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Self-published Check, Please! shows the value of a passion project

Also reviewed: The Weed Whisperer and Curveball

One of the best things about reading creator-owned comics is the clear care and love that goes into every page of content. Check, Please! (self published), a webcomic that’s gained a vocal and increasingly active fan base online, is one of the best examples of something so suffused with the creator’s joy and enthusiasm for the world they’ve created that it’s contagious. Creator Ngozi Ukazu launched a Kickstarter earlier this year to publish the first volume of the comic, and is well into posting the content that hopefully will become the second printed volume.

Ostensibly, Check, Please! is about hockey and a young gay man. Ukazu offers some insights into her inspiration and creative process in the extras in the back of Volume 1, but even without that it quickly becomes clear that the story is just as much about growing up and into yourself as it is about sports. The main characters come together because they’re all on the same college hockey team, but it’s easy to see that they’re just as much friends as they are teammates. Check, Please! works very similarly to sports-themed manga, weaving information about the game itself throughout the story to inform readers without overwhelming them or expecting a lot of knowledge coming in. There are several side comics called “Hockey Shit With Ransom & Holster” that explain some of the comic’s hockey references that are worth checking out, particularly the one about hockey butts.

While the edifying moments of game description and explanation are fun, Ukazu’s real skill is with her characters. Though she claims to have based them all on “bros,” each character has motivations and personality quirks that differentiate themselves early on. Even better, while the main character, Beyoncé enthusiast and pie baker Eric “Bitty” Bittle and team captain Jack Zimmermann are clearly the focus of the comic, the supporting characters are fleshed out enough to get real plots of their own, something that’s often lacking in comics with large casts. Of particular note is Bitty and Jack’s teammate Shitty, who thus far has not explained his nickname to Bitty and thus, the reader. Shitty is an apparent contradiction at every turn, displaying the stereotypical behavior of an early twentysomething jock still in college, while being one of the most well spoken and accepting of the young men, not to mention getting into law school.

That kind of well-rounded, interesting character is what makes Ukazu’s work shine. Her art is sweet and a little cartoony, but it allows for characters’ faces to be that much more expressive. Her skills have improved and become honed since she’s started, and her background work is some of the best in a webcomic, rich with specifics and visual jokes. That attention to detail and the careful thought she’s put into every page of Check, Please! are evident from the very start, and explains how her comic has gained a following so quickly. The truly excellent hockey butts are just an added bonus. [Caitlin Rosberg]

There has seemingly never been a more perfect conjunction of circumstances and character than Zonker Harris and the legalization of recreational marijuana. After Colorado votes to allow legal pot sales beginning January 2014, Zonker travels cross-country to begin a new life as a legal drug kingpin, a benign Walter White with hapless nephew Zip in place of loyal Jesse. After a lifetime’s worth of freeloading and slacking, the most famous stoner in all of comics has finally found his moment. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury remains a cornerstone in the rapidly dwindling world of newspaper comic strips, but the run of strips reprinted in The Weed Whisperer (Andrews McMeel) represent a period of transition, more than what should be Zonker’s unalloyed triumph.

Doonesbury’s greatest strength over the last decade has been its dogged commitment to following the consequences of America’s multiple foreign wars. Rather than simply shooting barbs at the politicians responsible for these events, Trudeau has spent a great deal of time chronicling the effects of deployment on his characters and their families, an effort that culminated with the introduction of Toggle, recovering vet—missing an eye and suffering the effects of a traumatic brain injury—and eventual husband of Alex Doonesbury. The Weed Whisperer picks up just after the beginning of Toggle and Alex’s life together, with her having completed work on her Ph.D. dissertation, still underemployed, and just in time to announce her pregnancy—with twins.

