Interview with Ngozi Ukazu, author and illustrator of “Check, Please!”

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At last year’s Flame Con (the queer comic con held in NYC), I had the pleasure of meeting up with author and artist Ngozi Ukazu. Her web comic, Check, Please!, was the most funded Kickstarter of all time, and has taken the internet by storm. In between talking about the amazing art on display and our shared love of hockey, we took a few minutes to chat about pies, queer rep in sports, and #Hockey, the first volume of Check, Please!, which will be published this autumn by First Second!

College, baking, coming to terms with your sexuality, and hockey… what more could you ask for in a comic? “Check” it out:

Eric Bittle—former Georgia junior figure skating champion, vlogger extraordinaire, and amateur pâtissier—is starting his freshman year playing hockey at the prestigious Samwell University in Samwell, Massachusetts. And it’s basically nothing like co-ed club hockey back in the South. For one?

There’s checking.

It’s a story about hockey and friendship and bros and trying to find yourself during the best 4 years of your life.

Today I’m thrilled to feature Ngozi on the blog! And be sure to check the end of the post for purchase links and more.

Credit: Ngozi Ukazu (Year 3, Chapter 1)

El: Hi Ngozi! Thank you so much for joining me today.

You’ve talked a bit about this before online, I think, but how did Check, Please! come into existence?

Ngozi: I started Check, Please! in 2013. Before that, I took a screenwriting class, where I ended up writing a story about a hockey player who discovers that he’s gay, and he realizes he’s in love with his best friend. All the while, he still has a girlfriend, so he’s trying to figure things out.  I started doing all this research, and then I had all this leftover research that I wanted to use. So I started Check, Please! It was really fun, because the screenplay I wrote was dark and negative, and Check, Please! was like a bit of fresh air.

E: It’s so cheerful! It’s basically the exact opposite of depressing.

N: I think that’s the goal. I definitely think that one goal in writing Check, Please! was to create a positive, uplifting story that involved queerness. But it wasn’t, like, a character who was dictated just by his sexuality – [it’s] a story about a person.

E: Let’s talk about some of your hockey research. How do you research? Do you watch games, and decide to put certain moments in your story?

N: What I did initially was watch a ton of documentaries. I watched the NHL 24/7 series.

E: Which is so good!

N: Don’t get me started on that! I watched a ton of documentaries, and I watched a ton of homemade YouTube series that colleges put up. I also went to the library to check out books. There are ethnographies about hockey players and some of them do concern the social aspects, like the weird homophobia/homosexuality that arises in environments that are primarily just young men trying to figure out who they are.

I also did a lot of interviews. Even though that was the smallest portion of my time, that’s where I learned the most. I interviewed varsity athletes who are in the Yale Gay-Straight Alliance. And I interviewed an AHL player who was the friend of a friend, and he just broke down everything about how one gets into playing professional sports.

E: Super important question: what’s your favorite team? NHL, AHL, college?

N: My favorite team used to be the Montreal Canadiens, back when we had the Subban and Price duo, and then you had Alex Galchenyuk, and Brendan Gallagher, and Brandon Prust. I think that was a really fun moment in time for me in hockey. And then they traded P.K., and I said, “You’re dead to me.”

Photo Credit: 24hmontreal.canoe.ca

E: Worst decision anyone in the NHL’s ever made. I know people in Montreal who are still bitter about that.

N: It was ridiculous. So I kind of feel like I don’t have a team.

E: Circling back to Check, Please!, did the initial concept change as you started writing it?

N: I wanted to write a story where masculinity was still pretty much in its rigid ways, but enter a character who gets to define masculinity for himself. Who is scared about how people define masculinity for him, but gets to define and redefine it for others and who ultimately succeeds. It’s not like I started this comic about pies and hockey and said, “This is about redefining masculinity.” I didn’t do that, it was more, “Oh, look at what it’s become.”

Credit to Ngozi Ukazu (Year One, Chapter 4)

E: Okay, we talked about the hockey, now let’s talk about the pies. Do you bake?

N: I don’t bake, I don’t skate… I’ve only been to Canada twice.

E: You’re a fraud! *laughs*

N: No, I’m a charlatan! I don’t know how I’ve gotten away with writing this comic for so long, because I try to research meticulously, but the baking aspect comes from some of my friends in college.

E: There’s almost a duality, in terms of talking about toxic masculinity, while baking is a considered a “feminine” thing.

N: Yeah, and I thought that was an interesting duality to contrast everything. Again, this isn’t some grand scheme. There are all these very stark contrasts: Bitty is from the South, and Jack is from the North. Bitty is very warm, sunshine, even his coloring is very warm, while Jack has these piercing blue ‘husky’ eyes. Like, Bitty is doing something that is considered traditionally more feminine, and Jack is over here dying because of toxic masculinity. It’s kind of this weird thesis of: Oh look at what Bitty is doing, he’s winning.

E: What are your thoughts on organizations such as “You Can Play”, who say, “It’s okay, if you can play you can play. If you’re queer, it’s safe to come out.”

N: All those organizations are great, and fantastic, and necessary. I think sports leagues need to recognize and support them more. We don’t see that as much – I don’t know, we can always criticize things like the NHL, NBA, and whatever, but we need to support more of these ideas in organizations.

E: So what’s next for Bitty? [If you haven’t read the comic online yet, be aware that mild spoilers are incoming!!]

N: Bitty has to make a decision about how he wants to talk to his parents about his sexuality, and talk to the world about his sexuality. And yeah, we’ll find out soon what his decision will be. Overall, that has been the theme of Bitty’s junior year: public versus private. Seeing Jack and Bitty strategize how to support each other, and the team is supporting Bitty. Check, Please! has been about “friends!” and people supporting each other, and we’ll close out on Check, Please! with all those thoughts in mind.

E: Last question: what’s coming up? You’ve got Year 4, a book deal with First Second, what’s next?

N: I’ve been working on a story with my friend Madeline Rupert. She’s been really great. It’s a story about girl’s softball in college. We’re excited to be working on a project together. I’m writing it, and she’s drawing it. The script is almost done, and we’ll have more word on that in 2018. The Check, Please! book is coming out- one volume is year 1 and 2, and another volume will be year 3 and 4. Should hit stores on September 18, 2018.

E: Awesome, I can’t wait! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today.

You can read Check, Please! online for free right now at http://checkpleasecomic.com/. Volume One, covering Years 1 and 2, will be out in September from First Second, and you can pre-order it now:

 

BAM!

IndieBound

Chapters Indigo

And for some extras, be sure to check out Ngozi’s tumblr, where she posts art and updates!

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