“Heartstopper” begins as most fluffy teen rom-coms do — with sparkling music and a school bell ringing over character introductions. Cliché? Maybe, but “cozy” suits it far better. The series follows British schoolboys Charlie and Nick as they grow into themselves and slowly fall for each other. It’s soft without being saccharine, light hearted without being hollow. Since fluttering onto screens in April 2022, “Heartstopper” has exploded in popularity, capitalizing off the major success of the web series as well as the graphic novel it was based on. The comic — and now show — embraces queer love, offering young LGBTQ+ viewers a story of butterflies in tummies and nervous first kisses.
“Heartstopper” is by no means the first to present queer ideas in this form. Comics have been many young readers’ the first introduction to queer folk and theory. Raina Telgemeier’s 2012 graphic novel “Drama” featured a gay character as well as a same-sex kiss, leading it to be banned in numerous schools. “Nimona,” a young adult fantasy graphic novel by ND Stevenson, tackles conversations of gender through the lense of fantastical shape shifting and ends with the two male main characters in a relationship. Therefore, “Heartstopper” is a natural progression in a world where comics have long been used for queer expression.
Comics have subversion written into their DNA. At first, that may seem like an overly serious claim about what is often just a flying man in a Speedo and tights. Yes, comics are often extremely silly and perhaps a little too self indulgent — but how can they not be when the very nature of the form allows the creator complete and total control? The storytelling method of bringing word to picture is built on the idea that anything that can be drawn can be believed. It is one of the few places where the fantastical is expected, the envelope is begging to be pushed. No idea is too big — just make it fit on the page.
Intended or not, this complete free range causes the medium to lean toward that which is queer. Queer theorist Eve Sedgwick wrote that “one of the things that ‘queer’ can refer to (is) the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyones gender, of anyone’s sexuality arent made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithicality.” Comics, too, welcome an open mesh of possibilities, challenging what can and cannot be represented and providing queer narratives with a place to take shape.
During the early days of comics in the U.S., these two worlds with their similar mantras often collided — usually by accident. Genderbending, swapping and general gender mayhem became a common theme in the early to mid 20th century of comic book history, often referred to as the “Golden Age.” The general campiness of many superhero stories lead to scrutiny from the greatly homophobic public, especially in the case of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who wrote, “the Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies, of the nature of which they may be unconscious.” His remarks led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, or CCA, a coalition that restricted what was allowed in comics. Anything outside of the strict gender binary was effectively banned.
With this came the tradition of queer comic book artists writing “underground comix”: largely self-published comics that often provide social commentary. With this, the floodgates were opened. Taking any of the cards at play out of the big publishers’ hands let creators bypass censorship, allowing queer people to use comics for what they do best: breaking norms and challenging conventions. While some were funny and lighthearted, others were hard-hitting critiques on the social climate discussing everything from trans issues to the AIDS crisis. Storytelling was a powerful tool, and if mass media wasn’t going to represent the LGBTQ+ narratives, members of the community would do it themselves.
The Stonewall Riots led to the eventual end of the CCA’s restrictions on queer representation. In turn, queer characters began to show up more in comics by larger companies such as DC and Marvel. Even so, the spirit of the underground comix didn’t end with the restrictions. Author Alice Oseman first released “Heartstopper” as a Tumblr webcomic in 2016, uploading episodically to their blog before a publishing company acquired the rights. Telgemeier’s “Nimona” began the same way, on Tumblr, before eventually being released as a full novel. Queer stories now flourish on sites where queer authors find not only an audience, but a community — lending them even more power in the representation of self.
Comics are not inherently queer. They are an art form — a vessel that can only achieve that which the artist intends. However, the history between the LGBTQ+ community and comics as a tool runs deep. Once examined in tandem, this synergy is clear.
Contact Afton Okwu at [email protected].