Check, Please! These Hockey Bros Have Stolen My Heart
If you’re looking for a web comic with queer main characters and diversity that deconstructs stereotypes and offers a realistic portrayal of mental illness, look no further than Check, Please! – the little gay hockey comic that could.
As is the case with many of my obsessions, it started out with an influx of posts on my Tumblr dashboard. (This is how I got into both Teen Wolf and The 100, and probably half a dozen other things.) “What is Zimbits?” I asked myself as I saw some of my favorite fic writers producing new material for a fandom I’d never heard of. I scrolled past a number of meta posts deconstructing the – still largely speculative – past relationship between two guys called Jack and Parse. And…what is that? Are they hockey players? What is this?
This is Check, Please!, a web comic written and drawn by Tumblr user Ngozi Ukazu. The story centers around Eric “Bitty” Bittle, a former figure skater and compulsive baker from small-town Georgia who attends a small, private college in New England on a hockey scholarship. Bitty has a vlog, primarily about baking, which serves as the main framework of the comic. Through his vlogs, we meet his teammates at Samwell and learn more about Bitty, such as the fact that he is into men. (P.S. “Zimbits” is the portmanteau representing the comic’s main pairing.)
Eventually, I caved to peer pressure and checked out the blog. I read through the entire comic at work and then, days later, read through the entire thing again. Because this is just the kind of luck I have, I got into it right before a brief hiatus and had nothing to stop my fall down the rabbit hole. Because Check, Please! is a lot more than just the episodic updates. A whole host of extras can be found at the blog, and after each episode, Ngozi posts notes where she points out hidden details you may have missed in the panels. Bitty even has his own Twitter account; it’s currently locked to prevent spoilers, but important tweets are screencapped and posted as extras.
To get the full experience, you have to read everything. The comic on its own is fantastic, but you will definitely miss things if you stick only to that. The episodes are chunks of Bitty’s life and can take place days or even weeks apart (but Bitty tweets in real time, hence the private account). Some of them are major events and some simply show day-to-day life. The extras help bridge the gaps between the episodes and give a little more insight into the characters.
So just what is it about this web comic that has everyone buzzing?
Queer Main Characters
Samwell University was Bitty’s first choice for school because it is ranked as the number one LGBTQ-friendly school in the country. Bitty, who has spent his entire life in the closet because of his conservative, small-town upbringing, wanted to attend college somewhere where he no longer had to hide. Nonetheless, it takes him a couple of months to come out to his teammates, who of course don’t care, because at Samwell, one in four students is queer. He is not yet out to his parents, though.
When Bitty starts at Samwell, he clashes with team captain Jack Zimmermann. Jack is basically hockey royalty; he takes the game very, very seriously and intends to play professionally. So when Bitty comes along and is scared of getting checked, Jack isn’t too pleased. Over the course of the comic, and as we learn more about Jack, he and Bitty’s relationship develops. It is, you may have guessed, the cornerstone of Check, Please!. In Bitty’s second year, someone from Jack’s past comes back, and Bitty – and the audience – discover that Jack is not as straight as expected.
Jack’s ex, Kent Parson, makes a brief appearance in year two, but I wouldn’t call him a main character. As for the rest of the Samwell Men’s Hockey team, it is never explicitly stated that they are gay; however, it’s also never explicitly stated that they’re straight, either, and considering the percentage of queer students at Samwell, it stands to reason that at least one or two of them fall somewhere in the LGBTQ+ community.
However, while everyone at Samwell is pretty open-minded, our society is still largely heteronormative in that the default sexuality is straight unless stated otherwise. Bitty assumes that Jack is straight until he overhears an argument between Jack and Kent (Parse), and indeed it seems as though the rest of the team believes Jack to be straight as well. Since we know so frustratingly little about the other characters prior to Bitty’s arrival, we may never know if there is a specific reason for that, or if everyone simply made the assumption on their own. Given the largely homophobic culture surrounding professional sports, it stands to reason that Jack is deliberately hiding his sexuality to increase his chances of having a career in the NHL.
