Wooden plates showing laser-cut lines, curves, ziz-zag lines, and everything in-between brings into relief definitive 3D shapes and structures. The dots and squares rise and fall. This is not design overkill – these are intricately designed plates called tactigrams.

Tactigrams are tactile ideograms that provide equivalents for the features of a story. Fifty-seven such plates accompanied by braille text comprise Arctic Circle by Ilan Manouach, a Belgian conceptual comics artist. Written in English, Arctic Circle trades the conventions of comics for an artificially constructed language called Shapereader to tell the story of two climatologists’ experience in the North Pole.

Sir Alfred Cook, one of the protagonists of Arctic Circle, is a series of horizontal stripes. Based on tactile and haptic interactions, Shapereader actualises the verbo-visual aspects of comics. Arctic Circle is one among the several comics that are meeting the demands for more accessibility in comics. On this path, comics have found an ally in technology to improve inclusion and diversity.

Ilan Manouach’s 'Arctic Circle'

Advancing accessibility

Comics are a visually intense medium marrying image and text. For persons with disabilities – such as the blind, the motor-impaired, and those with difficulties reading print, comics are normally inaccessible.

To tackle this, a vivid description of a panel or of the entire comic book is provided as an alternative to reading the comic the conventional away. This is called “alt-text”, for alternative text. Lucy Bellwood’s 100 Demon Dialogues uses alt-text and screen reader modes. Going beyond such simple prose novelisation, there has been in recent times an attempt to recreate the thorough experience of reading a comic to a reader with disabilities.

An astronaut begins to lose his sight upon crash-landing on a planet. An inhabitant of the planet helps him to understand the world with his other senses. This is the premises of Sensus: The Universe in His Eyes, perhaps the first graphic novel to be rendered in braille. Funded by the National Monte de Piedad in Mexico, Sensus: The Universe in His Eyes by Jorge Grajales consists of illustrations by Bernardo “Bef” Fernandez on one side and the braille on the other.

'Life' by Philipp Meyer.

Life by Phillipp Meyer is yet another example of a comic with positive accessibility that uses a tactile environment. In collaboration with Nota, a state-run Danish library, Meyer’s Life, which concerns the complexities of life, is composed of 24 panels (four on each page) and employs simple dots and circles of variable height. Numerics in the first four frames indicate the reading direction.

In a partly similar way, artist Einar Petersen’s kickstarter campaign titled “A Brailliant Implant!” intends to convert the artist’s sci-fi comic Implant! into an accessible, QR enhanced form (QRE) along with braille descriptions of dialogues and actions.

The tech twist

Screenshot of the Vizling app at work.

Vizling is an interactive app that hopes to be, in its creators’ words, “a Netflix for comics.” Darren DeFrain, a researcher from Wichita State University and his former post-graduate student Aaron Rodriguez developed the app. It reads the panel of a comic when touched by the reader, while haptic or vibratory responses guide the reader to understand the page layout, flow, and movement. Vizling thus allows to form a close-to-reality experience of comics.

ComicA11y, created by the digital product and solutions company Humaan, deserves a special mention. Engineered for screen readers, their “all-inclusive” online comic has multiple adjustable reading modes, creating an inclusive environment for people with visual and reading disabilities. Given such merits, it is not surprising that ComicA11y got an honourable mention in The Webby Awards 2021.

Having one’s ear

Audiobooks and audio dramas are obvious solutions for people with partial or no sight. An ensemble cast of voices records the text of a comic book, usually accompanied by sound effects. Panels and pages are described without breaking the rhythm of the story.

Created by Chad Allen, Unseen is the first audio comic aimed at blind audiences. Popular audiobook services such as Audible host a plethora of audio comics that breathe life into some of the most beloved characters in comic book history including superheroes!

Sample this: Neil Gaiman’s popular graphic novel series The Sandman is even more thrilling when it features the voice of such talented actors as James McAvoy, Kat Dennings and Michael Sheen. Complemented by stellar background scores, Gaiman himself serves as the narrator of The Sandman.

Locke & Key and superhero comics such as Daredevil, Spiderman, and X-Men are also available as audiobooks. An interesting addition to this list is the New York Times bestselling fantasy webcomic Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, which finds intricate and passionate expression in an aural environment.

Making comics open to the diverse interests of people with disabilities is only limited by imagination and creativity. Technology has pushed the notion of accessibility into new and exciting dimensions. After all, an equitable culture makes the world a better place. This applies to the grand worlds ensconced within the pages of a comic book too.

Sathyaraj Venkatesan is an Associate Professor at the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Tiruchirappalli. He can be reached at sathya@nitt.edu

An alumnus of National Institute of Technology Tiruchirappalli, S Yuvan is a comics enthusiast and a freelance researcher.