If you’ve never heard of Check, Please!,the webcomic about hockey, baking, and bros by Ngozi Ukazu, then you are probably not alone. The comic’s home is on Tumblr (though it does enjoy some transmedia spill over to the Twitter-verse, where series protagonist Eric “Bitty” Bittle has a handle). Unless you frequent what is arguably the most fandom-driven of social media sites, it might have slipped your notice.
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t found unprecedented success within the Tumblr demographic. The webcomic just completed its second Kickstarter, earning almost $400,000 on a $32,500 goal. What about this webcomic inspires such unabashed enthusiasm and loyalty? Let me count the ways. Here is a run down of some of the delights that are in store for you when you begin the Check, Please!journey…
First, a brief synopsis…
Check, Please!is a webcomic about Eric “Bitty” Bittle, a hockey player at the fictional Samwell University in Massachusetts. When the comic starts, Bitty is freshly-arrived at the inclusive Samwell from his small town in Georgia. A former figure skater who loves baking and Beyonce, Bitty might not look like your typical college hockey player or like your typical protagonist. Luckily, Bitty isn’t put off of hockey by judgments about his small stature and, luckily, Check, Please!is not interested in what usually flies in mainstream storytelling.
This is a story where the queer romance isn’t subtext and no one dies in the end. While mainstream media had one of its most contentious years ever when it comes to the Bury Your Gays trope, instead of breaking its queer protagonists hearts with contrived tragedy, Check, Please!was creating a fictional universe where its diverse characters support one another and eat plenty of pie. Seriously, there’s so much pie.
It engages America’s most toxically masculine spaces…
There’s something particularly insightful and inspiring about Ukazu’s decision to set Check, Please!in some of the most commonly toxically masculine spaces in America: the college frat house and men’s sports culture. Most feminist media focuses on portraying female relationships and identity in complex ways, which is great and necessary. But there is a serious dearth of stories that comment on how the traditional gender system hurts men, too.
Check, Please!depicts what life could look like for men if we lived in a world that wasn’t so constricting when it comes to gender. College fraternities and men’s sports culture are two of the social institutions that often most strictly enforce gender identity: There’s no crying in baseball. The brutality of hazing in both frats and sports teams. The fact that, according to The Guardian, men in fraternities are three times more likely to commit rape than men who are not. This is not correlational; it’s institutional and cultural.
These spaces need to be challenged more than most. There are positive aspects of these cultures, but they are also so drenched in misogyny and sexism that, sometimes, it can be hard to separate them from their toxic masculinity. Check, Please! gives us a (fictional) world where men don’t have to choose between existing in these spaces and participating in a culture that both limits who they can be and perpetuates harmful misogynist behavior. It celebrates the best parts of masculinity while allowing men to exist outside of a strict gender identity, if they want to.
It lets men be openly affectionate and communicative in their friendships…
A lot of people characterize this comic as queer love story — and it definitely is — but the thing that I find perhaps even more progressive than its depiction of two men in a happy, loving relationship is its depiction of a group of (mostly) men in a openly-affection and emotionally-supportive friend-group. It’s one of the unicorns of modern storytelling.
Not that there needs to be a hierarchy of progressivism involving the need for more stories with happy queer protagonists and the need for more stories with affectionate male friendships. That goes against the very essence of Check, Please!, which is one of the least judgy stories filled with the least judgy characters I have ever read. (The traits that are looked down upon are those ones that are rooted in hate, such as homophobia or any form of intolerance.)
The larger love story in Check, Please!is the platonic one between Bitty, Jack, Shitty, Ransom, Holster, Lardo, and the rest of the extended Samwell hockey gang social circle. They love and support one another in a world that often doesn’t always have space for those kinds of relationships, at least not at the expense of submitting to certain identity rules.
It’s interesting to me that, like many fandom-y works, Check, Please!audience is mostly female. This isn’t a story that men are finding solace in (though, of course, there are some male Check, Please!fans) as much as women. What does that mean? I’m just spitballing here, but, like many fanworks, I think women want to imagine and visit fictional spaces where emotional labor is valued and men are given the space to heal and exist outside of the often terrible pressures of rigid masculinity.
It has a queer romance at its center…
Check, Please!is more than a romance, but it definitely has a love story at its heart. What starts as a crush Bitty has on his team captain and all-star hockey player Jack Zimmerman evolves into something much more. Unlike many mainstream queer love stories, you don’t have to ship to the side — i.e. as a subplot or subtext or completely in fandom.
