This essay examines two comics that question, either implicitly or explicitly, the near-ubiquitous association of comics and the visual. First, it examines the 'audio edition' of Mark Waid's Daredevil #1, an attempt to translate the comic into an aural medium, and assesses the efficacy of translating a text that has been conceived as visual into a non-visual form. It then turns away from mainstream, visually-conceived comics, examining Philipp Meyer's Life, a 2013 independent comic designed to be read by sighted and non-sighted readers. Taken together, these readings propose that comics' presumed dependence on visuality is more arbitrary than has heretofore been acknowledged.
In the otherwise optimistic introduction to Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Narratives (2016), Zach Whalen, Chris Foss, and Jonathan W. Gray note a gap in the scholarship gathered in their collection: "we are aware that this project might strike some as potentially exclusionary in nature toward blind/visually impaired readers. There are indeed numerous problems for this significant audience inherent in considerations of any art that typically expects some sort of substantial visual interaction" (8). Comics, it seems, are too visually oriented to accommodate potential non-sighted readers. The problem of reimagining a form that is visual in its conception for a non-sighted audience is, of course, neither new nor unique to comics. As Nina Levent, Georgina Kleege, and Joan Muyskens Pursley note, in the introduction to their special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly on "Museum Experience and Blindness," "educators of the blind have advocated for access to fine art and natural history museums since the nineteenth century." But physical access to a work of art, like physical access to a comic book, is by no means a guarantor of access to its content; Levent, Kleege, and Muyskens Pursley question the efficacy of well-intentioned access initiatives, such as touch tours or audio description: "As these programs and services proliferate, it is necessary to ask how well they achieve their intended goals."
It may seem incongruous to begin an essay on comics with a discussion of museum culture, but the two have much in common. First, comics, like museums, have traditionally been conceived of as primarily visually oriented. However, comics, like museums, are multimodal texts, functioning simultaneously in "more than one semiotic mode" (Kress and van Leeuwen 183). "As readers engage with a comics text," write Jay Dolmage and Dale Jacobs, "they make sense of the multi-modal elements (including the visual, the linguistic, the gestural, the audio, and the spatial) of each page or page spread, the arthrological connections between panels, and the multiple kinds of transtextual connections between this text and myriad other texts" (15). Dolmage and Jacobs's parenthetical inclusion of non-visual sensory information resonates with the work of Ian Hague, who argues for a decentring of visuality in comics. According to Hague, comics "are […] possessed of a wide variety of properties that address themselves to readers' senses of hearing, touch, smell and in some instances taste as well" (3).
This essay takes up the questions and challenges raised by Hague and by Whalen, Foss, and Gray, and explores the extent to which comics can or cannot be made accessible to blind people and thus whether or not they are inherently, and necessarily, visual. When critics call attention to the particular, even definitional, significance of pictures to comics, to what extent does this assume a sighted consumer of comics? And, more pressingly, is it possible to reconsider dominant conceptions of the form so that it does not, by definition, exclude the significant portion of the reading public that does not consume texts visually? The answer, I argue, can be found in comics creators' and publishers' own attempts to confront the ableist conception of comics as necessarily visual texts. As Dolmage and Jacobs argue, "as multimodal texts, comics […] allow for multiple modes of representation, while also providing, or at least potentially providing, the means to question the limitations of these modes" (14). Whalen, Foss, and Gray strike a similar note, asserting that "sequential art encourages various views of disability that defy totalization and tokenism, views attuned to the socially and culturally constructed nature, as well as the inherently dynamic aspects, of such identities" (2).
This essay considers not simply representations of blindness in comics, of which there are many, but also, in a manner informed by the questions of Levent, Kleege, and Mouyskens Pursley, the question of access to comics for blind readers. In order to think about these issues, I will take as my test cases two comics that question, either implicitly or explicitly, the near-ubiquitous association of comics and the visual. First, I examine the so-called "audio edition" of Mark Waid's Daredevil #1, an attempt to translate the comic into an aural medium. I will assess the efficacy of translating a text that has been conceived as visual into a non-visual form. Turning away from mainstream, visually-conceived comics, I then explore Philipp Meyer's Life, a 2013 independent comic designed to be read by sighted and non-sighted readers alike. Taken together, these readings propose that comics' presumed dependence on visuality is more arbitrary than has heretofore been acknowledged.
