It’s no secret that print comics are in decline. The stories have become convoluted with crossover events, universe resets, and ‘Death of’ storylines, once a rarity, are now the norm. There is an excess of lore, much of which is contradictory. Fan expectations for characters are high. New, challenging content is highly sought after, but only so long as it does not actively work against the established status quo.
Even the best writer will struggle with all those competing demands.
Where traditional print comics are declining, web-comics are flourishing. They are often written, drawn, and published by one or two people. Many exist without paywalls. The stories are fresh, the characters new. All this amounts to web-comics providing the kind of long-form storytelling that print comics, in their current state, cannot.
There are many great webcomics out there. This article, however, is focusing on one in particular: Check, Please!
What is Check, Please! about?
Written and illustrated by Ngozi Ukaza, Check, Please!is the story of Eric “Bitty” Bittle. He’s a vlogger and figure-skater-turned-ice hockey skater who has just moved to the fictional Samwell University. The story follows Bitty as he deals with Samwell’s sports culture, masculinity, sexual identity, coming out, family, fame, and more.
In short, it’s a slice-of-life webcomic about a hockey team.
Sounds nice, but what makes Check, Please! so special?
That’s the secret genius of Check, Please! The majority of print comics are doubling down on complex stories, making every issue an ‘event’. Check, Please! sets itself apart by being unabashedly normal.
Bitty is a gay protagonist. It would have been easy forCheck, Please! to become another ‘gay’ story that leans hard into clichés. Instead, Bitty is never treated with anything other than respect by his teammates. In fact, the series defines itself on the support and camaraderie that exists within the team. Conflict is manufactured for the sake of drama. It arises organically and is handled with writing that is equal parts fun and mature.
This gives Check, Please! room to play more complex ideas, which it does with honesty and humility. It leans hard into the slice-of-life aspect of its story, exploring everyday challenges that we do not get to see in most kinds of fiction, let alone densely plotted comics.
Bitty’s sexuality— and the challenges that lie there-in— is explored at length. But Check, Please! dodges the generic ‘coming out’ and ‘homophobia’ narrative. Instead, we are treated to the much more interesting narrative of internalized homophobia. Bitty, and later other characters do more to oppress and marginalize themselves than anyone else. Often, they do not even realize they are doing it. We get to watch them overcome their self-imposed homophobia and feelings of inadequacy. This makes the queer aspects of Check, Please! fresh and wonderful.
And that’s only one small part of the story.
Characters are often multi-faceted, and the story serves and dips in unexpected ways. Check, Please! takes it’s time, exploring sub-plots and small moments that would often be cut in a more traditional comic. Bitty, for instance, is far more than a “gay” character. He also deals with a fear of being ‘checked’, a term for when you’re hit by another hockey player (and also the series’ namesake). He’s also a known Beyoncé fan, social media magnate, and prolific baker. One of the more enjoyable ongoing subplots is Bitty’s constant ‘negotiations’ with the team’s oven.
While Bitty is the protagonist the entire team is given room to shine as well. Each member has their own challenges, their own victories. Check, Please! never aspires to be more than it is at face value. “Big moments” are not big because they redefine the status quo. They are big because we see the characters work hard against them. It is a story about celebrating the everyday triumphs.
What about the art, is it any good?
Ngozi Ukaza is a talented artist with a cute and cartoony style. Her aesthetic is distinct from both mainstream comics and most other online art as well. You can see influences from comic strips like Archie and Peanuts, manga, and various animated shows. However, the art style of Check, Please! is remains singular and charming.
Ukaza also makes use of horizontal page arrangements to imitate the look that Bitty’s vlogs would have in real life. Check, Please! is full of small flourishes like this. It folds the forms and aesthetics of other media into the comic in creative and unexpected ways. The comic continually experiments with style and presentation but never becomes showy.
Another small joy of the series is getting to watch Ukaza’s style evolve. In the first few ‘episodes’ (the series splits itself into episodic installments rather than single panels) the art is monochrome and slightly more generic. As the series continues, we see Ukaza improve. Colour gets added, character designs subtly changed, and the artistic ‘voice’ becomes more distinct. Check, Please! is aesthetic evolution in action. It is wonderful to watch Ukaza become more confident over time, much like her characters.
Ok, I’m sold, is there anything else I should know?
Nothing not worth discovering for yourself!
The series is ongoing. Ukaza has been writing it since 2013. It is arranged into volumes, one per year of University. Check, Please!is currently in its third volume.