Ngozi Ukazu Interview: Check, Please and Beyond

We talked to the creator web comic Check, Please about fandom, adaptation, and what's next...

Check, Please an endlessly delightful web comic about hockey, baking, and bros — is one of the most enthusiastic internet fandoms out there, and one that is only poised to grow. Previously, the comic has mainly been available to read on the internet, but the first hardcover volume of the Check, Please hits stores today.

#Check, Please!: #Hockey will cover Bitty’s first two years at the fictional Samwell University. Here’s the official synopsis:

Eric Bittle may be a former junior figure skating champion, vlogger extraordinaire, and very talented amateur pâtissier, but being a freshman on the Samwell University hockey team is a whole new challenge. It is nothing like co-ed club hockey back in Georgia! First of all? There’s checking (anything that hinders the player with posession of the puck, ranging from a stick check all the way to a physical sweep). And then, there is Jackhis very attractive but moody captain.

A collection of the first half, freshmen and sophmore year, of the megapopular webcomic series of the same name, Check, Please!: #Hockey is the first book of a hilarious and stirring two-volume coming-of-age story about hockey, bros, and trying to find yourself during the best four years of your life. This book ncludes updated art and a hilarious, curated selection of Bitty’s beloved tweets.

Den of Geek talked to Ukazu last year about why she thinks Check, Please is so popular, whether she ever dream-casts an on-screen adaptation of the comic, and what is next for the talented storyteller/artist…

Den of Geek: Can you give a brief synopsis of what Check, Please is about for people who have yet to dive into the wonderful world of Check, Please?

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Ngozi Ukazu: Check, Please is the story of Eric “Bitty” Bittle, a former figure skater who starts his freshman year as a member of Samwell University’s men’s ice hockey team.

Bitty is a vlogger who shares recipes on pie making, is several inches shorter than most of his teammates, and is deathly afraid of checking — which is when you get hit on the ice. It’s also a story about Bitty falling in love with Jack Zimmermann, the team’s stoic captain who has fallen from grace.

A lot of the narratives we have that challenge patriarchy/toxic masculinity focus on how it affects women and girls, but Check, Please is one of the few stories that seems to do the same by imagining a different, better future for men and boys outside of rigid gender roles and “norms.” Why do you think it’s important to tell stories like this? Was this one of the driving forces in creating Check, Please? 

In the beginning, Check, Please was simply a palate cleanser after I spent my senior semester at Yale writing a screenplay called Hardy.

Hardy followed a giant, super bro-y enforcer-type hockey player who falls in love with his best friend and struggles with internalized homophobia. With all of the newfound hockey knowledge I gained from researching, I still wanted to tell a story set in the world of hockey, but a bit more hopeful and silly.

While Hardy had a bittersweet ending, Check, Please is a story where Bitty has little victories each year. Maybe it wasn’t a completely conscious effort, but we need more stories about critiquing the rigidity of gender norms that don’t involve characters succumbing to these norms in tragedy.

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It seems like you have a good idea of where the Check, Please story is going. How much of the Check, Please narrative is planned and how much surprises you? Have there been any major changes to your planned story along the way?

I planned out the major arcs of the comic before I had finished the first semester of “Year One.” Still, characters can surprise me with their dialogue and sometimes jokes develop right as I’m drawing a page.

When I’m coming up with new characters like incoming freshmen or Jack’s NHL team, I have vague ideas for that coalesce a year or so before the characters actually appear. Overall, the story has been hitting all of the major plot points that I drafted out.

You began creating Check, Please when you yourself were in school, getting your Masters. I think of the early 20s as such a transformative time. Has your perspective of Check, Please changed over the course of you writing/drawing it as you have changed/learned/grown?

Check, Please continues to be this love letter to the magic of friendship in undergrad, the excitement of college hockey, and how it feels to get a liberal arts education in the Northeast. It’s a bit of a time capsule of my time at Yale.

As I’ve grown, my perspective on hockey culture at large has changed. Whiteness and masculinity are really unrelenting driving forces of that culture, and while Samwell hockey remains continuously progressive, the NHL and hockey has only changed a little since I first discovered the sport.

