At 28, the author and illustrator Alice Oseman recently achieved what so many of her peers cannot: she bought a flat. But instead of giving up Netflix so she could save for a deposit, as Kirstie Allsopp notoriously recommended, she sold the streaming service the rights to her gay romance comic book series.
The series in question is of course Heartstopper, the web comic turned graphic novel turned Netflix show that this paper’s reviewer described as “completely lovely” when it aired earlier this year. The boy-meets-boy tale, set in a British secondary school, sees rugby captain Nick and socially awkward Charlie navigate friendships, bullying, coming out – and falling in love. It’s not hard to see why the TV adaptation won over teenagers and adults alike, with its lovable characters, quirky nods to its comic book origins – for example, tiny animations of hand-drawn flowers form a circle round the actors when Nick and Charlie share their first kiss – and an injection of starriness in the shape of Olivia Colman (Nick’s mum) and Stephen Fry (headmaster Barnes). The show’s success resulted in a huge increase in book sales for Oseman: the Heartstopper series has now sold more than 6m copies worldwide. Volume One recently won the Books Are My Bag readers’ choice award and is a contender for the 2022 Waterstones book of the year.
Oseman, who is also the author of four prose novels for young adults, knows her experience in the publishing world has been a rare one. “Very few creators achieve this level of success, and I’m very aware of that. I feel really lucky and grateful to be in this position.”
She may put it down to luck, but there is a quiet determination in the way the writer talks about her work. At just 18, she made headlines after bagging a six-figure deal for her first book, Solitaire, which tells the story of 16-year-old Tori Spring, a sardonic introvert who is reluctantly persuaded by her new friend Michael to help discover the identity of a hacker who is disrupting the school computer network. What motivated her to send out her writing to publishers at such a young age? “I thought it was good,” she says simply.
Clearly she wasn’t the only one – publishing houses tussled for the novel, which HarperCollins bought after a bidding war. The announcement was made during Oseman’s freshers’ week at Durham University, when commissioning editor Elizabeth Clifford called the novel “the perfect story for the Instagram Tumblr generation”. From Solitaire grew Heartstopper: Nick and Charlie, who are 16 and 15 at the start of the comic, began as supporting characters in the novel, which is set roughly a year after the pair began their relationship. Oseman had always loved them as characters, and “knew that they had some kind of backstory”. Initially, she wanted to tell that story in another novel, but “just couldn’t get it to work”.
“Nick and Charlie’s story didn’t have that beginning, middle and end structure that you have in a novel,” she says. The episodic nature of the web comic format allowed her to zoom in on specific periods in the teenagers’ lives without the need for an overarching narrative.
Oseman grew up in Rochester, Kent, with a dance teacher mother and a father who works for an electronics company. She “hated” the local grammar school that she attended, always wanting “to be at home writing stories and doing creative things”. She started working on Heartstopper during the final year of her English degree (“I skipped a lot of lectures”), at which point drawing the comic strip felt like “a very weird hobby”, rather than something that could actually be lucrative. The first instalment went live the September after she graduated, and a dedicated group of readers began to grow.
It is arguably the writer’s first-hand knowledge of how fandoms and online communities operate that has been the key to Heartstopper’s success. From the very start of the web comic, Oseman engaged directly with her fans, responding to their comments and fan art online. Due to the sheer number of messages, she can no longer reply to all her readers, but her latest book, The Heartstopper Yearbook, is evidence that she still wants to cultivate that fandom. The yearbook, “a cross between an annual and an art book”, is aimed at the comic and TV show’s fans, complete with quizzes, drawing guides, and behind-the-scenes information about the characters.
Oseman understands this world because she was – and still is, though to a lesser degree – part of it. She is a self-proclaimed “Tumblr veteran”, having joined the blogging site in 2010, using it, alongside Tapas and Webtoon, to post the original Heartstopper web comic. Tumblr “very much shaped the person that I’ve become, in good ways and bad ways,” Oseman says. Seeing other people’s blogs “opened my eyes to queerness in a way that the real world was just not giving me,” she says; a digital coming-out experience she tried to replicate through Heartstopper’s Nick, who questions his sexuality via YouTube videos and BuzzFeed quizzes.
The author’s gender is “an ongoing journey” – she has recently started using they/them pronouns alongside she/her, but isn’t “tied to any specific labels”. She identifies as asexual and aromantic – something she explores in her 2020 novel Loveless, which is “not an autobiographical book, but it does draw on a lot of experiences”. Like Oseman, Loveless’s protagonist Georgia went away to university feeling something of an outsider, having never had a crush on anyone, despite enjoying fictional romance stories. Oseman remembers taking online quizzes to work out where she fell on the Kinsey scale, a method of identifying a person’s sexuality on a scale of zero to six. The quizzes would return her result not as a number, but as an X. “Well, that’s not helpful to me,” she would think.