In addition to having its two male leads be gay (or just “not straight”, since Jack has never officially come out as anything), Check, Please! is not just made up of a bunch of white boys. Though, since it revolves around the men’s hockey team, it is mostly guys. Still, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a little bit of diversity.
The supporting cast is made up almost solely of the Samwell Men’s Hockey team, plus their manager, Larissa “Lardo” Duan – and, yes, most of them are white. But Lardo is Vietnamese-American, Ransom is Nigerian-Candian, Chowder is Chinese-American, and Nursey is…not white. It may not seem like much, but for a sport that skews very heavily white, it’s nice to see a little diversity on the Samwell team.
Lardo is the only female character who features regularly in the comic, though other women do show up from time to time. Most notably, we see Suzanne Bittle (Bitty’s mother), Alicia Zimmermann (Jack’s mother), and Georgia Martin (the assistant general manager for the NHL team Jack plays for). Georgia may play a larger role as the comic begins to explore Jack’s professional career; many fans speculate that she will be pivotal in the event that Jack officially comes out.
Hockey, as many primarily male-dominated sports, tends to have a culture that thrives on toxic masculinity. Check, Please! knocks that down a peg or two right off the bat by having its two main characters be queer men, as hockey on the whole tends to be more homophobic than other sports. The Samwell Men’s Hockey team, being that it is at a school where 25% of the students are LGBTQ+, is decidedly not homophobic.
Bitty seems like a stereotype – well, of course he bakes and likes Beyonce, he’s gay, isn’t he? – but by virtue of his playing hockey, he is helping to break down some of these stereotypes. Hockey is one of the ultimate “bro” sports; it’s very physical, usually violent, and not a sport for the faint of heart. And then here comes Bitty, who’s very deceptive. He’s athletic (he was a junior champion figure skater), and he’s small for hockey but he’s fast, and he can’t check but he gives his all. Hockey was not only a way for him to stay on the ice after he had to give up figure skating, it was a way for him to get into college, and he works hard at it.
When the comic starts, the guys on the team seem to be generic, stereotypical hockey bros, but nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, Random and Holster may come across that way, but their presumably platonic hetero lifemate connection is downright freakish. (Author’s note: This is meant to refer to how they seem to read each other’s minds, not their closeness. I think I picked that up from fic.) These boys share best friend sundaes, okay? Their relationship has caused much speculation in the fandom, and true, we don’t know for certain what either of them define their sexuality as, but as of right now we do know that they are interested in women.
It’s not just their friendship, though, it’s them as individuals. Holster likes all the same music as Bitty – including Beyonce and Ariana Grande – and plays the piano. He’s also a fan of romantic comedies, Sister Sister, and The Golden Girls. Ransom has a 4.0 and undiagnosed text anxiety. He can sing and really likes golf. Basically, these two are just huge goobers who are tall and muscled.
And then you have [first name redacted] “Shitty” Knight, who is just a walking pile of contradictions. Shitty is described as a “mysterious mustachioed feminist who’s very comfortable with his body”. He double majors in Political Science and Women’s Gender and Sexuality and wants to write his thesis on how hockey is simultaneously both the queerest and most homophobic culture on the continent. He either dresses like a rock star or trailer trash – that is, when he can be bothered to wear clothes. (He gets naked a lot.) He’s a big fan of platonic bro-cuddling.
And of course we have Lardo, who – with a nickname like “Lardo” – should be the exact opposite of what she is. She’s tiny even compared to Bitty, and even though she’s the team’s manager, she doesn’t know how to ice skate. She’s the “bro-iest person at Samwell under 5’5″”.
As Check, Please! moves through Bitty’s time at Samwell, it dismantles a lot of different stereotypes. Think all hockey players are misogynistic? Well, here’s Shitty and his multiple rants about breaking gender norms. Think all athletes are dumb? Well, here’s Ransom with his perfect grade point average. You have Jack, more traditionally masculine, and Bitty, smaller and more effeminate, and they’re both gay, because – shocker – gay people are just people.