In recent years Doonesbury has gotten no small comedic mileage over the perception that Trudeau’s younger characters—particularly the millennial Alex—have overtaken the strip. There’s some truth to this. Alex and Toggle have become the strip’s central characters, by dint of being the most interesting characters. As a result, Zonker is upstaged in his moment of triumph. His adventures with Zip in Colorado never really take off: After Trudeau covers the initial irony of the eternally tuned-in Zonker finally finding success through capitalism, there’s nowhere else to go. With Mike Doonesbury settling into a contented late middle-age (to the quiet strains of The Big Chill soundtrack), his daughter has unquestionably become the center of gravity—enough so that for the long passages with Alex and her family off-panel, The Weed Whisperer seems unconscionably turgid.

These are the hazards of reading a couple years’ worth of daily strips in one sitting. But if the narrative seems even choppier than usual, it’s probably a result of Trudeau’s focus having been split. The first hiatus came in 2013, when Trudeau was developing Alpha House for Amazon Studios. Later, after the show had been picked up, he stopped producing daily strips altogether, opting to continue with only Sundays for the foreseeable future. For a multi-generational soap opera like Doonesbury, which also doubles as a political cartoon featuring commentary unrelated to any of the ongoing characters, this is a breaking strain: there’s too much to say, not enough room to say it. Accordingly, the last third of the book—after the switch to Sundays—represents a marked decline.

There’s still gas in the tank here: Trudeau’s characters are still interesting, and the world around them still full of interesting events. But until he can refocus his efforts, the result will likely be more diminishing returns. [Tim O’Neil]

Jeremy Sorese draws comics like Adele makes music. They both render a universal melancholia with a pinpoint precision and a tangible sincerity. Sorese’s work has a greater emotional range, but there is an obvious wistful, ruminative quality to both. And both have recently produced the most accurate visual representation of that ethos. Adele’s music was perfectly reified by the sepia-toned static frame of Xavier Dolan’s “Hello” video, and Sorese similarly conjured his longest work to date: Curveball (Nobrow). The book, a shaggy story set in a Ray Bradbury daydream, follows Avery, a gender non-conformist attempting to navigate a paralyzing love life. Avery’s dealings with emotionally and socially stunted partners form the bulk of the narrative, and Sorese is able to frame those crippling experiences in a common parlance. Their situation is uncommon, to be sure, but their expression of how that situation makes them feel is universally relatable. Avery listens to a mixtape ad nauseum because they’re unable to shrug off a man’s hold on their life; they lash out at their friend and roommate, because they’re unable to reconcile themselves to the truth of their situation. These are infinitely relatable scenes writ large.

Sorese constructs this incisive depiction of relationships out of a broad melodrama, and even his aesthetic is reminiscent of the photography of mid-’50s Hollywood films. He lays out pages so that they can be read quickly, and they are designed to convey a lot of information in an instant. He manipulates light and shadow to obfuscate information from the reader; he pulls it back later for dramatic effect. Information is revealed precisely for maximum effect. Along those lines, and continuing the “Hello” comparison, Sorese is able to approximate the affect of sepia-toned film in his sophisticated use of grays, which lends the work a contemplative nostalgia. All the facets are dialed into a specific emotional resonance. It’s a compelling jambalaya, and Sorese uses these components to paint a broad, cutting emotional portrait.

Considering Sorese’s expressive, cartoonish style of rendering, this effectiveness may be surprising. At times, the figures and forms that occupy the space of Curveball are reminiscent of E.C. Segar. You almost expect Christophe, Avery’s estranged beau, to pound a can of spinach at points. But that stylized aesthetic is actually paramount to the functionality of Curveball. That looks plays into the melodrama of the book, and Sorese is able to communicate interiority and emotional states without disrupting the diegesis. If he tried to go subtle to underplay emotions it would create a dissonance between the facets of the book’s aesthetic. Instead, he unifies his storytelling, and the result is something out of Douglas Sirk. Sorese is not dissimilar from Adele in that way either. They are both upfront about the emotions they’re parsing and thinking through, and they dissect themselves in such a raw way. It’s painful to look away. [Shea Hennum]