At the time she had no language to describe her asexual feelings. “The world is obsessed with sex and romance. And if you don’t have that, you feel like you haven’t achieved something that’s really important,” she says. Oseman tries to highlight the importance of platonic relationships in her own work – even in Heartstopper, an out-and-out love story, friendship is hugely important – and to include asexual representation in her books. She has even told her online followers that her character Tori, who identifies as straight in Solitaire (largely because Oseman didn’t know about asexuality at the time), is probably somewhere “on the ace/aro spectrums” and that this will “become canon” in Volume Five of Heartstopper. As much as Oseman and others like her are trying to start conversations about asexuality, she doesn’t think it’s going to be a widely talked about subject any time soon. “We’re never really going to see much cultural change in terms of awareness until a big celebrity comes out as being asexual,” she says. “And there’s nothing I can do about that.”
Could she become that big celebrity herself? “I need to do that!” she laughs, but it’s clear that even the small taste of fame that has come with the success of Heartstopper doesn’t suit Oseman. These days, she sets firm boundaries when it comes to social media. “Four years ago, I was perfectly happy to share my whole life online,” she says. “I very much felt like I had to put out everything about myself in order to sell my books.”
The pressure to share personal details with fans is still there, however, and LGBTQ+ celebrities in particular are often expected to come out publicly, sometimes before they are ready. Kit Connor, the 18-year-old star of Heartstopper, recently tweeted that he felt “forced” to come out as bisexual. “I truly don’t understand how people can watch Heartstopper and then gleefully spend their time speculating about sexualities and judging based on stereotypes,” Oseman tweeted in response.
The author herself now “treasures” being able to keep some things private: “I feel like I deserve that.” She also tries very hard not to read or be influenced by fanfiction created about her own work. “You can get caught up in trying to please the fans, but it’s impossible.”
Interacting with her teenage fanbase can be useful, however, especially when it comes to keeping her characters’ language realistic. “In Volume Three of the comics, there’s a whole storyline about Charlie having a love bite. And when I was writing the scripts for season two [of Heartstopper], I suddenly thought, do teens still use the phrase ‘love bite’?”
“Apparently they don’t,” she discovered after checking with some of her fans, so the phrase had to be swapped out for “hickey”, their current word of choice.
Oseman was adamant that she would be involved in Heartstopper’s screen adaptation. As it turned out, production company See Saw offered her the opportunity to write the screenplay straight away, but she would have been “prepared to fight for it” otherwise. “I don’t think I would have allowed someone to just take the book and do what they want with it.”
What she couldn’t control, of course, were people’s reactions to the Netflix show. While the response has been overwhelmingly positive, she was confused by the way Heartstopper has been labelled by some as “the purest, cleanest, most wholesome show [they’ve] ever seen”.
While the central relationship between Charlie and Nick is undoubtedly, and intentionally, very cute, Oseman felt some viewers were “sort of ignoring” the darker aspects of the story. “Even in season one, you’ve got an emotionally and physically abusive relationship, there’s homophobia, there’s bullying, there are implications of mental health issues,” she says, suggesting that more of these themes will be explored in future episodes. “So it was a strange reaction.”
Perhaps it’s because Heartstopper is being seen in the context of shows such as the US high school drama Euphoria, which was written for an adult audience. So while Nick, Charlie and their friends choose milkshakes over class A drugs and “crap” is as bad as it gets when it comes to expletives, this is largely because the show is specifically aimed at younger viewers. There was actually “loads of swearing” in the first draft of the script, Oseman tells me, as there is in the original comic, but the words were taken out after an executive producer explained it would mean an automatic 15 rating. “It was important to us” that the show would be “accessible to younger teens”, Oseman says, since the number of programmes aimed at this age group that depict positive queer relationships is still small.
Oseman has been pleasantly surprised by the lack of transphobic responses to the show. One of the main characters in season one, Elle, is a trans girl who has just moved to an all-girls school, and is played by trans TikTok star Yasmin Finney. The author had assumed this storyline would be criticised by some viewers, since transgender identities, particularly when it comes to teenagers, so often come under fire online. “I like to think [the lack of negativity] is because Heartstopper is so positive and joyful and full of love, so it’s hard to actively hate without seeming like a horrible person,” she says. “But that’s not how bigots work, so I’m not sure how it’s avoided that. But I’m glad that it has.”
Perhaps there has been some pushback “deep in the forums”, but it certainly hasn’t stopped the show and the comics from becoming hugely popular. Since season one aired, anyone walking into the young adult section of their local Waterstones branch is likely to be met by a barricade of Heartstoppers. Within the last year, “everything has skyrocketed in a really massive way,” Oseman says. It has “kind of changed my life”. When it all becomes overwhelming, she turns to her parents, who live near her flat in Kent. “I tell them everything,” she says, citing their support as what has got her through the more surreal moments of her career.
Right now she feels too “burnt out” to work on anything else. “I have no creativity left in my brain,” she says, with obvious frustration. It is clear there is part of her that wishes she could be back in her teenage bedroom, writing uninterrupted. “I miss having a new story to write,” she admits. “But I just don’t have the time or energy. So I’ll have to wait.” Volume Five of Heartstopper, due out in February, will be the last, at least for now, though Oseman can feel the weight of her readers’ expectation. “It’s going to be impossible to please everyone,” she says. “That’s something that I’m trying to come to terms with.” Whatever she comes up with next, it will be written in Oseman’s own time, on her own terms – and, of course, in her own flat.
The Heartstopper Yearbook by Alice Oseman (Hachette Children’s Group, £14.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.