Comics review: Heartstopper (Volumes 1 & 2) by Alice Oseman

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

One of the best parts of growing up, or the worst if you are someone more at ease with well-etched certainty, is discovering how different life actually is to what you thought it would be.

For many of us this realisation comes to bear in our teenage years, a time of aching transition where we stumble, because let’s face it nothing about growing up is ever elegant or Hollywood neat-and-pretty, onto life’s great big dirty truth – that it is a messy, confusing mess of loose ends and ever-morphing uncertainties where rock solid ideas are only as good as their evocation of real life.

For the braver among us, grappling with this truth is liberating as we set aside what we though we knew about our ourselves and the world around us and set forth into a life that defies expectations, thrillingly and alarmingly in equal measure, at every turn.

In Alice Oseman’s delightful two-part (so far; a third instalment and hopefully more are on the way) Heartstopper, rugby star Nick comes face-to-face, literally, as it turns out, with life’s true identity as a hard to pin master or mistress of disguise who cannot be easily pigeonholed, though goodness knows, social convention, tradition and religion give it their best shot.

Meeting Charles Spring, an out gay kid one year younger than him when the school they both attend, Truham Grammar School for Boys, mixes things up and puts 5-6 boys from each form (or year in the Australian context) into vertically-integrated groups, Nick initially thinks he has just found a very good friend.

Hitting it off instantly, Nick and Charles are soon inseparable, with the latter joining the former’s school rugby team and the two of them spending more time at each other’s places than their own.

It’s obvious that there is something more than a brilliantly-good friendship at work, though that is most certainly a thing, a gift to both of them that neither really knew they needed, but while Charles aka Charlie dares and hopes that Nick, a straight guy might be into him, as in into into him, all Nick knows, at first, is that he really likes his new friend.

As in watching him run track such that one of his teammates has to call him back to being present at rugby practice and wanting only to spend time with Charlie at a party where his old, über-masculine friends no longer the same attraction they once did.

Could he be, I mean, is it even possible, that he might like Charlie as more than a friend?

It’s a HUGE question, at least for a guy who has always defined himself in certain unyielding terms, but as he begins to spend more and more time with cute, loveable, sweet, brave Charlie, he has to confront the fact that what he knows presently of himself is now who he might be becoming, now and into the future.

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

While Nick is grappling with some pretty big, fundamental but not entirely unwelcome questions about identity – what I love about Oseman’s writing is that she’s gloriously honest about the fact that we can, in the initial coming-to-terms phase of something, treat something that will be utterly wonderful as an completely unwelcome intrusion into a then-comfortable status quo – Charlie is having to face answers from his friends, such as bestie Tao Xu (there for him when the post-coming out bullying was at its worst at school), about whether it’s wise to expect his romantic feelings for Nick to be reciprocated.

They are fair questions and you can understand why friends like Tao, trans girl Elle and sister Victoria aka Tori, who is as gorgeously supportive and loving as you’d want a big sister to be, are asking them.

But as he sees signs that Nick may be more than just a randomly close friend created by circumstance, signs that come and go because of where Nick is, Charlie dares to believe that life can defy what you expect and reward you with the very thing you need.

As a gay man who spent my high school years, and lamentable far beyond, firmly nailed in the closet, beautifully and sublimely-expressed stories like Heartstopper, are a consummate, deliciously overwhelming story.

They normalise what any queer person knows is perfectly normal anyway; that falling in love with a man/woman/non gender-binary identifying person is as a natural as anyone else falling in love.

You hope, you dream, you get excited, to get disappointed, and you grapple with the ideas and emotions that challenge, in the very best of ways, everything you ever thought you knew about life.

Oseman, who paces the story perfectly and believably, with artwork that is an expressive delight on every page, nails how disruptive and yet fantastically good that can be, how the upsetting of the existing apple cart can be the very best thing to ever happen to us.

Based on a much-loved webcomic, Heartstopper is that rare and beautiful thing – a fairytale that feels real and authentic in ways that anyone with a beating heart and an open mind to life’s constant surprises, will find readily appealing.

She manages to balance the exquisite frisson of excitement that comes from possibility and expectation with the messy fulfilment of said possibility in such a way that real life begins to look far more complex and inviting than many of us give it credit for.

That is what is so appealing about Heartstopper.

It’s warmly romantic in the way that the best romantic comedies are and you will sigh and cry and whoop with happiness on just about every artfully-drawn page, but it also feels like it could happen, and does happen, reminding anyone with an open listenable heart that our ideas of love, life and humanity are far too narrow, and that embracing the idea that life comes in a ridiculously wonderful assortment of shapes and sizes, doesn’t take away from our common experience of what it means to be human, it enhances it and we, and in this Nick and Charlie, are all the richer for it.

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