UK-based illustrator Manjit Thapp is best known for her commercial projects, usually centered on historic women. She has provided artwork for The Little Book of Feminist Saints (Random House, 2018), Resisters: 52 Young Women Making Herstory Right Now (Wren & Rook, 2019), The Bigger Picture: Women Who Changed the Art World (Tate, 2019), and her 2018 Google Doodle of poet Kamala Das, among other publications. These works exemplify her attention to line and color, as well as her characteristic handmade aesthetic and colored-pencil textures.
Thapp carries this style into her first full-length graphic novel, Feelings: A Story in Seasons, which charts a young woman’s emotional journey through the six-season calendar that is common in parts of South Asia. The book’s release coincides with the one-year anniversary, in the US and Europe, of the COVID-19 pandemic. While most of the page spreads feature closely cropped drawings of a solitary woman struggling with anxiety, Feelings shows much more than the loneliness of this past year. “I strove to capture the emotional authenticity of my seasonal experiences with anxiety,” the artist writes; it is a reminder that for many people, the anxiety felt en masse this past year is an ongoing part of life.
The strength of this collection lies in its formal design structure: tightly cropped, layered boxes; asymmetrical layouts; and drawings of digital communication tools such as text messages and social media. (Thapp has an active Instagram page and makes good use of its grid form, in addition to sharing behind-the-scenes videos and content.)
The opening section, “High Summer,” features bright colors and sparser layouts. The text “I let the sun keep me warm” is centered in an otherwise empty yellow box in an 18-square grid that runs across the page gutter. The layout, which should be familiar to Instagram users, focuses on aerial images of food spreads that fill two boxes, similar to the style of multi-panel images on the social media platform. Other boxes picture plants and makeup application. Rather than infantilizing or mocking, this presentation feels genuine and authentic to the ways that people share joy and beauty on social media. Clipped views of supportive text message chains convey the ways that technology can keep us close and fulfilled.
But as we shift to “Late Summer,” the layouts darken slightly: “A worry of not making the most out of the season builds alongside the shame of not enjoying the sun as much as everyone else.” The layouts become more complex, filled with floating text bubbles and daunting digital graphics, such as a webpage with a circling “LOADING” sign and a long To-Do list. “The end of the season is looming / and I know I’ll regret wasting these last few days / hot and bothered, waiting to cool down.” The verbal and visual cues work in tandem to express the sluggish mood shift. A slim text box reads, “I’m struggling through shadows. / While everyone else bathes in the light” above a cropped drawing of a hand holding a phone and scrolling through an Instagram feed showing beach scenes. The frame around the phone remains empty, illustrating the void social media both fills and feeds when one already feels isolated.
The book continues with the seasonal ebb and flow, alternating between minimal and crowded layouts. Thapp also successfully blends references to contemporary and older technology. At the start of “Monsoon” season, a woman sits on the floor and pulls her knees close; she is surrounded by icons representing her thoughts: text message and missed call icons intermix with landline office phones and planner books.
When Thapp transitions to horizontal, open layouts the expanse of blank space suggests the lethargy and ennui of the solitary woman’s mental state. On one particularly relatable page, stacked horizontal frames show our heroine lying on her couch, texting friends to cancel plans, only to curl up in her darkened bedroom and watch TV on her computer. Many of the scenes are reminiscent of how so many of us spent time over the past year. “I’m not alone in feeling this way, but I am lonely all the same,” the narration states in the “Winter” chapter. The book ends with “Spring,” fittingly the season in which it was released. “I persevered / through bitter storms,” she writes — a sentiment felt widely now, as vaccines offer hope that normal life is on the horizon.
But Thapp’s emotional journey of words and images is not a pandemic story, as apt as it is to these circumstances. Instead, it offers a more nuanced glimpse into chronic anxiety, depression, and seasonal affective disorder. Her illustrations smartly mimic the visual designs many have become accustomed to seeing digitally — yet, rendered by hand, they look fresh. Though the novel has the quality of an intimate diary, the sentiments Thapp expresses reflect a universal vulnerability.