Review – Heartstopper, Vol. 1

Backs of two boys

Overview

Synopsis Charlie, a gay teen at an all-boys school, develops a crush on his new friend Nick. Though Nick is straight, Charlie's affection makes him wonder if they can be more than friends.

Author Alice Oseman

Artist Alice Oseman
Genre Romance

Length 263 pages

Release Date February 7, 2019

Heartstopper was originally a young adult web comic before being published as a graphic novel. Now, it has a fan-favorite Netflix adaptation with one season and more on the way. The monochromatic art tells a charming coming-of-age story of one boy’s crush on another, presumably heterosexual/straight boy in his class. As Christians, is this a narrative we can read and appreciate, or is the story too far from God’s original plan for humanity? Let’s start with the actual content.

Charlie and Nick's profiles as either other's boyfriend

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Boys are thrown against the wall, one time as an act of bullying and the other in self-defense.

Language: Strong language throughout, including a**, d***, h***, s***, f***, and the slang “dick” and “prick.” Derogatory terms for homosexual people, such as “gaylord” and f****t, can be seen in one panel.

Drug/Alcohol References: A bar is shown at a sixteenth birthday party with the sign “No Alcohol.”

Sexual Content: A boy is forcibly kissed by another boy after telling him to stop. This action is treated as inappropriate and goes no further than kissing. Boys hold hands and kiss.

Other Negative Content: A character is bullied for being gay.

Spiritual Content: None

Positive Content: Characters are secure in who they are. They stand up for themselves and others when bullying and other unjust actions occur.

Review

Heartstopper is a whimsical romantic graphic novel from Alice Oseman, a young asexual author who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns. It centers around Charlie, a popular kid at an all-boys boarding school in the United Kingdom, and his crush on his new friend, Nick. When Nick invites Charlie to join the rugby team, the boys grow closer. Charlie finds himself saddened by the assumption Nick is straight, while Nick begins questioning his own sexuality. At the same time, Charlie is haunted by the betrayal and abuse of a former boyfriend.

Charlie meets Nick's dog Nellie

Light-hearted =/= Unimportant

Charlie and Nick are simple characters in a simple story. They both have distinct personalities, but the low stakes of the narrative are not enough to show the full range of their characters. While above stereotypes, there’s not much to set them apart from other protagonists in similar tales. Heartstopper is first and foremost a coming-of-age romance. Any tension comes from trying to build a relationship with someone at an age when the boys can barely understand themselves. While it’s true Charlie was bullied for being gay, this is shown in flashbacks. Most of the hate he endures within the story’s timeframe comes from microaggressions and passive aggression. Despite the simple storyline, Oseman takes time to respectfully develop a plot point around assault and abuse.

Trigger warning: Discussion of sexual assault to follow.

The most surprising, and I would argue the most pivotal, subplot is Charlie’s relationship with Ben. The two of them passionately kiss between classes, until Charlie sees Ben with his girlfriend outside the school gate. Though their relationship is never official or even voiced, Charlie feels betrayed by the person he thought was his boyfriend and refuses to meet him anymore. Ben begins stalking Charlie, texting him verbal abuse and finding him after class. At one point, Ben pushes Charlie against the wall and kisses him without consent. Charlie tries to fight back, but the other boy is too strong. Thankfully, Nick steps in to save him. Later in the story, Ben tries this tactic again, but Charlie is able to defend himself.

Ben's character profile as Charlie's ex

Most romantic stories, especially ones with a slice-of-life feel like this one, never touch the subject of sexual assault. It’s hard to have a light-hearted narrative while giving the topic a respectful amount of attention. However, Heartstopper manages to show non-consensual touch (without explicit images) and retain its cozy atmosphere. The first volume does not delve into the psychological effects of Ben’s assault, but it does show Charlie changing from a hapless victim into an empowered young man.

*end of trigger warning*

Ben’s toxic hold on Charlie juxtaposes Nick’s affection. As soon as Ben hears Charlie is gay, he sees an opportunity to get his own sexual longings fulfilled, never thinking twice about his “boyfriend.” Nick, on the other hand, takes time to consider his response to Charlie’s feelings. Because he never had a crush on another guy, Nick questions his own sexuality and identity. Instead of rushing into passion like Ben, he researches what it means to be gay. If he cannot reciprocate Charlie’s emotions, Nick does not want to pretend like he can, unlike Ben who hid his girlfriend so Charlie would kiss him.

Though the characters are not complicated in their actions, they deal with complex emotions. These feelings never seem exaggerated or too much for the situation. The slow burn, slice-of-life structure may make the characters seem bland at times, but it makes them more realistic. In fact, Heartstopper feels like the teenage years. Rampant emotions. Confused sexuality. Falling in love with friends.

Charlie arriving at Nick's house

Pulling It All Together

Besides the subplot of sexual assault and the cliffhanger ending, all the tension is from one assumption – that Nick is straight. Most cheesy, light-hearted romance novels revolve around a large misunderstanding which becomes the climax of the story (for example, Waiting for Tom Hanks had a clichéd scene about racing to the airport to find someone after a fight). Heartstopper does not have a singular misunderstanding as a climax, and despite its simplicity, it’s not cheesy. While Charlie and Nick are obviously head-over-heels for one another, their relationship does not devolve into an overly romantic dialogue or heartfelt messages that would be unusual for their age.

The colors of the book accentuate the simple story with monochromatic art and minimalist backgrounds. Oseman’s artistic focus is less on the setting and more on the characters, especially facial expressions. In fact, this book can be read in one sitting because most of its communication occurs with body language. The author never adds words when a shrug will do the job.

