In the interest of not getting anything twisted, I’d like to preface this article by saying this: I know nothing about comics or ice hockey. I’m a pretty strictly defined bookworm, and my knowledge of sports starts and ends with a short-lived secondary school hockey career.
Or at least, I knew nothing about comics or ice hockey until a few months ago, when, in typical mid-summer fashion, a.k.a. while trawling through the internet for some relief, I stumbled upon a webcomic called Check, Please!
Check, Please! is an American webcomic started by Yale graduate Ngozi Ukazu in 2013. It was originally posted to her tumblr page (omgcheckplease.tumblr.com), before gathering a serious fanbase and getting its own website in 2017. It follows the story of amateur pâtissier and former figure skating champion Eric “Bitty” Bittle as he joins the (fictional) men’s ice hockey team at the (fictional) Samwell University, and trust me when I tell you – it’s a wild ride.
Check Please! is funny, charming and heartwarming. It breaks from the typical comic format in that it’s told in episodes, not traditional pages. Each ‘episode’, especially at the beginning of the comic, are told through a vlog, with Eric narrating his experience with the hockey team step-by-step. We watch as he has to navigate interacting with the stench and liberal-hockey-slang-using habits of “The Boys”, as well as a new, violent and terrifying aspect of hockey he’s never had to deal with before – checking. The comic is broken into years, which are in turn divided into semesters, which makes the storyline really easy to follow. Starting from a simple idea, Check Please!’s story and characters grow like the roots of a tree, twisting and winding and getting lives of their own.
These characters, as I feel with any story, no matter what the medium, are what give real life and humour to Check Please!. Eric, our narrator, comes onto the page dripping in Southern charm, his young excitable self begging us to love him. “The Boys”, as previously mentioned, or members of Samwell Men’s Hockey (SMH, for short), are the kind of lovable jock guys that for all the world remind me of that one cousin who’s really into rugby, but is pretty harmless and honestly, pretty fun. Ukazu really captures the essence of Straight Sports Guy culture in giving Eric’s teammates special hockey nicknames, like Ransom, Holster and Chowder. It’s the little details that bring this comic to life.
Speaking of the little details, one of my favourite highlights from the comic is when two of the aforementioned Boys™ breaks down common hockey terms for Gentiles (such as myself) in random sections titled “Hockey Sh*t”. Such phrases include flow (a hairstyle), chirp (teasing) and celly (celebration, if you can believe it). Yet it is not just the humour that draws fans to Check Please! like college students to free food. The comic is as full of uplifting, tear-jerking moments as it is comedy gold. When Eric comes out as gay to his teammates, who are for the most part straight, we cheer for him as he handles it with ease. Every game they win, and every one they lose, the readers feel as much for the Wellies as they would for a real team. Ukazu is a gifted artist and writer who can communicate so much with so little – a look here, a hug there, and suddenly the whole mood of a frame is changed.
As you may have gathered, Check Please! was almost an instant success, and when Ukazu organised Kickstarter campaigns to get the comic published physically, her first goal was achieved nearly five times over, and her second goal received over ten times the amount of funding it required. And the good times just keep on coming! In June 2017, it was revealed that First Second Books would release two volumes (each containing two ‘years’) of the comic. The first volume of Check Please! was recently published in physical format to resounding success. The comic has also been translated into French, Spanish and German – all by fans of the comic themselves!
Ukazu is an incredibly talented artist – everything in Check Please! is planned, scripted and drawn only by her, which gives it an authentic cohesion perhaps lacking in other forms of comics, but its genius doesn’t stop there. So much of Check Please!’s success can be accredited to its existence online. While I have no doubt that it would be just as successful if it had started out as a printed comic, comic’s presence online has helped it immensely. Ukazu constantly updates her blogs with extra snippets from the world of the comic, with mini strips of characters answering questions from fans, even adding extra notes on what the fans might not have seen when reading a certain episode. Ukazu also runs a twitter account dedicated to the comic, @omgcheckplease, which acts as an account for Bitty, responding to the events in the comic. There’s a lot of media to consume there. Check Please! is setting new boundaries for comics as both an art form and an entertainment medium, crossing platforms and websites like a student inter-railing for the summer. Ukazu has said it herself – the times they are a-changing, and with new comics like Check Please! gaining this level of popularity, we can already see the crest of the new wave coming in. I, personally, cannot wait.