#Zimbits, as the relationship is called, deals with real, difficult issues, but does it in a hopeful, supportive way. It’s a breath of fresh air in a media climate that has been particularly tragic for LGBTQ fans in the last year or so (but, really, let’s face it, for much longer than that).
Check, Please!is a slow burn, but it also doesn’t string the romance along in a will-they-won’t-they formula that you see so often in mainstream media. It’s honest and sweet and complicated. Jack and Bitty are still dealing with the pressures of being queer (Jack is bi-sexual) in a larger world that is not always accepting of LGBTQ people and relationships, but they have each other and they have their friends and that makes things a heck of a lot easier.
It portrays mental illness in realistic, compassionate ways…
Jack Zimmerman is the other half of #Zimbits, and an important part of the Check, Please!comic outside of his relationship with Bitty. The son of a fictional NHL legend, “Bad Bob” Zimmerman, Jack’s entire hockey career has been played in the shadow of his father’s. The pressure to measure up to the hockey legacy his father created is a huge factor in Jack’s anxiety, so much so that 18-year-old Jack overdosed on his anxiety medication right before the NHL draft, in which he was expected to go first overall.
Three years later, when the comics pick up, Jack is a junior and the team captain of the Samwell University Hockey Team. He has gone through rehab and is managing his anxiety, but it remains part of his life and something he will probably always struggle with in one of the most honest, realistic, and compassionate depictions of mental illness in popular storytelling right now.
In most mainstream storytelling, the stoic, handsome, and traditionally masculine Jack Zimmerman would probably be the protagonist. But he probably wouldn’t be bi-sexual and he probably wouldn’t struggle with mental illness. In other words, he wouldn’t be Jack.
It incorporates technology culture…
This one might seem like a no brainer given that Check, Please! is internet culture, but the number of stories — yes, even ones that are access via the World Wide Web — that ignore how we (especially young people) use technology in our modern lives is astounding. We’re still figuring out ways to write, film, or draw around it, which tends to feel dishonest if you’re trying to say something relevant about what it’s like to live in today’s world.
Check, Please!definitely doesn’t have this problem. It loves a good pop culture reference, constantly shows its characters using technology, and has a protagonist who is also a vlogger. The vlog isn’t just a subplot, either, its a structure through which Bitty often engages with the reader. More than that, the comic is a transmedia one, which means it exists across platforms. Though it is (sadly) currently blocked while the comic catches up, Bitty has a Twitter account that updates in real time. It doesn’t get any more internet culture-y than that.
Its creator respects and understands fandom…
Creators and storytelling corporations are becoming increasingly interested in how to harness the power of fandom, but their efforts to use fans as a resource without listening to critical fan feedback in return represent a fundamental misunderstanding of what fandom is. As someone who has engaged in fandom herself, Check, Please!author Ngozi Ukazu — a first generation Nigerian-American who started writing the webcomic while she was at Yale University — understands the language and interests of fandom. She respects her fans and she listens to them.
Perhaps it helps that Ukazu started Check, Please!not as a money-making venture, but as an experiment to practice her drawing and use ideas and themes from a hockey-centric screenplay she had previously researched and written. She is telling this story not to make money (though, with such successful Kickstarters, she has), but because she is passionate about storytelling and about this story in particular. Is there anything more fanworksian than that?
Ukazu not only publishes the regular Check, Please!episode updates, but also offers extras like “Hockey Shit with Ransom and Holster,” does Bitty’s Twitter account, and broadcasts Patreon livestreams for her patrons. Because of this, and because of Check, Please!‘s exclusive home on Tumblr, the creator-fan relationship feels less like an awkward networking event and more like a family.
Check, Please! is simply a great story…
Maybe I should have opened with this, but Check, Please!is just a great, character-driven, multi-layered story that is unlike anythiing else in mainstream media right now. Though the delights I mentioned above are infused into the very narrative fabric of this story, you don’t necessarily think about them while you read through Check, Please!You engage with the characters and the story. You want to find out what happens next or spend more time hanging out with these funny, complicated characters.
It’s also been cool to see the artistic evolution of this comic. Here’s the very first panel of the first Check, Please!episode, which was posted back in 2013.
And here the most recent panel (at the time of this writing)…
Check, Please!has always been great to look at, but with the evolution of Ukazu’s skill (as well as, presumably, the amount of time and money Ukazu has been able to spend on creating the comic), Check, Please!has matured along with its central protagonist. It’s a bit more polished, a bit more confident, and a bit more complex. That being said, Check, Please!has been a narrative joy since it’s very first panel. I’m not chirping you. This webcomic is ‘swawesome.