Two boys stare sadly at their phone screens

That said, the dialogue is great. The teenagers talk like they do in real life (the author’s young age at publication may have something to do with her mastery over youth dialogue). Strong language abounds, but it’s not without purpose. One of the first f-bombs in the book is texted to Charlie by his “boyfriend” telling him how useless he is. Other language serves to bring the reader into the world of an all-boys school. Teens curse and Oseman does not shy away from that reality. Neither, though, does she embellish the narrative with unnecessary swearing to make it edgy. The characters retain their personalities, and if they curse, it’s intentional.

Readers will feel immersed in the boarding school setting. The whole story takes place in school or on visits to one of the boys’ houses. A couple of trips to the park and one party bring the couple into novel settings, though not for long. Just like the protagonists are stuck at school and home all day, so is the reader.

There are few strong female characters in this book. That is to say, there are hardly any female characters at all. It is a male-male romance at an all-boys school, so this makes sense. The women who appear are not given enough time to develop their personalities, but they are interesting. The female rugby coach shuts down homophobic conversation among her team, and Charlie’s older sister is supportive of his romantic endeavors (she has her own novel about mental illness which was published before Heartstopper). I am hopeful these characters will really get a chance to shine in the next volumes and the television show.

LGBTQ+ Stories & Christianity

You may be wondering why Geeks Under Grace, a Christian site, is covering a gay romance. Heartstopper is very popular right now, especially with teenagers, but this is not the only reason I wanted to write this review. GUG is made up of Christians from all denominations and walks of life. Some of our reviewers believe it is a sin to act on homosexual feelings; others may have a different interpretation of Scripture.

Nick asks a crying Charlie if he is okay

Regardless of your views on homosexuality, this review is intended to encourage discussion and open-mindedness. Note the definition of open-minded is “being willing to consider new ideas; unprejudiced.” I am not asking anyone to give up their beliefs on homosexuality or to suddenly embrace a lifestyle they believe is wrong; I am asking Christians to consider how they approach the issue.

The fact stands that the LGBTQ+ community exists. There are people in the world today who identify as bisexual, homosexual, pansexual, queer, transgender, nonbinary, Two Spirit, genderfluid, intersex, asexual, aromantic, and more. Not all of these are mentioned in Scripture; some of them, like asexuality, do not contradict a typical Christian lifestyle. These identities and this community will continue to exist, regardless of whether Christians approve of their choices.

Heartstopper is important because it is a book aimed at teenagers, a large portion of whom are trying to figure out their own identities. Reading this graphic novel with your own teen opens the space for discussion. If you are against homosexual dating or marriage, you can still talk to your children or others you know about the issue of identity and Biblical sexuality. Many Christians are coming out as gay or same-sex attracted and remaining celibate. Some teens or adults may struggle with same-sex attraction but feel they have no one they can trust.

Christians are called to carry one another’s burdens, and whether we agree with homosexuality or not, we can listen to a brother or sister in Christ tell us about their temptations. We should never be so against something that others are afraid to mention it. This goes for all sins, not just sexual ones. James 5:16 says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Charlie and Nick blushing at each other

The Power of Positive Representation

Perhaps you are open-minded about real people in the LGBTQ+ community but are nervous about enjoying entertainment with queer characters. This review is not here to push you into something you believe is a sin. However, I want to point out a couple of things before you make your ultimate judgment.

Books are meant to be both mirrors and doors. In other words, some books show a reflection of the reader and others showcase a life they will never know. Reading books about people who are not like yourself builds empathy. As a straight white person, I can learn about systemic racism, prejudice, and coming out of the closet. The teen patrons at my library are so happy that I carry LGBTQ+ books because they can finally see themselves in the narratives. To a smaller extent, I understand that feeling. Before the Wonder Woman film, my favorite superheroes were all men. When that movie came out, I left the theater feeling seen and empowered. Representation is so important, even if the community is one with which we disagree.

On another note, Heartstopper and its relationships are fiction, like the spells in Harry Potter. Even if these characters were real, Christians cannot hold non-believers to the same standard we hold ourselves. There’s no evidence Nick and Charlie are followers of Christ, and we cannot assume the church exists in their universe as it does in ours. As such, their relationship, innocent as it is, is still subject to judgment. Before we can begin to discuss the sinfulness or righteousness of homosexual relationships, the couple in question must be Christian and hold the Bible as their standard of morality. Besides that, they are sinners regardless.

Boy meets boy. Boys become friends. Boys fall in love.

Conclusion

LGBTQ+ issues are real. They are not the usual fantasy fiction, like Harry Potter or Tolkien. The Bible tells us to “hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21b-22). If you believe this type of book is not for you, do not read it. Do not soil your conscience for the sake of entertainment.

If you are open to reading a gay romance, though, Heartstopper is a great start. Younger readers will relate to the school antics and bullying angle, and anyone can find solace in the unrequited turned requited love narrative. There are better books featuring LGBTQ+ characters. However, Nick and Charlie are charming, and their slow-burn romance is a perfect light-hearted read for a restful afternoon. The story is a universal love story, whether you are queer or straight.

Positives

+ Realistic dialogue
+ Charming art
+ Characters who are more like real people than book characters
+ Respectful sexual assault plotline
+ Representation of underrepresented groups, specifically the gay community

Negatives

- Low stakes (can also be a positive thing)
- Does not go into psychological ramifications of sexual assault subplot
- Underdeveloped secondary characters

The Bottom Line

Heartstopper is a charming story of two boys figuring out who they are and their relationship to one another. It is a great story, if you are okay with gay romance.

 

Story/Plot 7

Writing 8

Editing 7

Art 9

8

Courtney Floyd

Courtney has loved reading since she was a child. Kid's books, YA, memoirs, comics, graphic novels, manga, anything. She also loves bingeing anime, keeping up with her favorite shows (including Star Trek), and playing video games. She has a dog named Kora, but she prefers The Last Airbender.

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