soundtrack geek. I always home in on songs played during certain parts of a movie or a TV show and think that that was either a great place for that particular song or that the director chose the wrong song. So, putting the recommended listening sections was also a way for me to soundtrack my book. A lot of readers responded positively to it, which is why I did it again with The Hockey Saint.

Gelf Magazine It seems like classic rock has a particularly important place in the novel. There are multiple references in the text to Keith Richards, and one of the final lines of the novel references a Neil Young song.

Howard Shapiro: Interesting question because one of things that some readers of "The Stereotypical Freaks" told me is that there were too many classic rock songs/performers listed and so with "The Hockey Saint" I tried to vary things a bit and list some of the more non-mainstream or classic rock stuff I was listening to while writing it. So I listed songs by Shelby Earl, Yellowbirds, Sun Kil Moon, Howlin Maggie, Avenged Sevenfold, Escape the Fate while still having songs listed by the Stones, Springsteen, Deep Purple, Clapton and Rush. I still probably lean more heavily on the classic rock genre because those are the bands and the music I grew up with. I think that the songs and individuals from the classic rock era became something of a subplot because Jeremiah identifies himself more with that era of star than the modern celebrity/star who has to deal with the 24-hour news cycle, cell phone pics everywhere, etc. He becomes a virtual recluse because he doesn't want the scrutiny and celebrity status that comes from being a superstar hockey player and he kind of yearns for what he thinks of a simpler era. Jeremiah identifies with Keith Richards because he feels that, like Keith Richards, he can stop abusing his body whenever he feels like it and he doesn't want anyone telling him what he can and can't do —like the old joke, "the only things to survive a nuclear bomb would be Keith Richards and cockroaches."

Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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Article by Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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