Heartstopper, Webcomics, and the Queer Tradition of Self-Publishing
by: Nyds Rivera
On April 22, Heartstopper was released on Netflix. If you’ve missed all the excitement surrounding it, here’s a quick rundown. The show is much like your standard teen rom-com, following high-school student Charlie Spring and his love interest/classmate, Nick Nelson. Furthermore, Alice Oseman, the original author of the Heartstopper series, also identifies as queer (aromantic and asexual, to be precise). The show has achieved massive success, particularly among its teenage audience, and was renewed for a second and third season less than a month after its initial release. It’s also achieved plenty of internet fame, inspiring several adorable TikTok trends celebrating queer love—just in time for pride month.
One of the truly fascinating things about Heartstopper’s success though is the fact that it is based on a webcomic. While now insanely popular, when Heartstopper was first published in 2016, it was just one of the thousands of self-published comics on Webtoon.
While Heartstopper is the most recent example of a queer webcomic reaching such success, it certainly isn’t the first. Webtoon, and platforms like it, have long been an outlet in which for (often young, often queer) writers to self-publish their work. The result is a staggering amount of easily accessible queer content made simply for the love of creation, not for profit or attention. Niche communities—mostly made of queer and questioning kids—have banded together over these obscure titles for years. Sometimes the representation leaves something to be desired, and it hasn’t always been so wholesome as Heartstopper (take, for example, my introduction to queer webcomics; a famously controversial psychological horror), but it has provided one thing that many LGBT people have found lacking in our childhood: community.
There are more easily available examples of queer stories in mainstream publishing than ever before, but it wasn’t always that way. Self-publishing is still more accessible for many, if not most, writers, and this isn’t anything new. Self-publishing has been a cornerstone of queer culture for decades.
In the late 1970s– early 1980s, when the queer community was still feeling the effects of the Stonewall Riots and the AIDS epidemic began to worsen, zine-making was adopted by many queer individuals. Originally a product of the punk subculture, these short self-published works became a way for queer artists and writers to express themselves and connect with their community. These zines were unrestricted, uncensored, and often were created with little means and circulated for free around communities. The usefulness and popularity of the zine engrained itself into queer culture: after all, it was accessible to all and allowed individuals to express themselves in the purest form.
Series like Heartstopper and other self-published web series are, in many ways, the spiritual successor to the zines that were once the only outlet for the queer community. Not only is self-publishing still one of the most accessible ways for queer writers to get their work out to the world, but it is also a means of keeping this tradition alive. We’ve come far, but the future of LGBT rights and communities is unfortunately still unstable. Old traditions like self-publishing persist, however, and continue to bring us together even now.
So, here’s to self-publishing and to the persistence of queer stories—Happy Pride Month!