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As someone who supports you on Patreon, I know how impressively prolific you are. What does your creation schedule/routine look like?

First of all, thank you so much! Comics and the blog posts that follow them take weeks to complete and, in between this main content, I’m usually sketching, working on books and merchandise, or writing for other projects.

I spend my mornings answering emails and running comic and non-comic errands, while I spend my afternoons and evenings drawing and writing. I usually wake up and go to sleep fairly early!

Do you think Kickstarter/Patreon model is where much of smaller-scale creation is heading? Do you think it’s possible to be a full-time creator working directly from fan support?

I’m a firm believer in creators pursuing their passions full-time, if they have free content and a large enough audience. Models like Kickstarter & Patreon are allowing niche and under-served audiences to directly support content that they can’t get in bookstores or see on TV.

What has surprised you most about the response to Check, Please?

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This is a story about really goofy bros and a boy who loves to bake pies. I had no idea it could also be a story that would make people cry, help people form new friendships, or [something] parents read with their teens.

Why do you think this story has come to mean so much to so many people?

Check, Please is a story about an uncertain, but sweet kid who enters a potentially threatening environment—and survives.

People want happy stories. They crave hope. And all of the goofiness and friendship and weird rules that these boys create as part of the culture of Samwell start to make the Samwell men’s hockey team and the Haus feel a bit like Hogwarts.

Congratulations on the two-volume publishing deal! How did that happen — did you approach First Second Books or did they approach you? Are you nervous at all about Check, Please going out into the wider world after having spent so long in Internet Land?

Thank you! After the success of the Kickstarter, a number of publishers realized that Check, Please had potential to do well with a wider audience. But when First Second reached out, they were hands-down the most enthusiastic publisher with a team of authentic and thoughtful Check, Please fans. Check, Please is a story that started on the Internet, but I’m excited for people who don’t normally peruse blogs to read it and discover the story!

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Right now, there is a fair amount of tension between creators and their fans. I see you as a creator who respects her fans and has a healthy, conversational relationship with the fandom. Why do you think so many creators seem to have a problem with this? Do you have any advice for creators who struggle to connect with their fans?

I love the Check, Please fandom! And for whatever reason, readers in the fandom seem to enjoy the interactions they experience in Check, Please. The healthy relationship I have with the fandom took a lot of time to learn and did have its growing pains!

My biggest advice for creators is to leave fandom alone. Appreciate it, but don’t try to control it. Similarly, readers should understand that headcanons might never be canon and the story and characters belong to the creator. End of story. The relationship starts to deteriorate when one party tries to control the other.

Would you be interested in seeing Check, Please adapted for the screen? (Because I would!) What does your dream scenario look like — i.e. TV series vs. film vs. web series? Do you ever think about dream casting?

Oh boy, it’d be so hard to do a live-action show. Is it possible cast anybody (a) with a butt as big as the fictional Jack Zimmermann’s who (b) can also act? In a dream scenario, all of the actors would know how to skate, the actor who played Bitty would have a perfect Georgia accent, and it would feel more like an HBO comedy with pockets of drama.

But what about this—Check, Please as a radio show?

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Have you been working on any other projects lately? 

I’m working on a script for a softball story to be drawn by my pal Madeline Rupert. It’s a story about a girl who goes to art school, loses her scholarship, and has to get her school’s softball team to win one game of softball in order to get an athletic scholarship.

This story involves a ton of musings on art school, financial aid, and a different approach to telling a story about sports.

For so many people, Check, Please is the story that makes them happy. What are you a fan of right now?

Other than the NBA and podcasts like The Read, Bodega Boys, and My Brother, My Brother, and Me, I haven’t been able to sink my teeth into any TV show or movie in a while.

But for a random list… I’m a big fan of Insecure, Spider-Man: Homecoming, anything Kevin Wada draws, Frank Ocean, and a ton of other podcasts. I guess a lot of my energy goes into creating things for other people to fan nowadays!

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Check, Please!: #Hockey is now available for purchase.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.