American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2016       GRAPHICS

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Panel by Panel: Comic Book Access for the Blind

by Matthew Shifrin

Matthew ShifrinFrom the Editor: The National Federation of the Blind works tirelessly to ensure that blind people have full access to education, employment, and every other aspect of life. Each generation pushes the notion of accessibility into exciting new dimensions. In this article, Matthew Shifrin, a blind high school student from Massachusetts, calls for access to a recreational activity that delights countless children, teens, and adults--the reading of comic books.

One day when I was five, I found out that there was this person named Spider-Man who could climb up walls. So I asked my dad about him. A few days later when my dad tucked me into bed, he didn't read me the usual bedtime story. Instead he read me a comic book, describing the pictures (called panels) in vivid detail. Through my dad's excellent descriptions, I saw Spidey fight the Kingpin and throw him out of a window. It amazed my five-year-old self that you could tell a story so well, just by using pictures with minimal dialogue. This is how my love of comics began.

As I grew older and busier, I realized that I would not be able to read comics independently. Due to their graphical nature, they could not be scanned into a computer or converted into text. So I put them on the back burner and contented myself with the prose novelizations produced by companies such as GraphicAudio. Though these productions were of very high quality, they lacked the immediacy of an actual comic book.

Last summer I had an epiphany. I realized that the creators of comic books have to follow an outline of some sort so that the artist, who works with the author, knew what to draw. I did a Google search, and sure enough, I found the Comic Book Script Archive (<comicbookscriptarchive.com/archive/the-scripts>). This site contains a free collection of comic book scripts by top writers.

As soon as I read the first page of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, a door that I had thought was forever closed to me swung open. Characters, colors, camera angles, facial expressions, locations, and even word balloon placement were all described in vivid detail. The impossible was now possible. At last I could read and enjoy comics just like my sighted friends.

Comics are an excellent resource for blind children and teens. They give us glimpses of the sighted world that we wouldn't get otherwise. They introduce us to filming techniques such as zooming and panning, and they present types of shots such as the long shot, two-shot, and close-up. These scripts are also very specific regarding the layout of panels on a page. They give instructions about how many panels there should be, how they should be shaped, and how much space each panel should take up. Not only that, but these scripts provide a real sense of scale for objects and locations, something that can be hard for blind people to understand. For example, the author might say that the craggy monster exploding from the ground is the size of a school bus. As blind people,  we can imagine the monster's size, since we know approximately how big a school bus is.

My joy with comics, however, was short-lived. I quickly discovered that the issues (or chapters) in the comic-book archive were random. Sometimes I would find the first issue of a great story, but I had nowhere to go from there. Sometimes I'd find the end of a story, but wouldn't be able to learn what happened earlier. Publishers such as Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and Image Comics keep their scripts after they've used them to create their comic books. Rarely, these scripts will be published in a script book. However, these script books are not available digitally, and they only contain excerpts of the original scripts.

It would be very simple for comic book publishers to incorporate their scripts into online platforms such as Marvel Unlimited, thus making comics fully accessible to blind people. I encourage you, dear readers, to contact me at comicsfortheblind@gmail.com if you are interested in this endeavor. If we call for access to publishers' scripts, together we can make comic books accessible to all blind people!

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