Welcome to the third article of our 2021 Pride Month Series! Each day in the month of June, we will be highlighting a different member of the LGBTQ+ community who we think is a great example of representation and dynamic characterization. We will focus on fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — the positive voices within the LGBTQ+ community and in mainstream media.
Everyone loves a good teenage romance, and Charlie and Nick from Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper graphic novels are exactly that and so much more. The story was never really the typical teenage drama we so often see in the media where their biggest problem is will he/she go to the dance with me. Instead, Oseman created Charlie and Nick (and her other characters) as real teenagers dealing with real teenage problems that we as readers get to watch play out on the page.
Oseman is publishing the story both online via sites like Tumblr, Tapas and Webtoon, and in physical volumes. Currently there are four published physical volumes with a fifth volume promised. However, Volume 4 will not be available here in the US until December 2021. (If you are international though you are in luck, as it is available in some international markets as of last month.) So, for the purposes of this article we’ll be looking at the story as told by Volumes 1, 2, and 3.
Caution Spoilers Ahead!
Volume 1 of Heartstopper gives readers the angsty teen romance that so many of us love. It is a true will they/won’t they story with a twist: Nick might be straight. From the moment Charlie and Nick are sat together for their class group it is obvious that Charlie finds Nick attractive, but knowing that Nick is most likely straight, he works to keep his thoughts and feelings in check. However, that becomes increasingly more difficult as Nick convinces Charlie to join the rugby team and the two become friends. Meanwhile, Nick is discovering that maybe he likes Charlie a bit more than he ought to as just a friend, but is unsure what to do with that information. Ultimately we see Nick stand up for Charlie against one of his friends who’s spewing homophobic comments, before admitting to Charlie that he has a crush on someone who isn’t a girl. The book ends after Charlie and Nick kiss as Nick returns to his friends leaving a confused and upset Charlie to deal with the aftermath.
Volume 2 sees the aftermath of Nick’s decision to return to his friends after the kiss, and focuses on Nick and his coming out story. It opens with Nick making amends with Charlie over deserting him right after their first kiss and explaining that he doesn’t know what is going on with him. Charlie is the partner everyone questioning their sexuality for the first time wished they could have. He quietly listens to Nick and then patiently explains that if he likes boys and girls it is okay, that just means he might be bisexual. Charlie is there every step of the way offering Nick support and time while he figures everything out. Even when his best friend Tao warns Charlie away from Nick because he doesn’t want Charlie hurt, Charlie stands by Nick.
One of the best conversations in Volume 2 comes when Charlie’s sister catches the boys making out and Charlie reassures Nick that there is no rush to come out. Every time Nick makes the decision to come out to someone Charlie is right there to support the decision, but even in the moments when Nick is scared Charlie makes sure he is there too. He is such a good example of how to be a good friend, or partner, to someone who is just discovering their sexuality and getting ready to come out. So many of the LGBTQ+ community could have used a person in the life like Charlie, it is nice to see a positive experience represented here.
Where Volume 2 saw the focus on Nick and his journey, Volume 3 really looks into Charlie’s experience. Picking up following Nick coming out to his mom, Volume 3 leads off with Charlie tells his parents that he and Nick are dating. His parents take the news very well, as did Nick’s mom, much to the boys’ relief. However, readers don’t see much of the boys’ families in this volume as it centers around the events of a school trip to Paris. The trip drops the couple into the middle of Charlie’s (and now Nick’s) core friend group and forces them to navigate who they want to tell, as well as how and when. On top of this, Charlie reveals that he was self-harming as a way to deal with the bullying the previous year, and Nick’s older brother pesters both boys over how “Nick turned gay.” Then as if that was not enough, Nick begins to suspect that Charlie has an eating disorder and Charlie anxiously wonders how to tell Nick that he loves him.
Overall, Volume 3 is a very heavy read that tackles some deep and important topics for both Charlie and Nick, but readers see their relationship grow stronger as they tackle these issues together. They are both so supportive of each other, and Nick really steps up in this volume to support and take care of Charlie. From comforting Charlie and accepting that he is not ready to share their relationship with the world yet to doing his best to encourage Charlie to eat, Nick proves just how deeply he cares about Charlie. The dynamic between the boys is so powerful because readers can so clearly see what is happening and how their relationship is impacting they way the boys view themselves and everything around them. For Charlie this sometimes means heightened anxiety, while Nick’s perception of people is forced to shift when their perception of him shifts.
One of the most impactful moments of Volume 3 comes in the form of Charlie’s bully, who is on the Paris trip with them, coming to apologize. After Charlie’s earlier reveal that the bullying has led him to self harm in the past this is an admittedly nerve-wracking moment for both Nick and the readers, but Charlie surprises everyone and gives the following speech:
“What do you want from us? Forgiveness? “Well Done?” You said all this homophobic stuff to me, but it’s okay, because you’re sorry? I’m glad you realized the error of your ways but it’s not my job to give you a gold star. People like you made my life hell last year. And I shouldn’t have to forgive anyone for any of it. You don’t get to ambush me into forgiving you in front of everyone. One “sorry” doesn’t make up for all the thing you said. So CONGRATS on your incredibly difficult realization that gay people actually do have feelings and have a nice life. *slams the door*“
Charlie beat his anxiety in this moment and said exactly what needed to be said. This speech really demonstrates how much Charlie has grown since meeting and getting together with Nick. Before he probably would have just let it go and taken the apology, but he is learning that it is okay to not be okay with people treating him like he is less because of his sexuality. He said what so many LGBTQ+ community members have wanted to in the face of this kind of situation, and it is refreshing to see.
Now, while Volume 4 is not yet available in the US you can read some of what will be included in the volume via the online publications, and it dives even deeper into the issues they boys face from Charlie’s mental health to the stress of saying “I love you” to Nick coming out to his absent father. Charlie and Nick’s story is so impactful because it addresses these very real issues, both specific to the LGBTQ+ community and outside it. The boys are likeable characters that readers can easily see themselves in, and they represent the truth of the LGBTQ+ experience for many.
With Volume 4 just out, or coming soon, and Volume 5 in the works, Charlie and Nick’s story in Heartstopper is one you need to read, especially as it it currently in development as a Netflix series. The series isn’t set to stream until 2022, but filming is currently underway and if they bring Charlie and Nick’s story to life as it is told in the books we are in for a treat when it does arrive.
Stay tuned for our next spotlight coming tomorrow!