Despite recent critical interventions, it has been, and continues to be, a truism in comics studies that comics are an intrinsically visual form. Virtually since people started defining comics, those definitions have asserted the centrality of visual images to the form. Though they disagree on other definitional characteristics of comics, critics such as Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, David Kunzle, Thierry Groensteen, Greg Hayman and Harry Pratt, all point to the appearance of pictures in sequence as the quintessential feature of comics. In what is arguably the most influential and widely promulgated definition of the form, comics creator and critic McCloud describes comics as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer" (9). While McCloud's inclusion of "other images" in his definition leaves space for the possibility of non-visual images in his definition, it is a space that critics of comics have yet to claim. Kunzle, an historian of the comic strip, asserts that comics must have "a sequence of separate images" (2). In his comprehensive analysis of the form, Groensteen states that "the relational play of a plurality of interdependent images [is] the unique foundation of comics" (19). Even critics who suggest, as Aaron Meskin does, that non-pictorial comics are within the realm of possibility, do not extend their definition to encompass non-visual comics (374).
Homing in on the visual as the most basic and constitutive aspect of comics, the cognitive psychologist and comics scholar Neil Cohn argues that comics communicate through what he calls "visual language," which is parallel to but distinct from "verbal language" and "sign language," each of which partakes of one of what Cohn calls the three "modalities" by which humans express themselves: "creating sounds, moving bodies, and creating graphic representations" (97). Cohn's triad of languages is a tidy, though somewhat precarious, structure. For instance, why is it that the mode of expression is prioritized in the naming of "verbal" and "sign" languages, but for "visual language" it is the mode of reception? Is sign language not also a "visual language"? In order to bring it in line with "verbal language" and "sign language," Cohn's "visual language" should be thought of as defined not by the eye that reads it, but by the hand that marks it. This is not to single out Cohn so much as to demonstrate the extent to which a visual bias underpins virtually all theoretical discussions of comics. Put simply, the vast majority of comics critics seem not to have considered the possibility of comics created and/or designed for an audience other than a sighted one.
While critics may have had difficulty conceiving of a form of comics liberated from the visual imperative, the same cannot be said for comics creators and publishers. In 2011, Marvel Comics made a foray into non-visual comics when it released a free "audio edition" of the first issue of Mark Waid's run as writer of Daredevil, performed by Waid himself, as a podcast on their website (Morse et al). In essence, the title character Daredevil, who was blinded in his youth, possesses powers that play on and exaggerate the persistent, widespread myth of blind people's possession of enhanced, compensatory senses. He has a sonar-type sense, super-hearing, and a superior sense of touch. Because the eponymous hero's origin story as a superhero is rooted in his becoming blind, and because his particular powers are inextricably connected to his being blind, the decision to make Daredevil the first comic to be translated in this way is apt. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the 2015 Netflix television adaptation of the same title featured the company's first foray into audio-described video. In order to analyze some of the limitations of what we might call aural comics, I need first to give an account of some of the differences between the audio and the print edition.
For the opening page of the comic, the audio simply reproduces the page's text, with no references to the images accompanying the text on the page. With regard to the majority of the page, this is understandable, given that most of the images offer straightforward illustrations of salient parts of Daredevil's origin story. Missing entirely from the audio comic, though, is the image that dominates the bottom half of the page, a full-body image of Daredevil acrobatically flying through the air having just released one of his billy clubs, a truncheon that doubles as a cane when Daredevil is disguised as the blind lawyer Matt Murdock, which is drawn so as to appear to be emerging from the foreground of the page. Like the other images, this one serves as an illustration of the text, in this case the triumphant phrase "Here comes Daredevil" (Waid et al 1) with which the narration concludes, but it also imparts further information: it is a demonstration of the character's physical dynamism; its background of water towers and fire escapes locates the story within a recognizably urban setting, and the color of the sky and darkness of the buildings assert the character's association with nighttime. None of this information is conveyed by the text on the page or the audio version of it.
