Ngozi Ukazu On Hockey, Queer Romance, and Her New Graphic Novel

Ngozi Ukazu's Check Please is a sensitive, incredibly funny sports story.

Photo by Beverly Guhl

Sports dramas are full of underdogs, but few heroes are as unlikely, or as enchanting, as Eric “Bitty” Bittle, the protagonist of Ngozi Ukazu’s graphic novel Check, Please (First Second, Sept. 2018; Gr 10 Up). The newest member of Samwell University’s hockey team is a chipper, pie-baking former figure skater who cringes at the thought of rough physical contact on the ice. However, readers anticipating a rude awakening when this gentle spirit meets his beer-guzzling, foul-mouthed teammates will be in for a surprise. As Ukazu told SLJ in a phone interview, “I just wanted to tell a story where the main character isn’t crushed [or] suffocated by toxic masculinity.”

Bitty’s new buddies ooze machismo—nicknames like “Shitty” abound, as do tales of drunken debauchery. But they also embrace him wholeheartedly. The aforementioned Shitty is a welcome alternative to the insensitive jock stereotype. He picks up on Bitty’s discomfort when other teammates talk about hookups, and when Bitty tells him he’s gay, he simply listens. “That’s all Bitty wants,” says Ukazu. “He just wants to be able to say it aloud.”

Not only is Bitty not overwhelmed by his new life, adds Ukazu, “he changes the environment around him.” By sophomore year, he’s a mentor for Chowder, an uncertain newbie encountering friendship woes. Even the talented team captain has something to learn from Bitty. Brooding Jack, burdened by his hockey superstar father’s high expectations, finds a confidant and friend in Bitty, while Jack helps Bitty hone his skills on the ice, and a will-they-or-won’t-they romance blossoms.

Though Ukazu enjoys sports stories, like Bitty, she was initially a hockey outsider. Her introduction to the game came her senior year of college, when she decided to write a screenplay about hockey players. Immersing herself in research, she emerged a hockey fan, and while in art school the next year, she began Check, Please as a webcomic—an increasingly common way for artists to seek out audiences. Ukazu garnered an enormous, committed fanbase, using social media to great effect. When she created a Twitter account for Bitty, many followers responded directly to him. Others produced their own art, inspired by the webcomic. Fans also contributed to her Kickstarter campaigns. “I was so taken aback by the amount of enthusiasm,” she says. “You see...‘likes,’ but when you actually see people putting [money] behind your story, that’s when it starts to become more real.”

Part of the comic’s appeal is its fresh, winsome artwork. Ukazu’s cartoonish style softens Bitty’s tough-talking teammates—a play straight out of manga, where “you can have very cute protagonists doing insane, intense fighting.” Her predilection for big-eyed, expressive characters also stems from her love of manga.

Ukazu draws from other sources, too. TV shows such as Batman: The Animated Series helped her develop a streamlined artistic look, while her love of sitcoms and her habit of paying close attention to real-life conversations gave the story its humorous, slice-of-life tone. Like most college students, her characters passionately debate minutiae; one of the most popular scenes involves Bitty and friends debating whether they’d rather live in an apartment infested by roaches or one that conceals a stranger. Ukazu notes, “I try to just listen to what people are saying, and people say really [silly] but true and compelling stuff all the time.”

With YA lit dominated by angsty protagonists and heavy themes, Ukazu’s cheerful hockey players stand out. “I tend to like characters who are bubbly, maybe even a little [foolish] sometimes,” she says, citing the flighty superheroine Sailor Moon as one of her favorites. But her endearingly clueless characters manage to illustrate some powerful truths. A simple yet poignant scene sees best friends Ransom and Holtz arguing over who will be voted team captain. Each assumes the other is a shoe-in, but when they discover that they’ve been elected cocaptains, the moment ends with a close-up of a fist bump.

Check, Please distinguishes itself in another way. Few U.S. comics take on sports, Ukazu says. Sports stories that center on same-sex romance are even rarer, but Ukazu finds blending the two themes rewarding. "Hockey is tough and all about giving one's self up for the team—conformity. A queer romance involves vulnerability and realizing how one's own attractions can make one different." Bitty may still have a lot to learn about hockey, but his compelling narrative offers a different and much-needed perspective.

Author Image
Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Reference and Professional Reading Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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