Ngozi Ukazu is who I wanted to be when I grew up: a person who transformed Big On The Internet into a real world, tangible career while inspiring legions of fans to passionate heights that began with fanfiction and ended with the most funded webcomics Kickstarter ever. In this day and age, self-publishing your way to success almost seems like a pipe dream, but Ngozi has done it time and again; her latest Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing of “Check, Please!” main character Eric “Bitty” Bittle’s Twitter account was funded in under 24 hours.
Though it’s not just her fans taking notice. At New York Comic Con, Ngozi won a Harvey Award for Digital Book of the Year, hot on the heels of her September Ignatz win for Outstanding Comic. Not to mention a few critic’s picks and best book lists along the way. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that she represents the future of comics.
And while it’s often pointed out by interviewers (myself included) the seeming disconnect between author and subject, Ngozi herself put it best: at its core, “Check, Please!” is the story of a fish out of water who succeeds.
I was going to start off asking you how your con is going, but I’m pretty sure I can guess how it’s going since you won a Harvey Award.
Ngozi Ukazu: That was really exciting. It’s been a really great convention, starting off with the New York Public Library with their collaboration with New York Comic Con, meeting so many librarians and educators who are just enthusiastic. And then, the Harvey, getting to meet Alison Bechdel, Mike Mignola, that was amazing. It’s very surreal.
It must be very surreal. You came to comics very non-traditionally with Kickstarter, whereas most people go through publishers. So that must be amazing for you to be here and to be receiving such accolades from the industry.
NU: It’s really strange. Alison Bechdel got her start with doing zines. Another one of the inductees to the Hall of Fame, she got her start doing zines. Mike Mignola, very traditional, going through Dark Horse. I’m a web comics person. Those are all Hall of Famers. But even like the newer folks like Jarrett Krosoczka, who got Book of the Year, he’s really more like children’s literature too. So comics is changing, like just this year alone. And other people who, like Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, she’s working with the veteran Mariko Tamaki. I think this is her first book. What a cool awards ceremony. I could talk about that forever.
I’m sure it was exciting. Going off of that, the panel that you’re doing later is about inclusivity in comics. How do you think the comic industry is doing now with being inclusive and diversity, not within just creators but also comics?
NU: I think things are changing. Obviously, there still needs to be more change. I’m finding more and more that the most inclusive and diverse stories that are being told or being told by creators who genuinely wants to see those narratives. I find that it’s great that companies and studios and publishers are taking initiative, but I feel like when it’s creator-driven, or its editor-driven, or if it’s agent-driven, when people in the industry are part of marginalized identities, they really rally to see more stories about people of different races, different gender identities, sexualities, different income levels, it’s really outstanding. So I think there’s still work to be done, but as long as more power is coming to the people who are bringing out narratives, I think we’ll be okay.
Speaking of diversity, for “Check, Please!” how did you decide to focus on a gay figure skater/hockey player, and boys in college in general?
NU: So I actually talked about this in my speech at New York Public Library on Thursday. How does a first generation Nigerian woman who grew up in Houston, Texas, home of Beyonce, end up telling a story about hockey?
It really started my freshman year of college when I overheard . . . well, he offered this information, a hockey player said there’s no gay guys in the hockey team. That made me really start to question well, what if? In my senior year I started a screenplay. I wrote a screenplay about that. I was like, “okay, what if there was a gay guy on the hockey team?” I did tons and tons of research because again, I’m from Houston, Texas, and I don’t know anything about hockey. I did a ton of research, and at the end of it, I became a hockey fan. And so I wanted to continue telling stories in the world of hockey, but perhaps more heartening stories, perhaps more hopeful stories.Continued below
And that’s when I started to do “Check, Please!” which is the story of a queer kid in the South, who’s totally a fish out of water. But he succeeds, he finds love. He gets to have his accomplishments. And he succeeds. So that’s kind of how I came around to it.
So you were always a comic fan as a kid?
NU: Yeah, I was always a fan of cartoon sitcoms and comics. And I think for me, comics were the most immediate way for me to get a story out. I do enjoy writing, but it’s so much faster when I see the place in my head. Drawing it gets so much faster than describing it.
I was a tween in the manga boom in the early ’00s, and I started reading, I think it was the Humberto Serrano Spider-Man, “Ultimate Spider Man” comics. So and I was a big fan of the Justice League, Justice League animated series that was art directed by Bruce Timm. So I got into comics from all different angles and even web comics too, like “Mega Tokyo,” and “XKCD,” “Dinosaur Comics.” I didn’t think it was weird that I was reading that much comics. But now in retrospect, knowing other folks, I realized I was reading a lot of comics.
Did you always think that you wanted to be a comic or web comic creator when you grew up? Or did you come to that later?
NU: No, I assume because I’m first generation Nigerian, I thought was going to be a pharmacist, lawyer, or doctor, or engineer. And it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college where I was taking a computer science class and not really enjoying it. And my dean pushed me to start studying art. I actually thought I was going to go into animation for a long time but then “Check, Please!” took off, and I decided to to keep making comics.
To some degree, or a lot, every creator owes their success to their fans. And I feel you really embraced fandom with your Twitter account. I read that you used to comment on fanfiction. Why do you think that it’s important that creators really embrace their fans and interact with them?
NU: It’s the most important thing. I think that every creator’s success is because of their fan base. For myself, I know that when I started “Check, Please!” I approached it as though I was creating my own fandom and creating content for that fandom myself. And I think that when readers saw my enthusiasm, it was pretty infectious. And so they took it from there.
I remember the first time I ever got fanfiction, it just blew my mind. But now, people are writing, they’re creating a “Check, Please!” universe. And most importantly, the enthusiasm that I originally had, now it’s the enthusiasm that the readers have that turns them into ambassadors for the story. The only reason why “Check, Please!” is successful is because of word of mouth. It’s people sharing the comic online, literally forcing their friends to read it and bringing it to their schools and libraries.
Especially because you’re self published with the Kickstarter and everything. And the Kickstarter can’t happen without those fans. So that must have been incredible.
NU: Exactly. So I was self published up until 2018. And the only reason that First Second, an imprint of Macmillan, was able to take that comic and bring it into bookstores, was because they saw the fervent enthusiasm of the readers. So again, thanks to the readers for that.
What are you currently reading? What comics? Do you have time to read comics?
NU: I do have time to read comics. I just finished reading “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. That’s probably one of the best books that I have read this year, and maybe ever. It’s really masterful storytelling and artwork. I also read “My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness.” I would say last year was my favorite book. I have a favorite book every year.
I also read all of “My Hero Academia. That was a crazy three or four months, intense –Continued below
It’s a big series.
NU: Yeah, I got really deep into that. And then the only non comic things that I’ve read, I just started reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion. And then I also am really big into a naval historical fiction series called Master and Commander that is 20 books long, and I am on book eight.
Good luck! Anything that you’re currently working on or that you want to plug?
NU: I will say that “Check, Please! #Hockey” was the first book that came out in September 2018. The final book in the “Check, Please!” series published by First Second, comes out April 7, 2020.
Great. Thank you for talking with me!
NU: Thank you so much!