Later in the audio comic, however, the narration more thoroughly incorporates the page design into its aural form. In the passage recounting the events of page five of the comic, Daredevil is thwarting a would-be kidnapper in the middle of a gangster's wedding. Visually, the page is divided into three sections, each of which occupies approximately a third of the page and has a distinct style. The top third of the page is composed of a series of six overlapping circles on a white background, three of which feature the hero's head and upper body as he parries a series of punches with his billy club. The last of the circles, half of which is cut off by the edge of the page, shows Daredevil's feet connecting with his aggressor's head among the leaves of a tree or bush. The middle third of the page shares the white background of the top third. It is dominated by an image of Daredevil's full body flying through the air, with his feet at the upper left corner and his head at the lower right. He is holding a small girl in a dress (the flower girl from the wedding he is interrupting) and a number of leaves flutter around his feet, connecting the image to the last circle in the upper third of the page. In the background are the silhouettes of a crowd of people, each of whom has a jagged lined extending across their chest. All but one of these lines is pink – the last line, on a silhouette at bottom left, is yellow. Daredevil's head, which is level with this last silhouette, is angled toward it, indicating his focus on the anomalous figure. The bottom third of the page is a single rectangular panel that occupies the full width of the page. It features Daredevil, now upright, landing between a bride and groom at left and a sweating man holding a gun at right. The sweating man is identifiable as the anomalous silhouette from the middle third of the page. Daredevil faces this man, pointing at him with his club and naming him in a speech bubble (Waid et al 5).
A comparison of the audio description and the printed page reveals a number of issues in the adaptation. First, because the narration is taken directly from Waid's script for the comic, it does not, in fact, describe the page as it was printed. What the audio describes as panel one, in which Daredevil "bounds high and acrobatically above the aghast wedding crowd" (Morse et al 8:02-8:05), does not exist, having been replaced in the transition from script to comic by the aforementioned series of circular panels that present, in fragments, the fight between Daredevil and the kidnapper, a villain called "the Spot." The gap between the two iterations of the page points to what has been understood by critics to be a fundamental characteristic of comics, the interplay between text and image, which, especially in mainstream comics, is the product of a collaboration between writer and artist. The audio comic is stripped of its collaborative aspects, thus privileging the written rather than the drawn.
Reproducing the comic aurally also mandates a strict diachronic reading of the page, an unceasing forward momentum through the script. In the central panel of the page, in which the wedding guests are represented as silhouettes with jagged lines across their chests, the audio script's steadily paced narrative momentum does not accurately reflect the visual immediacy of the images. The visual effect of the panel is to interrupt the conventional Z-shaped visual reading pattern by splaying Daredevil's body diagonally across the center of the page, drawing the eye toward his head, which is oriented toward a caption that reads: "and listen for those heartbeat spikes" (Waid et al 5). This caption serves as the key to the image, explaining that the jagged lines are visual representations of what the script calls "EKG heartbeat lines" (Morse et al 8:19-8:20). Across from the caption, right in the path of the Z-pattern, is the representation of the spike in question. The panel thus puts pressure on conventional reading patterns, drawing the sighted reader's eye simultaneously toward two images – the caption and the silhouette – which thus become dependent on each other for meaning. This play of synchrony and diachrony is not captured adequately by the audio performance: the audio edition describes the panel in its entirety, including an explication of the EKG lines, but does so before sharing the panel's caption, which has by that point become redundant.
Criticizing the audio comic for its failure to reproduce the printed comic, though, is of questionable critical value. Recasting a visual form into an aural one is bound to result in a certain amount of signal loss. But the nature of the audio comic's failure, if we should even call it that, is worth considering. As these two examples from the Daredevil audio description demonstrate, a large part of what the audio comic does not communicate effectively are aspects of the comic that were conceived of visually, aspects that most clearly differentiate the comic from a traditional prose narrative. In a way, the Daredevil audio comic, in attempting to broaden the potential audience for Waid's story, achieves its aims in a manner that serves to reinforce the centrality and necessity of the visual mode that underpins traditional, visually-centred definitions of comics. To put this a different way, the audio comic's inheritance of the conventions of its source material leaves an unmistakable trace on it, drawing attention to its visual origin even as it tries to move beyond it.
