Ngozi Ukazu pencils new perspectives

Some writers may begin a story with an intended message for their characters to find; DC Comics artist and graphic novelist Ngozi Ukazu, however, uncovers the message alongside her characters. 

“I work with a character and I want to see them through a full journey, and it surprises me sometimes what the characters do and where they end up,” Ukazu said. 

Ukazu visited Minnesota State as part of the Good Thunder Reading Series Thursday to connect words and images through comics. 

Known for her New York Times bestseller, “Check, Please!” and the collaborative comic, “BUNT!” the Houston native ties together an expressive art style with a coming-of-age narrative, portraying diverse, LGBTQ+ characters and real-world issues. 

While writing a cast representing these communities, Ukazu says, “It’s really about specificity.” 

“People are all so different, different races, different socioeconomic status, different sexualities, and when you’re making a character convincing, it’s usually when they are very specific,” Ukazu said. “Being specific about what they like to eat, their favorite things, even just quirks and how they speak; so many people can relate to that, and then those characters can start to jump off the page.”

While piecing together her script, Ukazu also paints the picture as the illustrator of most of her graphic novels. Prior to her artistic career and graduation from Yale University, Ukazu reminisces on her time spent doodling in grade school. 

“It was just so exciting to be that kid in elementary school and I would draw something and people would lean over and look at my work like, ‘What is that?’” Ukazu said. “There’s this immediacy that comes with visual storytelling.” 

Ukazu describes her artistic style as, “cartoony, open and fun.” She invites characters into her comics with emotional interactions and seals it together with a corresponding environment. 

“I like that environments can tell you a lot about a character, so even if it’s something like the room that we’re in right now, just finding, picking out the details that tell the story of the people inside of it,” Ukazu said. 

To design a character from scratch, Ukazu draws inspiration from reality. From there, she interviews, researches and journals as the character to execute the source. 

“It can be a little crazy, but it’s anything to get in their heads,” Ukazu said. 

As well as getting into her own character’s heads, Ukazu delves into the minds of her audience. She shared a memorable experience at the Anime Expo in Los Angeles in 2018, when a young man nervously praised her about her comic, “Check, Please!” and ran away.

“The next day, he came back and he was like, ‘I was scared to say it then, but ‘Check, Please!’ helped me come out (as LGBTQ+), and thank you so much,’” Ukazu said. “I still remember, it was such a moment where I just kept saying thank you over and over again.” 

While she now receives support from readers, Ukazu initially faced rejection when applying for animation studios during and after university; however, she chose a different path than discouragement. 

“I want to encourage people that there’s not just one way to make art. There’s not just one way to do whatever it is you want to do,” Ukazu said. 

MSU sophomore Grayson Morris attended Ukazu’s morning workshop and created his own comic. As the group practiced under Ukazu’s guidance, Morris enjoyed illustrating his piece.

“It’s just not just words on a page, there’s a lot more to it,” Morris said. 

Another member in the audience joined in on Ukazu’s teachings as a first-timer in the world of comic creation. 

“I thought it was really interesting,” sophomore Richard Thurston said. “I didn’t know we were gonna do comic stuff, but doing comics was kind of fun. I liked it.” 

To further her artistic impact, Ukazu continues to push out publications with her forthcoming dystopian romance comic, “Barda,” set to be released June 4. 

“Anybody can tell a story. Anybody can share their stories, but if someone just happens to have your story affect them and they share that with you, that means, OK, this wasn’t for nothing; I impacted someone’s life in some way,” Ukazu said. 

Write to Mercedes Kauphusman at mercedes.kauphusman@mnsu.edu

Header Photo: Cartoonist and graphic novelist Ngozi Ukazu spent the day at Minnesota State Thursday for the Good Thunder Reading Series. She is known for her New York Times bestselling graphic novel, “Check, Please!” and collaborative comic, “BUNT!” (Davis Jensen/The Reporter)

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