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Why queer hockey webcomic Check, Please! is stealing the internet's heart

Check, Please! (Tumblr) - Illustration by Ngozi Ukazu
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Check, Please! is a wildly popular webcomic about gay hockey players at a fictional New England college. It contains a mix of elements that have proven irresistible to its many fans: thrilling hockey moments, fun college humor, and queer romance.

If your gut reaction is that gay love stories and hockey don’t pair very well, you’re not alone. But Check, Please! proves that a nontraditional sports narrative can still appeal to sports fans.

After spending most of its three-year journey as a sleeper hit among hockey fans, Check, Please! has enjoyed a massive boom in popularity over the past year. Lately the comic has gained attention from mainstream corners of the web, a sign that it might soon find an even bigger audience.

Indeed, Check, Please! appears to be following the familiar trajectory of "fandom fame > internet fame > actual fame" that previous Tumblr faves like Gingerhaze — better known to the public as comic artist and writer Noelle Stevenson — have enjoyed. After becoming a breakout viral success for her cute fandom comics, Stevenson created an original webcomic, Nimona. That comic became a huge hit, was published, and was ultimately nominated for the 2015 National Book Award.

And although Nimona, a tongue-in-cheek feminist magical fantasy, couldn’t be more different from Check, Please!, both comics speak to the growing interest from mainstream culture in niche webcomics with plenty of outsider appeal.

What is Check, Please! about?

Written and drawn by a grad student named Ngozi Ukazu, Check, Please! follows the adventures of a diminutive freshman named Eric Bittle, a.k.a. "Bitty," as he tries to adapt from his former life as a competitive figure skater to life on the Samwell College hockey team. (The comic’s title refers to the act of "checking," or physically blocking another hockey player as a defense strategy.)

Bitty has a couple of major secrets: He’s a gay man playing one of the world’s most notoriously homophobic sports, and he’s got a serious crush on the team’s brusque, troubled captain, Jack Zimmerman.

As the son of a major hockey star, Jack has his own problems, starting with the pressure of bearing the expectations of a bona fide sports legacy on his shoulders.

Comic shows a famous hockey player hoisting a googly-eyed baby over the huge Stanley Cup trophy. Caption explains the baby, Jack, is the only person in NHL history to have pooped in a Stanley Cup more than once. Check, Please! (Tumblr)

Finally, there’s the bevy of snarky bros who make up the rest of the hockey team — you might say they’re secretly the "mane" event:

The comic has built a sizable fan base among hockey fans and non-fans alike

The comic is a byproduct of Ukazu’s interest in hockey as a fan and the research she did on homophobia in hockey leagues while writing a screenplay about a closeted player. She launched the project in 2013 and immediately attracted a loyal but tiny following online, one that included both hockey and non-hockey fans. It helps that you don’t have to be a hockey fan or know anything about hockey to appreciate the comic; Ukazu includes mini explainers on basic hockey concepts, written as asides, to help out readers who don’t follow the sport.

In real life, hockey culture has serious issues to contend with, including homophobia, sexual assault, racism, and misogyny. In the early years of Check, Please!, these unfortunate concepts almost never intruded into Samwell College’s diverse, fun-loving locker room — even though to anyone paying attention to Jack’s carefully closeted persona, it’s always been clear that more serious issues were on the way.

Still, in 2015, as several real-life hockey scandals took their toll on hockey fandom, more and more people began flocking to Check, Please! as a fictional antidote to reality. When Ukazu launched a Kickstarter campaign for a print edition of the first volume of the comic, fans chipped in a whopping $74,000. Since then, Check, Please! has developed a sizable, energetic fandom, with its own fandom wiki, more than 2,000 fics on the fanfic website AO3, and an endless stream of fan art for the comic’s large cast of characters.

Ukazu also currently earns a substantial amount of money through the crowdfunding subscription site Patreon from the monthly contributions by fans of her comic. And those numbers of fans just keep growing and growing.

Check, Please!’s strength is its humor — and its potential to explore more serious topics

Check, Please! is full of warmth and wit — but its success is mostly due to the appeal of its side characters, who are each interesting, entertaining, and hilarious in their own way. The standout among them is Jack’s best friend Shitty, a perpetually high, stealthily brilliant dude-bro philosophy major.

The comic’s plot develops slowly, as Ukazu’s central concern is to showcase slice-of-life moments from the players’ daily lives. But the story is mainly told through Bitty’s perspective as a curious observer, as both Bitty and the reader witness the gradually unfolding drama and slight mystery surrounding Jack’s backstory, his relationship with his family, and his struggle to conquer his anxiety and take his rightful place on hockey’s world stage.

Because Check, Please! is now three years old and takes place in a college setting, some of its main players — including Jack — have graduated from school and set off into the world of professional hockey. This development has significantly expanded the cast of characters and given Ukazu the challenging dual task of continuing the storyline at Samwell while following Jack’s progress as a pro player.

And because of other developments in the storyline, the homophobia that plagues hockey in the real world has abruptly forced its way into the comic’s main narrative. Still, the primary focus remains on Bitty, Jack, and college friendships.

Check, Please! (Tumblr)

Despite this complexity, Check, Please! can be frustratingly thin when it comes to actually fleshing out its characters. Bitty in particular often feels like a cipher who has little substantial characterization, even though he’s ostensibly the main character. He’s our primary narrator, yet we know next to nothing about him, personality-wise, except that he's a friendly guy who likes hockey, baking, and Beyoncé.

Many of the comic’s more significant plot points seem to revolve around Jack's tragic backstory, his daddy issues, and his anxiety about the future — all of which are spelled out in great detail, in contrast to Bitty’s scarcely mentioned history and his bare-bones relationship with his own family.

What’s more, those same plot points, some of which have been three years in the making, often feel underdeveloped, with emotional developments that don’t seem earned. While the big cast and detailed setting make the world of Check, Please! feel quite rich, it sometimes seems as though Ukazu has sacrificed characterization and relationship development in order to give fans more of the emotional moments they love.

But these issues haven’t stopped the comic’s rise in popularity. Earlier this month, one fan even made an incredible live-action trailer that envisions what the colorful cartoon comic might look like if it were adapted into TV series:

As the fan-made trailer easily proves, there’s plenty of room for these characters in other formats; it’s easy to imagine Check, Please! becoming a hit indie film or a TV series on Netflix, Hulu, or even HBO. Sign us up.

Check, Please! just finished a new round of updates detailing the lead-up to Bitty’s junior year at Samwell. (Ukazu tends to release multiple issues of the comic a few days apart, taking longer breaks between posting weeks.) We’re not sure where these players’ journeys will take them, but we can already predict Ukazu’s: She’s on the path to something big.