Hockey And Happy Endings: ‘Check Please’ Creator Ngozi Ukazu On Finding Another Way Into Sports
Ngozi Ukazu is a sensation in the world of webcomics. Her series Check, Please has an amazingly strong fandom — translating the comic into other languages, indexing it, creating fanart and fanfic — and her Kickstarter to print Check, Please Year 2 destroyed its goal in a matter of hours.
Check, Please follows Eric Bittle, former figure skater, during his years at Samwell University. He joins Samwell’s hockey team and, well, it changes his life. ComicsAlliance had a chance to chat with Ukazu at Emerald City Comicon about hockey fandom, relationships, and finding humor in all kinds of situations.
ComicsAlliance: How did you get into comics? Did you read comics a lot as a kid or was this just the right format to tell this story?
Ngozi Ukazu: I’ve always been pretty interested in comics, like even in high school I was the cartoon editor for the high school paper. I’ve always done a lot of fan art.
CA: The relationship between Bitty and Jack has sort of been a slow burn, but it’s gotten a bit more prominence over the last year. How do you go about creating a compelling relationship?
NU: [laughs] Oh my god!
CA: Not necessarily what makes a good relationship, but what makes a relationship interesting to read about?
NU: To be totally meta about it, I think there has to be some type of layered conflict. So it’s not just a person going after a person, it’s looking at what these two parties represent for each other.
I think for Bitty, Jack represents this masculinity and aggression that he is really averse to and really evasive about. And for Jack, Bitty represents this vulnerability and honesty that maybe Jack didn’t really think that he needed. It’s like a shifting of priorities; you see people negotiate what their priorities should be. So, I think with every relationship you need to have several layers, it’s not just like “evil person wants to like the good person!” It has to be more nuanced.
CA: I think you do a really good job of making it feel like a real relationship — those little small moments that they have together, as well as covering the bigger sort of story arc of how Jack feels like he can’t totally be open about their relationship in his position. We try to promote a lot of small indie comics here at ComicsAlliance — mostly through our Should I Be Reading series — and a lot of them have been queer, but there aren’t that many that feature relationships between men.
NU: Really? I feel like a lot of comics that I read are!
CA: You should give me some recommendations, then! Did you actively intend to do a comic about a gay relationship, or was it just where these characters went?
NU: When I first started my story, I was a senior in college and I had just finished a screenplay about a butch hockey player who falls for his best friend. And when I went to Check, Please! I wanted to tell a story in the same environment but with more levity and a bit more kindness. Where the protagonist doesn’t have to suffer and get beaten down in order to grow. The whole point of the story is that Bitty wins. Huge spoiler! [laughs] He gets the guy, he wins. I definitely didn’t go in with the intent to tell a story between two men, it was more like I was going to re-envision this story that I had already told in a fun way, that’s not dreary.
CA: There’s a lot of humor in your comic. Do you find it hard to balance that, the comedy and the drama?
NU: Sometimes I do. We just finished an arc where Bitty and Jack are starting to negotiate with each other how they want to come out to other people, and you always have to be careful with those story lines, because some people have gone through traumatic things, and they’ll respond to that in stories.
At the same time, coming out can be funny! One of my good friends came out to their parent, and they were half drunk at this family gathering. So it’s hard to balance comedy and drama of certain storylines. I grew up doing humor, so that’s the thing I’m most confident in. When it comes to balancing it, I have to just pick what themes or what events are happening and figure out what focus I want. And I’m learning too, to make sure that the tones kind of slide into each other.
CA: Check, Please has actually gotten a lot of people I know who are not fans of hockey into hockey.
NU: It’s a bit of a gateway!
CA: Yes, you’ve probably encountered this too. Is there something special about your comic or sports comics in general?
NU: Oh my gosh, I can talk about that. I think there are a lot of ways to access sports. You could access sports as statistics, as projection, like seeing yourself on the court, or you can access it as narrative, when you see athletes who become characters.
I think that hockey fandom is very much primed to treat these people as people, but the same GIFsets you’ll see someone make of, I don’t know, a Merlin episode, they’ll make the same type of GIFsets of…
CA: Auston Matthews!
NU: Auston Matthews, yeah. I think that’s fascinating! So when it comes to my comic, it’s just a little short jump before you start to see, “Oh, I never really liked sports before, but suddenly these athletes are characters in a way.” I was talking to my roommate just the other day about how I love NBA commercials because they’re so bad, but also really funny! And they become characters! So once you find another way to look at sports, it can become something easy to get into. And then you’re not just there to watch people punch each other in the face, you’re there to follow a narrative.
CA: Your Kickstarter was super successful, and your Patreon is too. Do you see that as being the future of comics? Is the Kickstarter something you would do again?
NU: Oh yeah, I’ll probably Kickstart every volume; there’s only two more to go. I think when it comes to Kickstarter you kind of hope that people start to realize that you can have a viable career in comics, but it’s really about interacting with your fans and showing your process as you’re making your comic and just putting your work out there. I hope people continue to follow that model of really cultivating a readership and having this back and forth where you provide a story and they can help you create that story.
CA: How long did you find it took for you to develop that fandom?
NU: I think I had been drawing and making fanart since middle school, so I had a little bit of a following. But I think when people [reading Check, Please] were like, “Oh, this is what it’s about!” then I think people really jumped in.
CA: What’s next for you and for Check, Please?
NU: I’m still finishing up Year Three, which should see its final updates this summer, and then I’ll be starting up Year Four — Bitty’s last year at Samwell — late in the fall. I’m also working on a few scripts for other projects, so I’m deep in research mode!
You can read Check, Please! on its website and download PDF copies of Year One and the Huddle companion zines at its store. Check, Please Year Two will debut at TCAF in May. You can follow Ngozi Ukazu on her Twitter or Tumblr.