Unlike the Daredevil audio comic, Philipp Meyer's Life was, from its initial conception, designed for blind readers. Meyer created Life in 2013 while a student in design at Malmo University in Sweden. His intention, he explains, was "to create a story that is equally explorable for people with and without eyesight" (Meyer "Intro"). Using raised dots that are the same size and have the visual appearance of those used in braille, Meyer created a seven-page booklet, six pages of which are divided into 4 regular rectangular panels each. The other page is a title page that presents the comic's title and a brief description of its format, printed in both braille and inked Roman-letter script.
Everything about Life is deliberately simple. It is a wordless story that follows one, then two, and then three characters that sit motionless for the most part and then fade away into the page. It is the story of an individual moving from solitude to companionship to family and then back to solitude and finally death. In place of recognizably human figures, Life substitutes circles of different textures. The initial character is completely filled by raised dots, the second is simply the outline of a circle, and the third is marked as the offspring of the first two by its smaller size and by its amalgamation of the textures of its parents, with one half of the circle filled with dots and the other half empty.
The panels' layouts – mainly empty space with the circles clustered around the center – are designed in such a way that they facilitate finger reading. When new figures appear, they can be easily discovered by touch. The second figure appears in the upper left-hand corner of the fourth panel, where readers reading by touch, like visual readers, are trained to begin, before moving over the course of the next four panels to a position immediately to the right of the initial figure. After three panels in which the two figures partially merge and then separate, a panel introduces the third figure, which appears directly between them, in the space that the reading hand has already been trained by the previous panels to explore.
Having established this comfortable reading pattern, the comic violates it on its fourth page, in which the "child" separates from its "parents." The experience of reading these panels is surprisingly affecting, as the finger is confronted first with an unfamiliar gap between the two "parents" and then must seek out the third figure as it moves closer and closer to the bottom right-hand corner of the page, the last place that the hand has been trained, both by the comic and by the experience of finger-reading more generally, to go. The presence of the child in these panels ceases to be a given, and becomes instead the target of an anxious searching, producing in the reader, I would argue, a version of the sort of anxiety felt by a parent whose child is moving beyond their direct sphere of influence. In a moment like this, the difference between Life's negotiation of the competing diachronic and synchronic experience of reading traditional comics and the audio comic's negotiation of that same experience becomes clear.
While Daredevil's audio comic ignored the effect on the listener of the elimination of synchronic aspects of the reading experience, Life exploits the impossibility of a gestalt finger reading of the panel. Unable to see the wandering "child," the blind reader must carry out a manual exploration of the page. As Yvette Hatwell observes, of non-sighted manual exploration, "The narrowness of the tactile perceptual field … has marked effects in localization tasks … . [T]he observer must intentionally carry out exploratory movements within the … space in order to find … landmarks (if there are any)" (73). This final, parenthetical "if there are any" underscores the extent to which the affective register of the comic is optimized for non-sighted reading. While a sighted reader can immediately see that the "child" circle has moved to the corner of the panel, a non-sighted reader must explore previously empty space in the hope of finding the missing child. Blind and sighted readers therefore have a different experience of the child's wandering, with the blind reader arguably having a more emotionally affecting experience, if only fleetingly.
The two initial characters' deaths are treated in a similarly haptically oriented fashion: they fade slowly into the page by a gradual reduction of the height of the raised dots until their space on the page is left empty both to the hand and to the eye. The effect is a reading experience that functions similarly, though not identically, for both sighted and non-sighted readers. Indeed, the comic's use of empty space and character positioning make it more successful as a tactile text than as a visual one. It is in this, I would argue, that Meyer's comic is most striking. While the Daredevil audio comic attempted to translate a visual artifact into a non-visual medium, with Life, Meyer has created a comic that is simultaneously visually and haptically oriented, broadening the form's sensory footprint, rather than simply changing it.
