Drawing the Invisible by Jac Batey


Jac Batey, illustrator and curator of the Zineopolis art zine collection, reflects on what she’s learnt from madzines about illustrating complex emotions.

I’m the curator of the Zineopolis art zine collection at the University of Portsmouth but also an illustrator and academic. Art zines are self-published limited-edition publications on any theme. We have over 500+ and use them as a valuable teaching and research resource in the School of Art, Design and Performance which means much of the collection is by illustrators, artists, and designers of all ages, genders and abilities.


I started working with the Madzines project in 2021 after meeting Hel and Jill at a Graphic Medicine conference. They wanted some input from a visual practitioner working with zines to help bring a zine-like design or aesthetic and visual unity to the project. I started by creating logos, and spot illustrations for the website, as well as creating branding and incidentals for their blog and YouTube channel. They also wanted help to learn to ‘think visually’ and to illustrate complex ideas that might be difficult to convey in words. As a practicing researcher in illustration, working on this project has given me an opportunity to reflect on this further. I have often used my own Illustrations as a mechanism to share a more personal narrative, this technique is known as ‘authorial illustration’ and within zine culture this kind of personal story has become known as the ‘perzine’ (short for personal zine). Drawing can be a means of finding things out, of revealing what is hidden in fact learning to think visually can offer insights often missed when we focus solely on the textual.
I was particularly fascinated by how drawings and artwork can help give shape to the ‘invisible’, especially emotional turmoil.


Illustrations can be used very literally in educational textbooks and diagrams; they can also be used to help us learn to read in children’s books and make us laugh when they’re cartoons. Once you notice them, pictures drawn by illustrators are all around us, on every surface: clothes, packaging, reading material, screens and even inked onto skin. However, illustrations that reveal the hidden world inside our heads are my favourites. Curating Zineopolis I had started to put together a sub-collection of zines that showed visualisations of mental health issues such as anxiety and, panic attacks, most commonly in the form of visual diaries created by someone who wanted to share their lived experiences. I thought I’d use this opportunity to share a few of these wonderful examples from the collection. of visualising invisible feelings.


Anxiety can be described as an emotion that’s concerned with the future, with what ‘might’ happen. In her series of zines, Canadian illustrator, Stacey Bru beautifully illustrates this emotion, personifying it as a wide-eyed floating tormentor that constantly seeks to undermine her. Drawing daily incidents or moments can be a way of describing mood and memories and this unplanned quick way of recording events can be very honest, as there’s no time to edit and rewrite the narrative. Bru’s drawings show how line work can be used to reflect moods varying from sure solid strokes to tentative gestural lines, as can be seen in (Fig.1) where the protagonist is crying with frustration.


Fig 1. Anxiety Comics, Vol.3, pp.14-15 (Bru 2015)


Another good example of using a visual diary as a methodology can be seen in Sad Sack by Blair Roberts. This Risograph zine visualises feelings of ‘paranoia’, including drawings about wakeful nights, anxiety about going to the dentist and worries about appearance or self-image. (Fig.2) shows a double page spread that illustrates the social anxiety that affects the illustrator when entering a room full of strangers. The text is handwritten with ‘stress’ double-underlined and ‘nausea’ emphasized with movement lines to suggest the word is flashing, like a neon sign. The attention that is placed on the text on the left-hand page is contrasted abruptly with the illustration on the right-hand page. The seven strangers are looking away from the viewer with their eyes closed. They are drawn with quiet, gentle expressions and most are smiling. This is a lovely visual rebuff to the text, which appears to represent the illustrator’s internal fears.


Fig 2. Sad Sack, pp.8-9 (Roberts 2016)


When I interviewed Roberts back in 2018, she talked about her artistic methods during periods of depression and anxiety:

“Drawing was the one place I felt like I could articulate what I was thinking and feeling without having to actually talk to people. Fortunately, as I started to draw all of the sad things I had been thinking/telling myself, I started to feel more inspired and wanted to draw a lot more, which made me feel, well not happy, but like the fog was lifting a bit”


Frustrated by the poor quality of existing information leaflets about PTSD Riley James was driven to create an alternative visualization the experience, specifically of a panic attack in the zine, Panic. Riley keeps a visual diary of events as they occur and then creates thumbnail illustrations of key moments. The zine is a narrative that follows Riley experiencing a panic attack. The illustrations accompany typewritten text presented in the first person (Fig.3), conveying the author’s emotions “I felt around for the coffee table and found my phone…” followed by reflective comments such as “If you lose your vision, smart phones are useless. I couldn’t unlock it, let alone dial 999.” Riley reflected on his methods, “I think it [visualizing by drawing] helps me process those lived experiences, I get to understand why things happened the way that they did by breaking down those written experiences into illustrations.” (James 2018). After publishing the Panic zine online Riley received an influx of messages from people sharing their own stories.


