Ngozi Uzaku

Earlier this year, I attended the 2018 BookCon in New York City, an annual convention celebrating the best of pop culture and the book industry. There, I had the pleasure of interviewing acclaimed webcomic artist Ngozi Ukazu, creator of the popular queer hockey comic CHECK, PLEASE! ComicsVerse is honored to have the opportunity to meet with Ukazu and talk more about her work and life.

This is a transcript of an audio interview. It has been edited for clarity.

Origins Of An Artist: Ngozi Ukazu

ComicsVerse (CV): When did you first realize you wanted to be an artist? Were there any people or influences that inspired you?

Ngozi Ukazu (NU): I’ve always been drawing for most of my life, so I really didn’t have a moment where I was like, “Oh, I’m going to be a comic book artist.” But I knew that I wanted to tell stories from a very young age. I would say creators who inspire me include people like Shonda Rhimes, Kōhei Horikoshi (the guy who makes MY HERO ACADEMIA), and Issa Rae. People who get to create universes and tell stories with free range.

CV: How would you describe CHECK, PLEASE! in your own words?

NU: CHECK, PLEASE! is the story of a former figure skater who joins a college hockey team. His name is Eric Bittle, and he’s this little gay kid from the South who goes up to play college in a Northeastern school in Massachusetts. He’s terrified of getting checked, which is when in hockey you get hit on the ice. And so it’s a story about him finding friends, finding love, and just finding out who he is as a person. It’s a coming of age story.

Image courtesy of Ngozi Ukazu.

CV: In 2013, you attended Yale University, studying computing and the arts. Did you incorporate your personal experiences with an Ivy League institution in your comic?

NU: Yeah, basically Samwell is just Yale. Samwell is actually a mixture of Yale, Havard, and Wesley. I really loved my liberal arts education, and I really enjoyed being in the Northeast. I loved the feeling of being on a campus like Yale. When I was creating Samwell, I definitely poured all that experience into making the comic.

Deconstructing Societal Expectations

CV: In an interview with NPR, you discuss how you have reconstructed a traditional sports environment to create “an ideal world where someone like Bitty can thrive.” How important is it to address toxic masculinity both in fiction and in sports?

NU: Toxic masculinity — the idea that there’s one way to be a man, or there’s one way to be a woman, or just one way to be a person — I think is really important to address. And in sports, because you are part of a team and you are all going for the same goal, there’s that idea that maybe we all have to act the same way. Or that there’s only one way to be strong or powerful or fast.

Image courtesy of Ngozi Ukazu.

CV: In your comic, the hockey player Ransom discusses the “Weird Trifecta of Nigerian Parent Expectations” — doctor, pharmacist, and engineer. Have you come across these expectations from your own family? How have they responded to your writing career?

NU: My family has been pretty excited and happy for my writing career. I think that a lot of first generation families kind of have that pressure to do something that is reliable and known to bring you success and stability. When Ransom talks about that, he’s talking about those expectations to follow certain known career paths and the tendency for first generation kids to stray away from the unknown because it’s more risky.

Queerness In Sports

CV: Recently, there seems to be a prominent emergence of queer ice sports-centered narratives, such as CHECK, PLEASE!, Tillie Walden’s SPINNING, and the popular anime YURI ON ICE. These coincide with real life stories such as Adam Rippon, who was the first openly gay ice skater competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Do you believe there’s any reason behind this? How do you think your character Bitty would respond to this?

NU: Yeah. Me, Adam, Tillie, and Kubo-sensei all got together and said, “We need to make ice gay.”[Laughing]

CV: I’m loving this.

NU: I’m totally kidding. It’s probably a coincidence. All of those stories are very different. Like, Adam Rippon coming out is really awesome, and it’s part of this accumulation of male athletes talking about their queerness in an open way. And Tillie, I mean she’s always been gay. It was never really a coming out story for her. She was just doing her auto-bio and telling her story in her own way and just happened to come out at this time. YURI ON ICE came out at a crucial time at the end of 2016-2017, but it had also been in the works for a few years. And CHECK, PLEASE! started in 2013 and will finish up next year. I think there are a lot of stories that involve LGBTQ themes, whether fiction or nonfiction. You can also talk about… ugh, I’m forgetting his name… the first snowboarder…

CV: Gus Kentworthy.

NU: Yeah, that’s another one. Or you could talk about all the different actors and actresses now who are being more open about their bisexuality and claiming it. So I think in sports and out of sports, people are celebrating their sexuality more.

Image courtesy of Ngozi Ukazu.

Artistic Updates

CV: When can we expect the next update for CHECK, PLEASE! to come out?

NU: Soon. Definitely this season.

CV: Do you have any new ideas or projects you are currently working on and are at liberty to say?

NU: I’m working on a project with my friend Madeline Rupert. She makes a comic called SAKANA. It’s about people who sell fish in the Tsukiji Fish Market in Japan. Look her up. She’s fantastic. I’m really excited about getting to bring another voice into the creative process.

Final Thoughts

CV: What messages would you like readers to take away from your story?

NU: I think people can take away whatever they feel like. I know that readers go to the story maybe wanting different things. Some people might really appreciate the found family aspect. Some people might be interested to see portrayals of anxiety. And other people might just want to read a coming out story that has a happy ending.

Keep up with Ngozi Ukazu’s work by following her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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