The creator of one of the most popular hockey-themed web comics — yes, that's a thing — does not even know how to ice skate. Ngozi Ukazu created "Check Please," about a sweet-natured Southern hockey player who's short, loves baking pies and is completely crushed out on his hunky team captain.
The success of "Check Please" shows how a new generation of storytellers are refining the 21st century tools that help them attract and retain fans and earn a living with their work.
"I would say my estimated readership is at least 120K," Ukazu tells me in an email conversation. "10k people check out [my] updates whenever they're posted. And it might be more interesting to talk about the 5000 fanfictions that have been posted on the fanfiction site AO3." Plus, a recent Kickstarter for "Check Please" raised about $100,000 in an hour. (It eventually cleared about a quarter of million.)
Ukazu grew up in Atlanta, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants and the kind of kid who got into both Harvard and Yale. While attending the latter, she became fascinated by hockey culture, fraternity culture — in general, by bros. "Maybe it's my need to see these things [where] I could be seen as the enemy," she says, half-jokingly. "To see it and then learn about it, infiltrate it and then subvert it.
"I don't want to other them too much," she adds. "Which is like, as a black woman, who am I to say I'm othering a bunch of white guys who play this sport. But it was like I was doing this anthropological study."
And Ukazu has also come up with a brilliant strategy for keeping fans on the hook, something that's made her comic an internet sensation, says Gary Tyrrell, who writes about the world of web comics on his blog Fleen.
"'Check Please' has absolutely exploded," he says. Even he, not normally the type to go for a gay college hockey romance, is a fan. Partly because he finds it adorable, and partly because he admires how Ukazu keeps the story going across multiple social media platforms even during the weeks when she's working on the comic and isn't putting new panels online. For example, the characters have their own Twitter and Tumblr accounts that drop hints about upcoming plotlines. And Tyrrell says Ukazu lets her fans listen in, so to speak, on what's happening backstage.
"There's almost daily process updates," he says. "Here are some sketches, here's a little piece of story that didn't make it in. Here's what these other characters were doing while the story was happening on panel."
Ukazu has been writing and drawing "Check Please" for more than three years. The print version of Year Two officially debuts this week at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, and she says at the end of Year Four, when the characters graduate, she'll be done. In the meantime, she views "Check Please" as something close to a playful exercise in collegiate hockey-centric cultural appropriation.
"I'm not so much appropriating this culture as saying, like, 'Here's a culture and this is how it could be in an ideal world where someone like Bitty could thrive," she said.
Someone like a talented outsider, who figures out the rules, who breaks them knowingly, and with nerve. And who makes things more interesting for everyone. Like creator, like creation.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Storytellers are getting better and better at finding fans, keeping them and bringing in money. We're going to hear about one of them now, a 26-year-old comic strip creator who raised a hundred thousand dollars in one hour on Kickstarter. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The main character of "Check Please" is a college hockey player. Bitty Bidwell is blonde, southern, super sweet, undersized and gay. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, the main character of “Check Please” is referred to as Bitty Bidwell. In fact, the character is Eric “Bitty” Bittle.] "Check Please" is like a comic strip or a graphic novel that's updated every few weeks online. Here's an actor reading an early panel where Bitty's skating down the ice in the middle of a game.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bitty) And this Dartmouth D-man revs up at me right off the dots.
ULABY: Although Bidwell is a star athlete, he's terrified of getting checked. That's when an opponent slams into you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bitty) And I'm like, please don't check me. Please don't check me. Please, please, please don't check me.
ULABY: The creator of "Check Please" is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. Her name is Ngozi Ukazu. She does not even know how to ice skate.
NGOZI UKAZU: Maybe it's my need to see these things - I could be seen as the enemy (laughter) - like, to see it and then, like, learn about it, infiltrate it and then subvert it.
ULABY: Ukazu grew up in Atlanta, the kind of overachiever who got into both Harvard and Yale. At Yale, Ukazu became fascinated by hockey culture, fraternity culture, in general by bros.
UKAZU: I don't want to other them too much (laughter), which is, like - I mean as a black woman, who am I to say, like, I'm othering a bunch of white guys who play this sport? But it was like I was doing, like, this anthropological study.
(SOUNDBITE OF REFEREE WHISTLE)
ULABY: That meant mastering the rules of hockey and dreaming up masculine characters who fall in love. Bitty is sensitive and vulnerable. He loves baking pies when he's not on the rink, and he's smitten with his hunky teammate who coaches him through his fear being checked.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bitty) Stop, stop, stop.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I came at you slow, and I don't even have pads on. Seriously, Bittle, you've got this stupid mental block about getting hit. If it's the only thing holding you back, we're going to get you over it. Just trust me, OK.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bitty) Then how long are we going to keep doing this?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Until you stop being scared.
GARY TYRRELL: "Check Please" has absolutely exploded.
ULABY: Gary Tyrrell writes about the world of web comics on his blog Fleen. While not the type to normally go for a gay college hockey romance, Tyrrell is among its estimated 120,000 regular readers. That's according to creator Ngozi Ukazu. She updates the comic only every other month or so, but Tyrrell says she's brilliant at keeping her fans on the hook.
TYRRELL: There's almost daily process updates. Here are some sketches. Here's a little piece of story that didn't make it in. Here's what these other characters were doing while the story was happening on panel.
ULABY: The characters have their own Twitter and Tumblr accounts that drop hints about future plot developments. Ukazu has been writing and drawing "Check Please" for more than three years. Year two officially debuts this month. She says at the end of year four when the characters graduate, she'll be done. In the meantime, Ukazu sees "Check Please" as a playful exercise and something like appropriation.
UKAZU: I'm taking - not so much appropriating this culture as saying, like, here's a culture, and this is how it would be if - in an ideal world where someone like Bitty could thrive.
ULABY: That is to say, a talented outsider who figures out the rules, who breaks them knowingly with nerve and who makes things more interesting for everyone - like creator, like creation. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF CARIBOU'S "BEES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.