Heartstopper (2018) by Alice Oseman tells the story of Charlie, a highly-strung, openly gay over-thinker, and Nick, a cheerful, soft-hearted rugby player who meet at their all-boys grammar school. Where a friendship soon turns into something more. As a NYT & USA Bestseller, alongside accolades of YALSA Selections, an ABA Pick, among reading countless words of praise for this graphic novel, it was obvious there’s something special, uplifting and a wholesome ambience to Nick and Charlie’s story.
In addition there’s been countless praises and reviews as to how Oseman tackles Queer rep., mental health, among other topics in the currently 4 printed volumes thus far.
In this essay however, I will be showcasing a critique on the artwork and how its style is instead a shortcoming in telling the story. Specifically this critique will examine 3 key elements of comics, to hopefully explain my insight as to how important specificity and strong layout is hindering or impacting the visual storytelling in Oseman’s graphic novel.
Disclaimer: I’m only focusing on Volume 1 specifically as that’s all I’ve read so far. I’m not going to focus too much on the story (only slightly to illustrate points in the art).
There’s nothing wrong with following a traditional and minimal page layout. However, the simplicity in Heartstopper often leaves a sense that the work relies too much in the overuse of negative space which is made more apparent with the lack of detail and overly straight-forward paneling. This subsequently leads to (at least for me anyway) being able to see how the art ends up inadequately using the space provided to explore the character arcs, setting and intense emotion of the story.
As it is already established, this began as a webcomic that later moved to print. The use of strong paneling can help to not only further the vivid emotion in the storytelling, but can be a great indicator to the strength of flow, timing and execution of a story, whether it’s something you notice or not.
Within the first 100 pages or so, after Nick defends Charlie from Ben (a classmate who would be making out with Charlie in secret after it was pre-established in the story that Charlie was out as gay), both boys are back at their homes and begin their text messages with each other. In which this panel is shown:
That particular spread (which in the US print edition is a single page – 102) is slightly awkward and hinders the progression of the artwork.
That immense amount of white space in the middle could have easily been used to bring the following page panels closer together to have it read more clearly, enhancing the hierarchy of their initial texts with just the simple edit of bringing Charlie’s following three scenes, where he checks his phone, onto that page.
Another instance of this is on page 167, where the sequence could have been read in a much more cohesive way if there wasn’t too much space breaking up the artwork, especially since the pivotal scene is Nick reaching for Charlie’s hands to help him with the drums. However, this is a particular problem quite noticeable throughout most of the novel. The over reliance on empty space or white space in between panels (or gutters) adds to how one can spot just how uneven the positioning of the panel boxes are, which heavily impacts the visual flow and smooth reading pace.
Similar to page layout, the paneling or frames of HS feel disjointed at times, leading to scenes that either come across too abrupt and simply unevenly executed. With the lack of details in the art (making for repetitive panels that instead could have conveyed more specificity to add even more layers to the emotional beats within the plot), leads to the dialogue being extremely straight-forward aligning with the obvious intended emotion of the character, which in turn leads nothing for the reader to grasp aside from what’s so clearly spelled out for you on the page.
I actually quite like Page 55, it’s an important moment when Nick first asks Charlie to join the rugby team and they begin their first practice together with tackling. However my issue with it is the fact that speaking in a hierarchal manner, the speech bubbles become the focal point instead of the artwork, until you reach the final two boxes where they discuss tackling.
Instead what I would have done is cut up the dialogue so where until Nick finishes saying…”We’ve got about 15 minutes left, so-” would be in one single text box for the top right panel. This would have led to an opportunity for Oseman in creating a more dynamic duo paneling and single-page spread between the two where Nick completes the page by saying “…Tackling?” to complete the scene on the page.
Artwork & Background Elements
There’s indeed a charm to Oseman’s simple art style, however the issue with the artwork is how the lack of detail makes the scenes read incredibly fast without any ambiguity or further interpretation for the reader to pick up for themselves. This also reigns true for the dialogue which, alongside the artwork, so plainly delivers to the reader a specific emotion (without any further interpretation) as to how Charlie or Nick think/feel in a particular scene. Again there’s nothing wrong with how direct the emotions are…it’s simply that the artwork itself doesn’t contain too many specific details that heighten those moments to cement Charlie and Nick in the environment or to linger further on the state they are feeling.
Additionally, there’s scenes throughout where the backgrounds could have contained more detail (especially in transitioning scenes), where they tend to feel rather plain and empty once it becomes more focused on Charlie and Nick, which makes for a lot of blank or empty space within the confines of the panel boxes.
