When you ask Ngozi Ukazu about her favorite fandoms, she says it depends: “How much time do you have?” she responds. It turns out her top three series are Star Trek, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander books. However, her own comic is about something totally different: hockey. Check, Please!: Book 1: #Hockeyis the story of Bitty, a gay kid from Georgia who is beginning his first year on Samwell University’shockey team.
The comic evolved from a screenplay Ukazu wrote her senior year of college, which was also about a gay hockey player but from a darker perspective: The characters got addicted to pain killers and grappled with self-hatred instead of baking pies and calling each other silly nicknames. “I was like, OK, I’m going to try to make some very serious art—push out my tendency to do comedy—and it came rushing back in,” she says.
Despite her abiding enthusiasm, the sport seems like an unexpected subject for Ukazu. “I’m a first-generation Nigerian woman who is from Texas, which is not what you think of when you think about hockey,” she says. Before writing Check, Please! she did extensive research and immersed herself in Yale’s hockey scene so she could do the sport’s culture justice. She compares the process to going into the wild and gathering ingredients—you have to get really good ones to create the best possible dish at home.
Ukazu is fascinated by the worldbuilding process. “It just makes everything feel more real,” she says. “It makes the jokes funnier; it makes the stakes higher.” In fact, worldbuilding is what initially drew her to fandom: When she read or watched something she loved, she wanted to live in those worlds for as long as she could.
She was determined to replicate this feeling in her own work. “I always liken starting Check, Please! to creating my own fandom,” Ukazu says. To that end, she created social media accounts for her characters and put out regular bonus content. The idea was to create a whole interactive world rather than a single narrative.
Given Ukazu’s interest in cross-platform storytelling, starting Check, Please! as a webcomic was a natural choice for her. “My relationship with the internet is that it’s always been a bit of a canvas for me,” she says. Putting her comic online allowed her to connect directly and immediately with an audience even as she was developing the story and characters.
In order to make the comic financially feasible, Ukazu put together a Kickstarter campaign to self-publish a graphic-novel version. It worked so well that she did a second one, which became the most funded comic campaign to ever appear on the site. With that milestone came the opportunity to work with traditional publishers rather than doing everything herself. “It made sense because, while Check, Please! could definitely exist as an independent entity and fandom online, now that it’s in bookstores, now that it’s in libraries, it’s reaching audiences that may have never found it on Tumblr,” she says. What began as a very novel type of storytelling has found new fans through more traditional means.
Even though it feels awkward to discuss her own success, Ukazu wants to emphasize just how much financial support there has been for Check, Please! “It shows that there is a readership for stories about little gay boys who bake pie,” she says. “People want happy queer love stories.”
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.