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Indie Comics Spotlight: How Ngozi Ukazu took Check Please! from college thesis to international phenomenon
For March, in honor of Women's History Month, Indie Comics Spotlight is dedicated to women creators in indie comics.
Ngozi Ukazu might just be the most successful independent comic book creator you've never heard of. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, born and raised in Houston Texas, Ukazu found success with her popular webcomic turned award-winning graphic novel Check Please! (First Second Books). Not only has the series won Reuben and William Morris Awards, it's been translated into three languages, and the Year Two and Year Three volumes both raised over $300K on Kickstarter.
Check Please! follows Eric Richard 'Bitty' Bittle, a gay figure skater, vlogger and master baker from Georgia who joins a northern college hockey team his freshman year. The story follows Bitty, the closeted team captain Jack that he falls for, and the rest of the team year by year. The series features a multiethnic cast, tackles issues like depression and homophobia and combines them with unrequited love and stress baking... all before midterms. Between a real-life Twitter account Ukazu set up for Bitty, the fanfiction-like premise and her manga art style, the comic blew up on Tumblr and is a perennial fan favorite.
SYFY WIRE caught up with Ukazu and talked about what's going to happen when Bitty finally graduates, why she's never worked with the Big Two and how she turned a school project into a profitable franchise, all on her own.
Did you read comics when you were growing up?
My dad would get the newspaper every day and I would go through the entire broad sheet of comic pages. I really started getting into comics when I was in middle school. That's when the Tokyopop manga wave really hit. I remember reading Tokyo Mew Mew and Yu Yu Hakusho and even like the first Pokemon comics then. I didn't even think reading comics was anything unique.It was just another form of entertainment that was around.
Did you know then that you wanted to create comics?
I thought I was going to go to school, get a degree in computer science, do some programming and then start drawing. Like take a very safe path before doing the thing that I really loved. Especially having Nigerian parents (they wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, of course). But I eventually convinced them that I could go into animation. That's something that made sense to them and it was an industry that needed people to draw. Animation didn't really work out, so that's how I ended up in comics and webcomics.
You went to school for sequential art, correct?
So in undergrad at Yale, I started off in computer science, but I was not very inspired by or very good at that. I ended up majoring in computing and the arts. That was my way of trying to salvage all my computer science credits so I could graduate. I could draw kind of well, but it wasn't anything that would get my portfolio recognized. That's when I went to the Savannah College of Art Design and graduated in their Sequential Arts program.
Were you in grad school when you came up with Check Please!?
My senior year of undergrad, I wrote a screenplay on hockey and I didn't know anything about it, really. So to make the screenplay authentic, I had to do a ton of research and I just ended up being a hockey fan as a result. It was 2013, and that same year ahe Bulldogs (Yale's men's hockey team) won the Division One NCAA Men's ice hockey championships. So I felt like it was perfect timing.
A lot of things have happened for you that have had perfect timing.
I'm very thankful. The summer after that I started Check Please!, I had all this research and hockey knowledge from writing the screenplay. So I just put it into a comic. It wasn't an active decision. Some of it was just kind of luck because the only reason I started this web comic was practice for grad school. There was no intent to print, no intent for it to be anything other than a project that I put online. But it grew and grew after that and I was fortunate enough to work on it during grad school.
So what made you, a young black woman from Texas, decide to do a hockey comic about a gay white young man from Georgia who stress bakes?
It is so crazy. I've done so much self-examination about why I am obsessed with writing male athletic spaces either more queer, more feminine, or more diverse. I tend to find stories that may not even feature characters that look like me. One of the themes that really resonate with me is romance that seems either forbidden or existing in environments and spaces that you don't see yourself in and you think you may not thrive in. Also the feeling of being an outsider and trying to make yourself fit in. So while Bitty and I may not have a lot in common on paper, those are things that I'm very much used to.
You actually created a Twitter account for Bitty Right?
Yes! Bitty had a Twitter account that I ran 24/7 for about a year and a half. I eventually had to stop because it was pretty tiring. I actually wrote my grad school thesis on multi-platform storytelling, which is when you use different mediums to build a full story. I think that really resonated with readers. People really just felt like Bitty was real and I'm excited to do that with future projects, too.
There's a rumor that one of the Big Two came knocking after your second huge Kickstarter. What happened with that?
It was actually DC Comics that came knocking and it just didn't work out. And that was fine. I think one reason it didn't work out is because I made a lot of demands. My attitude was like, “I don't have to work for you guys."
Because you had a Kickstarter that just made $350,000.
I'd love to write a Blue Beetle/Booster Gold epic. But if y'all don't want to collaborate, then we don't have to. I really like those comics but it just didn't work out.
Do you have other stories as you've been itching to tell?
I do have other stories. I have one story for which I finished the script and my friend Madeline Rupert will be illustrating it. That's going in a more traditional publishing route. And then I have another story that's also going the traditional publishing route. They're both featuring female characters, which I am now writing more of. I feel like I'm just just kind of awakening and owning that space and I'm loving it.
Would you be interested in turning Check Please! into an animated series?
Netflix CALL ME! An animated series would be great! Some people want it as a live-action show, and I'd be down with that as well. I don't need all the creative control, but I would like to just give input because I know the readers want something authentic and I don't want to mess with that.
Check Please! has so much fanfiction that you could do what J.K. Rowling did and have like one episode be fan written.
That was really a cool time. I remember in the first few years of Check Please! I would read fanfiction and then give people direct feedback. "Like I love this. I love this. That's so cool."
You were so connected with the fans of the project, that's why it was so successful.
It has to be organic and it has to be authentic. I often have people ask me for advice on getting their comic off the ground. And if you're not already like, you know, grassroots in fandom, if you're not already in that space and you want to just jump in and create that, it's really difficult. A lot of the people who became dedicated fans were people that followed me from other fandoms because we were reading the same fanfiction and sharing the same works.
Is Check Please! officially over? Has everybody graduated?
When Bitty graduates the story ends. I'm turning in pages now for the end of the book in a few months and then we'll be releasing the comic throughout the rest of 2019, hopefully. And the book will be published in stores through First Second Books.
Will Bitty and Jack get married?
Well we'll have to wait and see! Anything can happen.
So now that comics is your full-time gig, do your parents still want you to be a doctor?
No they're good now. They're thrilled that I can fully sustain myself with my work.