To conclude on this section, the sizing of the panel boxes (which can be unnecessarily large at times) also factors into the issue mentioned above with the paneling. The lack of further implementing more vivid elements to the background designs makes the pacing feel both incredibly clipped and rapid at once.
Alice Oseman gets much credit for the storytelling (and in extension their artwork) being described as “cute” and in general is very well received, for good reason. However, I generally fall into the “unpopular opinion” where I particularly didn’t love this as much as everyone else. Having explored quite a few elements to the presentation of HS, here’s a peculiar quote that further inspired this discussion which had me in a way confirming my thoughts as to how the artwork Oseman presented didn’t work for me personally:
As this comment was surely made in good faith, Oseman’s remark to being asked about the thinking behind story changes to the Netflix adaptation vs. that of the original graphic novel in a recent Buzzfeed interview left me quite puzzled—
“Most people don’t realise that in comics there isn’t a lot of space because it’s drawings and not prose, so you really can’t put a lot of story in there.”
That is simply untrue, from my own perspective having read various mediums of comics. An example of how artwork can tell a story (especially without dialogue on-page), just take a look at this panel from Kamome Shirahama’s Witch Hat Atelier, in which the main character Coco embarks on the journey of becoming a witch. For instance, this single page of WHA conveys a lot about Coco’s wonder and awe in using magic for the first time, without using a single word:
The elements discussed above are in no way meant to bash on the Heartstopper books or their meaningful message, romance, etc. However, having read other illustrated works (webcomics, graphic novels & manga) in the past only now returning to finish up the first volume of this graphic novel/comic in 2022, I wanted to bring together a comprehensive essay to discuss how these elements are often overlooked or not usually talked about in regards to the reviews I’ve read. It left me reflecting much on how the artwork could have been executed differently to better tell the story.
What are your opinions on the artwork within these graphic novels? Are there any reflections you have after reading my essay in regards to the art? Whether you agree or disagree, what are your thoughts on this essay?✨
Hey there, I know I’ve been quite absent for a bit here on the blog, but after starting a new bookish job and taking a bit of a hiatus, it inspired me to be more daring in sharing less popular opinions that I have and experiment with discussing them in essay form. In researching & observing the work more closely, it allowed me to think further about the influence of art, its layout, paneling, etc. to tell a story. As always, please be open to sharing your feedback on this blog essay and I hope you enjoyed reading my perspective. Thank you so much for reading!
7 thoughts on “Blog Essay: ‘Heartstopper’ by Alice Oseman // Examining Artwork and impact of Visual Storytelling”
I have read Heartstopper and I did enjoy it. Not as much as everyone else but I enjoyed it. I really liked the art style… very reminiscent of schools with the sketchy black and white. The eyes and their expressions are a favourite of mine. I feel like it isn’t a detail-orientated style though… for the school set story I was happy for this (as the art inspires me to think of school, it brought up emotions for me in that way). If a fantasy one was like I would be disappointed tho (as I’m interested in the background). I don’t know if it makes sense but the simple look worked for me (they are art styles that have made me feel more tho) but I can see how it doesn’t work for everyone. I know people have mentioned this for heartstopper before.
I read the comic online and the vertical set-up felt very satisfying for the constant downward scrolling. Everything was big and clear on my screen. The flow felt very nice and airy. I was surprised it was kept so similar on the page (never saw it until now really)… it definitely could have been downsized and rearranged. The joy on the screen was how it looked like a piece of paper but on an actual piece of paper, it didn’t need to look like a piece of paper. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much if I read it in print. It is strange and I didn’t think of it until just now.
I hope this comment makes sense and I really enjoyed hearing your thought-provoking review! 💖
LikeLiked by 1 person
YES you got my points exactly Sophie! 🥺✨ I think the original format could have been better fit with some editing transitioning to book-form & yeah, I would have loved more details in the backgrounds (in another genre perhaps sci-fi or fantasy, I don’t think their style would have conveyed enough). Can definitely see the appeal of it, but to me its sadly lacking. Appreciate your lovely comments Sophie & THANK YOU SO MUCH your comment has made my day, I write these essays feeling like no one will read them but it means a lot that you said its thought-provoking (*crying for the rest of the day now) 😭💕
LikeLiked by 1 person
i look forward to reading heartstopper. i was going to wait until i’ve seen the show first. the off putting thing for me is the art style. i like more detail and colour in my graphic novels.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Same here, I might continue with the series to see what happens but the lack of detail really impacted my experience reading it 😅 Thank you so much for reading & your thoughtful comment Chelsea, hope you enjoy the show 🥰✨
After watching the series on Netflix i got curious if the flow of the story and in the series are the same. I will definitely read the book!
LikeLiked by 1 person
hope you enjoy it & thanks for reading! ✨