Fig 3. Panic pp.6-7, (James 2012)


Working on the Madzines project it became apparent that the zines I had identified were just a small selection of the volume of what people were creating, and I was able to see and share in the experiences of many people (not just artists) who had stories to share about their mental health journey. Madzines has become a collective term and also a space where these zines can share their stories through text and images, each one representing a real human giving voice to what happened to them (or is still happening), capturing fleeting feelings for the long term.


I also set up a collaborative zine called ZinoLoci that asked artists and illustrators in the UK, Thailand and Kenya to respond visually to the theme of guilt/shame. This zine was intended to allow artists to tackle the challenges of representation, for example, how do you draw invisible things like pain, jealousy or anxiety? How do you draw a headache as opposed to grief? What methods does an illustrator need to use to make sure this is communicated clearly?


Fig 4. Zino Loci #1 ‘Guilt + Shame’ (2023)


Initially, the illustrators spoke about feelings of ‘guilt’ related to art practice such as the anxiety of missing deadlines or of not being good enough. The familiar background angst of the artist knowing a project needed attention then led to discussions about experiencing ‘shame’ or the feeling of being ‘ashamed’, the embarrassment of creating poor work, mixed in with the feeling of disappointment, ‘letting people down’ or disgracing your family.


Fig 5. Double-page by Nattacha Uthaiwat, from ZinoLoci (2023)


For example, Nattacha Uthaiwat illustrates a ‘day in the life’ in her two-page sequence where her father is complaining that she’s not a boy (Fig 5). His continual blame slowly transmutes to her shame – that of being a girl. She wrote, “The most hurtful part of it comes from the family that lives with you and repeats those words again and again until the wound is too deep to be healed”. The sequence shown uses repetition as an illustrative technique with speech bubbles emphasising variations on ‘…if you were a boy’. The child’s isolation in the final panel (bottom right) is heart-breaking as the speech bubble from her father reaches out from his frame, across the panel divide, and into her personal space – as if she can hear his hurtful words wherever she is.


There were many other interpretations of this theme. For example, the shame of binge-eating, the shame of not socialising, the guilt of speaking harshly to animals, religious shame and guilt, gender shame, the guilt of shouting at family, the shame of crying, the guilt of work, the shame of the mid-life crisis car.


Wen Xue studied MA Illustration at Portsmouth and talked about the social constraints and societal expectations placed on women in China during tutorials. Her illustration (Fig 6) visualises, as actual food, the shame she feels she’s been fed by society.


Fig 6. Illustration by Wen Xue from ZinoLoci (2023)


Interestingly in her illustration, she’s force-feeding herself the shame. She explains her illustration “Shame Shit! I have been fed by various social moral standards and self-moral standards since childhood. What kind of figure? what kind of role? What kind of talk? What kind of expression? Now I just want to say, go away!”.


There is palpable anger in this artwork that reveals the pent-up emotions. I think the anger surprised her, as an artist, once they were visible on the page, giving a tangible expression to suppressed or hidden emotions.


Some of the pages from ZinoLoci were also shared on ‘Shame and Medicine’ a blog, which is part of an interdisciplinary research project that is based at the University of Exeter and the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with a clinical partner at Children’s Health, Ireland, in Dublin.


The more that we learn to visualise difficult emotions and feelings on the page, the more they can be shared, discussed and acknowledged by ourselves and others. Bringing form to feeling if you like. This is why I love illustration and drawing so much, it gives us the facility to visualise the invisible, and we can give shape to emotions, fears, and desires. We can share personal stories, and intimate moments that are hard to express in words alone. Single images or sequential images can create a space for difficult conversations in a way that text can’t. Illustrations leave empty spaces for us to add our own words – zines can speak on our behalf.



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