Best Of British Review: ‘Lights, Planets, People!’ – A Beautiful Graphic Novel Of Communication And Mental Health
by Richard Bruton
Lights, Planets, People! is an evocative exploration of mental health, a beautifully drawn, powerfully written, and simply wonderful example of just how good graphic novels can be. One of my books of the year without a doubt.
Light, Planets, People! is a new graphic novel adapted by Molly Naylor from her play, and illustrated, beautifully so, by Lizzy Stewart, author of the magnificent Walking Distance. It’s a really delightful graphic novel, by turns claustrophobic and exhilarating, exploring so much, so wonderfully well.
Lights, Planets, People! is a book about so much – space science and astronomy, the joy of exploration, the delights of being immersed in something you love, but also the pitfalls of getting too focused on something to the detriment of other aspects of life. It looks at relationships and explores issues of mental health, including one of the most wonderfully realised artistic description of a bipolar episode of depression and mania. But above all, it’s all about communication, in all its forms.
This is a graphic novel that seems so simple to describe – a woman’s anxieties on giving a lecture, her therapy sessions exploring some of the reasons why, delving into her relationships and her work. Yet, as you get just a few pages into Lights, Planets, People!, you realise it’s so much more complex and complicated, so dense and multi-layered, events beginning so simply but going on to build and build into something that’s magnificent and, for some, perhaps allowing them to gain valuable insight into their own lives and behaviour.
I didn’t see Naylor’s play but, having read and loved this graphic novel adaptation, I can’t help but think that Lizzy Stewart’s sublime work here brings it to a completely new level. Frankly, I was all in from the very first page, a glorious piece of architectural comics artwork – and I do so love architecture in comics.
That first page establishes the story, Stewart’s lush drawing, her delicate pencil line and watercolour wash (well, I think it’s watercolour wash – whatever it is, it’s quite lovely), those figures meandering and wandering about, idly going about their day, with an orange light to the whole page, completely unnatural yet so evocative here, we’re pulled in to the entrance to the building… and into the story itself.
From her, it’s an exercise in seeing Stewart bring Naylor’s wonderfully deep story to life, utilising so many different styles, each one so beautiful, so gorgeous to look at, but always serving the words, adding so much to an already involving story.
And then we switch, to the subject of Lights, Planets, People! – Maggie Hill. It’s her lecture, ‘Inspiring Women’, that all these bright young women are here for, yet Maggie’s off in the toilets trying to psych herself up, telling herself that she can do this, to get it together.
And then the scene switches, from the orange hues of the lecture theatre to a more fragile, delicate look, to Maggie in close-up, at her first therapy session. Again, Stewart’s control of the art is everything here, the close-up views of Maggie combined with the almost claustrophobic words surrounding her, her obvious discomfort writ large.
Maggie speaks of her anxieties, her panic attacks, that she’s having in relation to even planning these lectures to young women, never mind actually having to give them.
So, given all that, how bad do you think it is when we cut back to the lecture theatre and see Maggie and various tech staff struggling with a failing Powerpoint, leaving Maggie to wing it, without the one thing she was using as her crutch.
And then we’re off… the lecture leads us to memories of Maggie’s childhood, the moon landings that triggered a desire to look to the stars, a desire she’s trying to get over here to these students. We bounce back and forth between lecture theatre and therapist’s office, both becoming increasingly difficult, the lecture dominated by talk of her failed mission, ELPIS, the therapist’s session dominated by her failure to maintain her relationship, her failure to cope with her bipolar and her anxiety and how they’ve impacted on her relationship.
As Lights, Planets, People! moves on, we go deeper into Maggie’s life, exploring her work, her relationships, her bipolar disorder, none of which she’s really in control of, despite fighting so hard to keep everything in line. It’s a book full of failure and regret, but it’s also a book that explores that failure, in the therapy session we see the glimmer of Maggie realising things, almost despite herself, and see a potential for a brighter future.
