There is a semantics issue in the comics industry, one that’s been growing for the past decade and may finally come to a head while everyone is locked inside. The word “comics” is often assumed to only encompass superheroes and the occasional tv-friendly, creator-owned work—rarely anything that isn’t readily available in a monthly issue format. But for years now, some of the most popular comics have been available in completely different formats, whether Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels or the constantly changing and expanding world of webcomics.
Ngozi Ukazu’s long-running Check, Please! is a prime example of what the world of webcomics has to offer: There’s a large cast of characters that rotates through it, time and space to explore important themes, and bright, lively art. Ukazu’s character designs are diverse and fun, a little cartoony but rarely outsized or caricatured. The characters are distinct and rooted in their personalities without being rigid, and the way that Ukazu draws each of them quickly establishes who they are and how they interact with the world around them.
Though Check, Please! began and has continued as a free-to-access webcomic, the comic was subsequently picked up for publishing by First Second. Sticks and Scones is the second of two volumes, covering the junior and senior years of college for the main character, Eric “Bitty” Bittle. The first volume, #Hockey, brought us through the rocky start of Bitty’s time on the Samwell men’s hockey team, a highly competitive and insular community. A baker and figure skater, Bitty didn’t exactly fit in with his teammates right away, but #Hockey showed him building deep friendships and learning a lot about himself and what he wanted. The book—and Bitty’s sophomore year—ended with an emotional cliffhanger of epic proportions, and Sticks and Scones dives back into Bitty’s life one summer later, as his junior year begins.
Not every webcomic can translate well into a printed edition. Ukazu has structured updates in a way that lends itself very well to a format change, with chapters made up of a handful of pages each, rather than posting a single page at a time. Built on the strong framework of Bitty’s school year, the book has a natural, steady pacing while still picking up around major events like graduation and hockey championships. It’s skillful enough to appear effortless, just like the generous and intentional approach Ukazu takes with characterization.
Bitty and his friends undergo a lot of changes in this book. They are thrust into independent adulthood with varying degrees of confidence and concern, and what’s remarkable about Check, Please! generally—and this volume specifically—is how much space Ukazu leaves for each individual to have a different journey. Though Bitty has long known (and rarely hidden) that he’s gay, he begins Sticks and Scones in a relationship that is secret from almost everyone he holds dear, an attempt to protect the safety and career of his boyfriend. He spends a lot of this book grappling with questions of what he wants and why, what he’s willing to sacrifice or work for. He’s certainly not alone, as many of his friends, family, and even some people who are framed as antagonists are struggling with a lot of the same issues.
What makes Check, Please! really powerful and unique isn’t just the story, which perfectly balances sweetness and hilarity just as much as it does sports and baking. It’s that Ukazu makes it very clear that there’s no one correct way to be. Bitty is far from the only LGBTQ+ character in the comic, and they each approach their identity differently according to their needs. There’s no right way to be gay, there’s no right way to be an athlete, and there’s no right way to be a supportive and loving parent, partner, or friend. There’s certainly a lot of wrong ways, but Ukazu makes space for each of her characters—and thus her readers—to discover what’s right for them, and acknowledge that things may change in the future. It’s gracious and caring, and much like the rest of the story, feels completely natural. Ukazu may have started the Check, Please! journey largely by herself, but she’s brought so much joy and compassion to so many over the course of Bitty’s four years at Samwell, and offered both her characters and readers the happy ending they truly deserve.