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If an empire can be called modest, let’s use that to describe James DeMarco’s "Small Saves" world. The illustrator’s comic strip of a young goalie and his weekly adventures has just seen its eighth book released, and that’s on top of the various t-shirts, merchandise, the painted hockey masks—and the tattoos.
The artist, based in New England, has been at it since 1991, but really, it goes back to age five, when he started playing goalie. “I’m 56 now and I’m still playing three days a week,” said DeMarco. “I just hockey. I love being a goalie. I invented a little character, Small Saves, as a comic strip.”
Book number eight is Goalie in the Limelight!: A Collection of Small Saves Cartoons! and it came out in September 2019.
You might have seen Small Saves in USA Hockey Magazine, and Canada’s Make-A-Wish includes a black-and-white version in its colouring book given to kids in hospitals. Maybe you have seen DeMarco’s work in other places, such as the just-released children’s book by Darren Hersh, Holy Moly, We Need A Goalie!
For a man with a modest empire, and dreams of maybe one day getting bigger—“My goal is for him to be in every hockey media type there is. I’d love to have him as famous as Charles Schulz’s Peanuts are”—DeMarco is unfailingly humble.
Perhaps it stems from the fact that Small Saves is a part-time gig. At the moment, DeMarco also works at a nursing home, does silk-screening, and, naturally, helps out at a local rink, including sharpening skates.
“I found out at a really young age that I could draw, I really liked to draw,” he recalled. DeMarco earned an associates degree in graphics, and benefited from a job as the head artist at a silk screening company, as “I had to learn to get fast at it, because someone had a rush job.”
DeMarco shows off a t-shirt
He has continued to learn, whether it’s creating and maintaining his website (http://smallsaves.com), selling the merchandise through Amazon, or putting together the books himself. DeMarco will admit that he gained from his small mistakes. “I’ve learned the value of proofreading and having a second set set of eyes also proofread the books. In the first couple of books, I proofread them myself,” he said, praising the more recent helpers.
It’s all still done by hand. “I do it old-school. I do it in pencil, then I ink it in, then erase the pencil, and then make copies of the cartoon, then I colour in a copy of it, because I don’t want to ruin the original in case I goof up—and I goof up.” The new cartoon is then scanned and he can touch it up on the computer before sending out the weekly cartoon to his email list. His website shows a wide variety of hockey art too, including more traditional drawings of (adult) goaltenders.
Feedback is always great, DeMarco said, whether it’s a suggestion for a cartoon, or a life-long commitment.
“I get a lot of fan mail from parents and the kids, pictures of the kids holding the book. I’ve had some kids dress up as the character for Halloween. The adults like it too,” he said. “I think, to date, there have been five goalies who painted him on their mask, the little guy, and then seven have tattooed him on themselves. It’s a compliment.”
After so many years, it’s tough to keep it up. “I know the game, because I love it, so writing it isn’t hard, it’s just after a while, how do you keep it fresh—because he’s a little goalie and it’s hockey and you can only go so far with it. You can’t have him playing baseball or piano, because that’s not what he does—he’s a goalie.”
However, Small Saves is not constrained to the rink. “He brings the game off the ice as well, so he may go to school wearing his goalie pads because he has to break them in time for the game.”
The empire building is never done. DeMarco has pitched the comic strip to the NHL and The Hockey News, and numerous other places. He firmly believes that there is a universal appear to his family-friendly strips.
“Anyone who plays the game is a kid at heart. We play because we love the game and we remember it from when we young, and we still enjoy it just as much.”
One fan got a Small Saves tattoo
Until Christmas, I plan on making “Two Minutes for Reading So Good” a weekly column; too many hockey books, too many authors to celebrate!
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