Life fulfills virtually all definitional requirements of comics. It is sequential art; it juxtaposes images, in its case tactile ones, which predominate; it features recognizable characters; it conveys a narrative, albeit wordlessly. What it is not is by necessity visual. So, as a successful experiment in multisensory comics production, Life asserts that the visual need not be a fundamental, definitional aspect of comics. What it reminds us, or tells us, is that the visual image is merely one way of representing a set of spatial relations, a way of organizing elements on a page, or a screen, or a cave wall. In this way, Life fits well within a number of critics' analyses of the comics, which tend to imagine the comics page schematically, breaking it down into its component elements. For instance, Thierry Groensteen articulates his conception of the basic structure of comics through what he calls the "spatio-topical system" that begins by imagining "a comic … reduced to its spatio-topical parameters" (24). Though he proceeds to populate that space with visual images in his theory, the initial idea of the comics page as a geometrical space to be divided and filled is amenable to non-visual as well as visual conceptions of the form. Likewise, Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden's How to Read Nancy offers a series of object lessons on understanding the elements of the comics page not as recognizable visual icons, but as abstractable design elements. In this, though they do not explicitly conjecture about non-visual comics, the approaches to comics presented by Groensteen and by Karasik and Newgarden offer a means by which to develop a vocabulary of comics criticism that is not dependent on the language of visuality.
As the first comic of its kind, Life invites some consideration of what its creation promises for the future of non-visual comics, a number of which, including Ilan Manouach's Arctic Circle (2014) and the multimedia illustrated books produced by the French publishing house Les Doigts Qui Rêvent, have been produced in recent years. 1 Like Life, these works tend, perhaps unsurprisingly, to communicate through what Charles Hatfield calls "symbolic" rather than "iconic" figures (38). That is, tactile comics use a system of signs "bearing an artificial or conventional relationship to [their] referent[s]" (38). In Understanding Comics, McCloud posits that visual representation in comics, which for him is all representation in comics, functions by negotiating between three complementary and competing imperatives: reality, abstraction, and meaning. McCloud imagines the range of comics' iconographic possibilities as consisting of positions on a "big triangle" whose vertices are these three imperatives (52-53). The prevailing tendency in mainstream comics toward "iconic" modes of representation, essentially flattening three dimensions into two on the page, favors the "reality" vertex of the triangle and depends on a primarily visual mode of perception. In order to prioritize multi-sensory legibility, Meyer's characters must occupy a space nearing one or both of the other vertices in the triangle, deriving their meaning through an analogical association engendered by the comic's title and the easily recognizable narrative.
This, though, raises the question of the extricability of radically simplified iconography and radically simplified narrative. Meyer's comic's sign system's distance from the "reality" vertex of McCloud's big triangle, combined with the lack of any contextualizing text, results in a comic whose desire to achieve universality through aesthetic or design simplification leads it to seek a parallel universality in its narrative. In so doing, it ends up reproducing the heteronormative fantasy of life as defined by coupling and reproduction that Lee Edelman has identified as a fundamentally homophobic construction of "reproductive futurism" (2). The tactile comic, though, is still a new form, and it remains to be seen in future iterations of the tactile comic if this radical simplicity can be manipulated and/or overcome in ways that will enable more nuanced storytelling.
It is somewhat unfair to subject this short, experimental comic to a standard that its mainstream equivalents have been failing to meet consistently for close to a century. Though Life tends towards simplification, this cannot stand as a reason to reject out of hand the potential inherent in Meyer's important and striking intervention into the form. Action Comics #1 (1938) might be the first superhero comic, but it is assuredly not representative of all superhero comics that followed it, and, hopefully, Life will stand in a similar relationship to the tactile comics that will come after it: historically significant, but not universally representative, a harbinger of a thematically sophisticated, generically diverse body of work designed for and consumed by blind readers. For the present though, what seems clear is that the emergence of the tactile comic challenges critics and theorists of comics both to reconsider preconceptions about the inherent visuality of the form and, more importantly, to reconsider the role that these preconceptions might play in limiting the diversity of readers who can access comics.
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- ---. "Intro." http://www.hallo.pm/life/. Accessed 19 June 2018.
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