Lights, Planets, People!
Molly Naylor and Lizzy Stewart
Public speaking – it divides us. Some weirdos (I must include myself in this group) have no issue with it. They will happily ad-lib a few remarks or drone through a powerpoint for an hour. But for many others the thought of standing up in front of more than two people elicits dread.
Lights, Planets, People! Tells the story of Maggie Hill, a brilliant astronomer who is called on to deliver lectures to young women to inspire them with her example. The anxiety this triggers brings her to a therapist who untangles the many threads of Maggie’s life.
The use of that modern day confessional booth, the psychiatrist’s couch, as a narrative device will be familiar to anyone who has watched The Sopranos or a Woody Allen film. As Maggie reluctantly opens up to her therapist we learn more about her life. Maggie has bipolar disorder and we learn about how this has impacted every aspect of her life, but particularly her professional career and her romantic life.
The character of Maggie is interesting. Often exasperated professionally and neglectful of her romantic partners – she is perhaps a difficult person to like. This was a refreshing approach – mental health issues make for difficult lives and challenging behaviours. She clearly suffers as a result of her bipolar disorder, but she is not soft or apologetic.
However, the theme of this book is not mental health or relationships, rather it is hope. The project that Maggie works on is called Elpis, named after the Greek goddess of hope. It seeks to find habitable exoplanets. In her lecture Maggie talks about this project as a means of finding salvation from the imminent doom of climate change – a chance to find a world that’s “just right”.
For Maggie her relationships are like her scientific experiments, if it does not work, if it is not “just right” then try again. Her therapist has a different viewpoint, one that takes into account the messy and unpredictable nature of human beings.
Visually Lizzy Stewart takes up the challenge of representing the various states of Maggie’s work, life and mental health. This book began life as a stage play which must have posed challenges when it came to adapting the work for comics. But this is a very graphically literate book which uses the medium to great effect.
The lecture theatre where Maggie is under the stressful spotlight is lit in harsh orange tones. A softer and cooler palette is used throughout her relationship. The stars, with or without exoplanets shine down as they stroll hand in hand through the town.
Some scenes of Maggie striding like a giant above the streets, a representation of the manic phase of her bipolar disorder, are reminiscent of Lizzy Stewart’s previous book Walking Distance. A few panels are like photographs, strong, happy memories of both work and love. Maggie is open that sometimes one brings her more joy than the other and she is not judged for that.
There are some very effective panels that show Maggie in the throes of depression, taken to her bed, avoiding calls. A beam of light escapes the curtains as she crashes out, taking refuge beneath the sheets from her solar tormentor.
Lights, Planets, People takes on a difficult subject and deals with it sympathetically but not sentimentally. Maggie can’t fix all her problems, or undo her mistakes, nor does she want to. But she can learn to take more control of some aspects of her life. Hope comes not from our stars but from ourselves.