Tackling Tough Issues
Though Check, Please! is a lighthearted look into the lives of Bitty and his teammates, and Ngozi has promised that Bitty’s story is ultimately a happy one, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t difficult moments.
One of the main plot points of Check, Please! revolves around Bitty’s inability to deal with the physicality of hockey. When he switched from figure skating to ice hockey, he played in a co-ed league that didn’t have checking, and he struggles with that aspect when he first arrives at Samwell. Ngozi never comes out and says it, but most fans speculate that Bitty’s fear of checking is a result of being bullied. (Bitty mentions once that the football team locked him in a shed when he was in middle school.) Some people think he has mild PTSD.
At first, the team jokes about it, even theorizing about using it as some sort of trick play, and Jack is upset because he thinks Bitty isn’t taking it seriously. It isn’t until Jack gives Bitty some one-on-one coaching that he realizes the extent of the trauma and helps Bitty work on overcoming his fear. A fear which, completely realistically, resurfaces after Bitty receives a particularly hard check in a game near the end of his freshman year.
Another important plot point is Jack’s anxiety. We learn early on in the comic that Jack’s anxiety, coupled with the extreme pressure to live up to his father’s legacy, led to Jack overdosing on his anti-anxiety medication. His overdose came right before the NHL draft, in which Jack was predicted to be the number one pick, and derails his career for several years, which is why he is older than the others on the team. As anyone with anxiety knows, it is a constant battle; not only does he have to manage his anxiety, he must also put up with comments from people who think he simply couldn’t take the pressure.
Both Bitty and Jack are shown to be always dealing with this part of their lives; they are slowly managing to overcome traits that had once proved to be a hindrance to their health and well-being. Jack in particular comes a long way as the comic progresses.
On a somewhat smaller scale, you have Ransom’s text anxiety, which the team as a whole helps him manage.
While it hasn’t specifically been addressed yet, it’s surely only a matter of time before either Bitty or Jack or both have to deal with this. If, as many fans theorize, Jack publicly comes out before the comic reaches the end of its run, then he will definitely have to face homophobia both on and off the ice. Right now, Jack is only out to a handful of people, and not even the bulk of his former Samwell teammates. The extreme reaction that he will face as the first openly gay NHL player will be further compounded by both his anxiety and his neverending quest to prove that he is good enough for the league.
Bitty was, of course, bullied in high school, but since he was not officially out at home, we can only guess that it was homophobic in nature. We can logically assume yes, but we honestly just don’t know for sure.
Bitty and Jack’s ever evolving relationship is my favorite thing about Check, Please!. Too often, relationships in fictional media seem forced. I read a lot of YA, and “insta-love” is reviled for a reason, yet it is all too frequent. What makes Zimbits such an amazing pairing is that their relationship develops naturally over the course of several years. They’re not immediately attracted to each other. Hell, when they first meet, they don’t even really like each other. As teammates, they spend a lot of time together, and as they learn more about each other, they overcome their poor first impressions. Bitty has his “oh” moment about halfway through his second year; fans speculate that Jack was aware earlier than that, but as the story is told from Bitty’s perspective, we may never know when Jack acknowledged his feelings.
What’s more, their relationship is not only realistic, it’s healthy. Too often – especially in media aimed at teens – problematic behavior is glossed over or even romanticized. Writers can sometimes equate friendly banter with verbal abuse, and instead of affectionate teasing, conversations between a couple can come across as legitimate put-downs. So it’s nice to see a relationship built on mutual trust and love and open and honest communication. True, we don’t see every aspect of their relationship, but we are able to infer what happens between the panels based on what we see in each episode.
Check, Please! is a comic about finding friends, finding love, finding yourself, and finding your place in the world. It’s a sweet story full of likable characters and charming humor that can nonetheless hit you right in the gut with feels upon feels. I highly recommend this to anyone looking for something fluffy and soul-consuming. You don’t even have to know anything about hockey!
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from THE Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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