Music has the power to bring together people from all circles of society. In high school, certain cliques reign over some, but what if individuals came from each of those inner circles and worked toward a common goal? That's the story with Howard Shapiro's The Stereotypical Freaks with art by Joe Pekar.Inspired by true events of Shapiro's life, he brings four teens together to compete in a Battle of the Bands competition. What starts as a way to get popular, turns serious and will bring these four friends together more than ever before. Newsarama recently talked to Shapiro about Stereotypical Freaks and the influences going into its creation.
Newsarama: So, Howard, you sort of have a Breakfast Club with a little bit of rock n' roll mixed in. But this isn't really the story of a band making it, so tell us what inspired you to write something like this?
Howard Shapiro: I've never really thought of the story as The Breakfast Club with a little rock and roll... but in thinking about it you are right! It really is that so thanks for that thought! The story's beginning, actually the beginning of the beginning was the idea wanting to base and write a character on a real life eighteen year old from my city named John Challis. John died from liver cancer in 2009 but prior to that he gained a lot of notoriety from a story that was published about him as he got a hit for his high school's baseball team in April of 2009. From there he spoke to the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees and he was befriended by many of the players. He was one of those kids who was wise beyond his years and he spoke very eloquently about his condition. Reading about him made me and many other folks put a lot of things in perspective.
So, I started writing the story mainly because I wanted to develop a character who had John's wisdom and eloquence about a true life and death matter... and from that the Jacoby Nukik character was created. I also wanted to build a story around a rock and roll band as I love music and I see rock and roll and rock and roll bands dying away. The old saying about writing what you know and are interested is so true... music and the idea, connotation and impact of friendship are things that I am very interested in and so the story took off from there.
Nrama: Let's talk about the band members here. Who are these characters?Shapiro: The members of The Stereotypical Freaks band are: Tom Leonard, lead vocals, rhythm guitar and keyboards. Marcell (Mark) Bennett is on lead guitar and background vocals. Dan Roberts is on the bass guitar, harmonica and background vocals and Jacoby Nukik is on the drums. Tom is a 4.0 student and just your all around nice kid... he would blend in within a crowd and not be noticed... every high school in America has a ton of kids just like Tom. His best friend is Dan Roberts who is the kind of person who wears his emotions on his sleeve... he doesn't have a subtle bone in this body. Everything, with the exception of his relationship with his divorced dad, is a black and white situation. Marcell (Mark) Bennett is the school's premier athlete and he also was Tom's best friend growing up. They were best friends from pre-school on up to 8th grade but Mark moved onto to other friends (his football teammates) and deep down that crushed Tom and still haunts him to this day. While Mark is a great football player, a running back, he also has cost the team the last two city championships because of late game fumbles. Those errors have caused his confidence level to sink. Jacoby is a foreign exchange student from Iqaluit, Nunavut Canada (the story takes place in the fictional town of East Slade, PA a town just outside of Pittsburgh, PA). Jacoby is here, ostensibly, as a foreign exchange student, but the real reason he is here is because he has late stage liver cancer and he lives with a retired nurse who facilitates his treatments. He also wanted to try and have some life experiences in East Slade that he could not have back in Iqaluit.
Nrama: I see a common theme with hockey being prominent in your works, almost like a Kevin Smith easter egg. Why is that?Shapiro: Very true! Hockey is very near and dear to my heart! Since I was very young I loved to play and watch the game over all other sports and it taught me so much about life. I was never very good at the game, but what success I had was all due to hard work and the game taught me that. I've tried to incorporate the life lessons I learned playing hockey to my everyday life. It also helped my dad and I bond and without it, we wouldn't have been as close as we were.
That closeness was the basis of my "Hockey Days" book which I wrote after he passed away as a tribute to him as well as a story that would help my sons and I remember him in a better light then what he went through the last six months of his life.
Nrama: You have famed pin-up artist Joe Pekar doing the artistic duties here. This is really outside from what we're used to from him, what led you to approach Pekar about this book?
Shapiro: Well, I went through a series of artists when I was putting together a demo reel of the story to show to publishers. The writing part was done but I wanted to put together some character sketches, a cover and five or six pages of the story (the demo reel). A guy I really like who I found on guru.com, I was told his work was not at an "A" level and I should try and find someone who could produce "A" level work or the project would never get off the ground. There are three guys in the business that each separately gave me this advice and they were all a great sounding board. One of the three passed along a tip that I should go to the zuda.com site as there was a lot of great sequential art being done on that site. He also passed along the name of a very good artist who I should check out there.
So, I logged onto the site and the first thing I saw was Joe's work, Joe was not the guy who I was looking for, but Joe's work, to me, was jaw droopingly good. So, I googled his name, went to his site and was more blown away by the work he had on there. I then emailed him and we worked out the details and I was very, very lucky to have him on the demo reel and then when we got a contract offer, he said he'd sign on for the entire book. It was a great experience working with him, we had a nice pattern whereby I would send him my script, and he would look it over, develop the panels in layout form and send them to me. There were usually no adjustments or at worst, minor tweaks needed and after my approval he'd do the finished work.
Then we'd start the whole process over. So, we had a good time working together and his facial and body motion/language work enabled me to cut down on the dialogue as well as edit the story down. His artwork did the heavy lifting for sure!
Nrama: Did you have a specific list of bands that you listened to while you wrote this? Is there a "Freaks" playlist?Shapiro: You're close as far as the playlist... we don't have that but at the beginning of each chapter, on the chapter page itself, is a listing of "recommended listening" for that specific chapter. Most of the chapters there are two songs listed but there a few chapters where three songs are listed and a few chapters just have one song listed. For chapter five, I listed The Afghan Whigs "Gentlemen" album, all of it, which is the only full album listed... every other chapter has listed just specific songs.
The songs are listed for a few reasons, I get most of my inspiration from music and in the chapter one of the characters may use a line from a song. Like in chapter three which is titled "Reconnection" the two songs listed are "Tangled Up in Blue" by Bob Dylan and "Promises Broken" by Soul Asylum. In the chapter Tom says the line "the past was close behind" which is a line from "Tangled Up In Blue." And Mark says "... promises sometimes get broken." So, those songs were definitely on my mind then and I was able to incorporate them into the story which was very cool. So, we have that and then in other chapters, the song listed provides context to the overall chapter... like in chapter eight when I listed "A Friend is a Friend" by Pete Townshend. Another fun thing was to list a song as recommended listening and the guys would actually play it some point in that chapter!
Nrama: How many issues are there planned so far for this?
Shapiro: I have just started writing the sequel/follow-up to "Freaks" which will take one of the characters on a big of a different sort of ride... all I can say right now is that Hockey will play a very prominent role in the sequel!
Nrama: What are you hoping fans get out of this book?
Shapiro: It's a great question and the the two part answer is that I hope that each and every person who reads this bok will be impacted by it and also want to read it several times. There are certain emotions that the pre-release reviewers have indicated happened while they were reading it and that says to me that I accomplished one of my goals.
I'm so happy that the book will finally be seeing the light of day because its been a long time in the works and I'm very proud of the work that my team of Joe Pekar and Ed Brisson did. They are two very talented and creative guys and I was honored to have them both with the whole way. I believe in the book and the characters so much and I'm really excited to receive feedback from anyone who reads it!
The Stereotypical Freaks will be available November 14th on Amazon.com and other bookstores/comic shops.