Color of Hockey: LGBTQ-themed webcomics bringing diverse fans to the game

William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for seven years. Douglas joined in March and will write about people of color in the game. Today, he features Ngozi Ukazu and Gaby Epstein, women of color who write webcomics and hockey books on the LGBTQ theme.

Ngozi Ukazu and Gaby Epstein are unicorns — women of color who live in football-obsessed Texas and illustrate and write webcomics and hockey books with an LGBTQ perspective.

“It’s extremely weird,” said Ukazu, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. “We’re very different from your typical hockey fans. But the number of people I’ve met at comic book conventions that come in all shapes and sizes, from all over the world, are hockey fans. C It’s interesting that those fans aren’t so visible.”

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The two Austin residents reach and resonate with this audience by combining their love of hockey, illustration and support for the LGBTQ community to individually produce best-selling hockey comics.

Ukazu is the author of “Check, Please!” a series she started in 2013 that centers on Eric “Bitty” Bittle, a former gay junior figure skating champion from Georgia who enjoys baking pies and plays hockey on his northern college team.

“Please Check It Out! Book 1: #Hockey” tops Amazon’s bestseller list in the teen and young adult hockey fiction category. Ukazu caused a stir in the world of comics and book publishing when it raised $398,520 through a Kickstarter campaign in 2016 to help pay for the printing of the books, the making of promotional jerseys, and the management of shipping costs.

Inspired by Ukazu, Epstein created “Breaking the Ice,” an online comic series about teenage hockey players and their romantic adventures off the ice. It debuted online and at FlameCon, the world’s largest queer comic book convention, two weeks ago in New York City and quickly sold 200 copies.

Epstein is in talks on whether to continue the series on the web or focus on print.

“We have so little representation in general, and it means a lot to see yourself represented,” said Epstein, who is gay and the daughter of a Chilean mother and a Jewish father from central Pennsylvania.

The comics have struck a chord and are creating a new generation of hockey fans, according to Rachel Donner, co-commissioner of the New York City Gay Hockey Association’s recreational league.

“I know a lot of people who started reading ‘Check, Please!’, especially who weren’t hockey players at all,” said Donner, who owns comic panels drawn and autographed by Ukazu. “After reading that, they got a bit interested in hockey. They started thinking about college hockey or women’s hockey. And then it’s kind of like a domino effect where they’re like, ‘Oh so maybe I’m discovering the NHL too. I really think she’s creating hockey fans where there might not have been before and I think she’s also creating comic book fans where there might not have been before of people who love hockey. »

Epstein and Ukazu became hockey fans through different paths. Epstein, 26, learned to play the game as a teenager in suburban Philadelphia.

“I had a tryout for hockey and I was still on the fence about it, and then I saw an episode of ‘Simpson,'” she said. “There’s an episode where Lisa becomes a goalie. I know her fantasy, and I knew that as a kid too. Lisa on ‘The Simpsons’ does it, so I can do it.”

Epstein became a goaltender for the Mighty Moose, a local women’s hockey program, and played in high school and college at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her passion for acting and illustration converged when she told a TV executive she had an idea for a children’s hockey story.

“We brought in an executive who worked for ‘Family Guy’ and stuff and he really liked the idea, so he helped me pitch to Nickelodeon for a show,” she said. declared. “In doing so, it really reminded me how much I love the sport and how many weird personalities you meet there. Nothing happened with the pitch, but I hung on to the story. Now that I finally got my feet on the ground when it comes to a career in illustration, I’ve done comics about it.”

Ukazu, 28, took a more academic route for the game. She began researching hockey and its culture for a screenplay she was working on during her senior year at Yale University.

“I decided to write about a hockey player, also in his senior year, who falls in love with his best friend, who happens to be a boy,” she said. “To do that, being a first-generation black woman from Texas, I had to go into research. The unintended effect is that I became a hockey fan because I watched interviews, I went to games Yale hockey. When I came out of that research period, I was just a real hockey fan. There’s nothing more exciting than the weirdness, the excitement and the honor of hockey.

Ukazu said she was close to quitting hockey — at least illustrating and writing about it. She will produce the final episode of “Check, Please!” next year when Bittle graduates from college.

“My dad really wants Bitty to have a 5 year, to join professional hockey,” Ukazu said. “He thinks that means ending comics is me quitting my job. But I have other plans, other sports plans.”