Content warning: mentions homophobia, emotional abuse, bullying, and mental illness.
Heartstopper is an ongoing Young Adult webcomic by Alice Oseman that follows the unlikely relationship between Charlie, an openly gay overthinker, and Nick, a kind rugby player. Set in an all-boys British grammar school, Heartstopper charts the development of Nick and Charlie’s friendship into something more; it is a prequel that grew out of Oseman’s first novel Solitaire, which features Nick and Charlie as background characters in a stable long-term relationship. It is comforting to know that there is an eventual happy ending as this pair faces a variety of obstacles in their relationship and in their lives.
The comic tackles, with sensitivity and care, topics such as homophobia, emotional abuse, bullying, and mental illness. There are also content warnings before each episode for potentially triggering content. But despite the heavy subject matter, Heartstopper manages to remain a remarkably sweet celebration of all kinds of love without relying heavily on tropes or stereotypes. What makes Heartstopper heartwarming is its profound respect for its characters. Even as Charlie and Nick struggle with honesty and growing into the kind of people they would like to be, the comic suggests that, even in bad times, they remain deserving of empathy and respect. Even secondary characters are given a chance to demonstrate complexity and growth.
Oseman’s depictions of mental illness are especially remarkable. The characters must find the strength to deal frankly with their trauma and pain over time, and Heartstopper does not shy away from depicting how difficult, and potentially protracted, it is to learn to truly care for yourself and others.
The comic has a simple, crisp art style that maximizes expressiveness. It is primarily drawn in black and white, which means Oseman often plays with shading and panel orientation to convey emotion. The author said in an interview that she chose to make Heartstopper a comic because she did not have an overarching plot in mind and wanted the freedom to explore the small but significant moments in Nick and Charlie’s lives. While this approach means that the author can explore a variety of themes and the steady progression of the characters’ relationships, the pacing is sometimes jarring because of the webcomic’s episodic nature. To keep audiences interested, most episodes end at a particularly tense moment. However, this does not detract from the overall quality of the comic.
With Heartstopper and recent queer media like Leah on the Offbeat and Red, White & Royal Blue, there is a huge market for unapologetically queer love stories. You can find Heartstopper for free on Tumblr, Webtoon, and Tapas, or purchase physical copies. A Netflix series written by Oseman based on the comic is forthcoming this year.