Along the way, we go from the personal to the philosophical, to relationships with others to our relationships with our planet, from looking inward and analysing ourselves to looking to the stars and seeking something bigger, all so beautifully and brilliantly illustrated, in so many different styles, by Stewart, each tonal shift in the art just perfect for the moment.
As the graphic novel develops, we go deeper into all the themes being explored. In the lecture theatre, there are continual questions about ELPIS, the project Maggie was working on for 25 years, a mission to look for exoplanets, the search for an ‘Earth-2’, possibly humanity’s only way to save itself. In the therapist’s room, the talk goes towards her relationship with Jane, so full of the same potential as ELPIS, but one that’s been wrecked by Maggie’s behaviour, by her bipolar disorder and her failure to acknowledge the damage that she’s done to the relationship by her lack of communication.
And through flashbacks, we learn so much of Maggie’s life and what’s brought her to these two moments, the lecture theatre and the therapist, the failures in her work and her life, the failure to communicate.
It all builds and builds until a point where you can’t help but feel, as a reader, every little thing Maggie is feeling. There’s an uncomfortable anxiety that builds in you as you read of Maggie’s life, something of a tightness in the chest – which is testament to just how well Naylor and Stewart are controlling things.
And it all reaches a head when we read of Maggie’s bipolar episode, both the down and then the up. It’s perhaps the most evocative and real expression of just what it’s like to be bipolar I’ve ever read, and something I would imagine would feel very real, very true, to a bipolar sufferer. First, we see Maggie crash down, unable to even watch the launch of ELPIS, this thing she’s spent a quarter of a century working on, the depression, the misery, the anxiety all making it impossible to function…
And then there’s the rebound, as we see the mania take hold. An insane idea takes hold, as Maggie deludes herself that she has the perfect birthday gift for Jane’s 60th birthday, and ends up travelling, alone, to Kennedy Space Centre to watch a launch.
Like I say, it’s uncomfortable to read, the tightness in your chest is real, the anxiety you’re reading about actually bleeds out of the printed page and into your body. You actually feel what you’re reading. And that’s surely evidence of powerful writing, an indication of just how powerful and affecting Lights, Planets, People! really is.
I read it in one sitting, adored it for what it was, absolutely loved Lizzy Stewart‘s artwork, was drawn in by Molly Naylor‘s words. It is, when all is done, a book that you’ll finish and spend a considerable amount of time thinking about, a book that lingers in the memory, affecting, even potentially life-changing for those who may be struggling with some of the issues explored.
So, with that in mind, for those of us who maybe do struggle at times with mental health, I wanted to end with something in the finale of the graphic novel. I don’t think it’s anything of a spoiler, as this is a book where it’s the journey rather than the finale that’s the really important thing, where the experience of the book is so vital and rewarding, so involving and enthralling.
As I’ve already said, this is a book that explores so much. It looks hard at a life and the real and perceived failings of that life. It looks at mental health issues and how it’s important to acknowledge them. But most of all, it’s a book that looks at communication, in oh so many different forms. Everything here is about communication – a lecture theatre, a therapist’s room, the link between Earth and a space probe – all communication in many different forms.
But the finale shows us that we often need to realise that our words, our actions, often in our most vulnerable moments, allow us to communicate with others who need to hear what we say. And that’s what Maggie realises, as she opens up to the lecture room, just the simple admission that she’s bipolar and struggles with it has a profound impact on at least one person in the room.
And that’s what communication can do. It can change things for the better, for all involved.
And that’s what Lights, Planets, People does. It makes things better for all reading it. This is a wonderful, a profound, a real work that explores so many things. It is vital, it is beautiful, it is powerful. It’s a wonderful read.
Lights, Planets, People! is released from Avery Hill Publishing on 23 September in the UK and 28 September in the USA.
Find out more from Molly’s website / @MollyNaylor & Lizzy’s website / @LizzyStewart
Lizzy Stewart’s coming-of-age graphic novel It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be is available from Fantagraphics, and her incredible Walking Distance is available from Avery Hill.