I first started reading comics around 1994/1995 after finding a UK-published reprint of X-Men volume 2 issue 1 at my local newsagents. It was the height of the massive growth in comics sales, and X-Men were the biggest part of it.
I bought X-Men for a few years, and as my newsagent would change what they stocked I’d change too. I ended up reading a bunch of Spider-Man, Wolverine and Gambit solo series alongside more occasional X-Men. Eventually though I stopped. There were several reasons why this happened but by far the most difficult to overcome was my sight loss. It had deteriorated considerably in my early teens and has continued slowly deteriorating ever since. Losing much of the central part of my vision was difficult, and it was easy to justify dropping comics when they’d become so hard to read.
Enter Digital Comics
In 2011 my partner suggested I tried digital comics on Marvel Unlimited. She had a trial code that I could use, and knowing I’d loved comics in the past she thought I should give it a try.
I quickly became a subscriber. It was the gateway back into comics I needed. The service in 2011 was still a bit basic; the web-based interface was built in Flash with a lens magnifier for those who needed a bit of enlargement, but it was a far cry from the modern Unlimited app with its highly adjustable zoom. The library too was spotty at best, but there were enough full series to keep my interest.
Unlimited and other digital comics services allowed me to return to comics, and this is not something I’d be happy losing again. I’m acutely aware that my current sight could deteriorate further to the extent where I’ll again be unable to read comics and find myself cut off from the stories I’ve enjoyed for over a decade.
Though digital comics services have gone a long way to making the medium more accessible to people with low vision, none allow people with little or no sight to enjoy the comics or have an experience equitable to sighted readers. As someone who already has significant sight loss that may deteriorate further, this is a big problem for me.
So what can be done about this?
Getting Creative with Alt-Text
I initially started thinking about this while skimming through the Marvel Twitter account. Any media included on posts tended to be videos, but when it was an image it usually lacked any alt-text. Alt-text is additional text that accompanies an image, providing context for people who use screen readers. If you can’t see the image, then the alt-text should describe what it is. Without it a screen reader will usually reply “image”, or it might hazard a guess if it’s a bit fancy.
It’s odd to see a major media company fail to add alt-text to their images online, at least in my experience. It started me thinking about the nature of comics as a sequence of images, and whether alt-text could be used to give blind readers access to comics.
So I decided to do a test.
Later in this post are a series of panels from Free Comic Book Day: Avengers/X-Men #1. I’ve chosen this issue as it’s a recent issue, so will be a good example of current Marvel comics. It’s also free, which I’m hoping will prevent any copyright issues. I’m sure fair use applies here, but it’s worthwhile to minimise the risk of angry correspondence from copyright owners. Even then, I’m using the first three pages that are shown in previews of the comic on the various digital comic shops.
(Small digression: I appreciate that it would have been better from a writer’s perspective to finish this post with the comic I’d mentioned in the first paragraph, X-Men volume 2 issue 1. I love that issue, but the one below is a better fit for the purposes of this test. X-Men Vol. 2 issue 1 is brilliant though, and if you can read it you absolutely should!))
Each image is a screen-capture from the guided view of the issue when read through the Marvel Unlimited app on iPhone. It’s the intended order and framing of each part of the story as set by the publisher. I’ve added alt-text to these images so that people reading via screen reader have a description of the panel. That way – hopefully – those users can follow the story as a sighted reader would.
Finally, bare in mind that I’m not a writer of any real skill. While I can form a decent enough email for work, the writers among you will probably find it all a bit clunky. Keep in mind it’s only a test to see if the concept works.
Screen Reader Support
For those of you viewing this page who are not using a screen reader, here’s what you need to do to enable it:
Please note: You’ll need to enable your operating system’s screen reader to hear the image’s alt-text. Here’s how to do this on Windows, Mac, iPhone/iPad, and Android. These are all free and come as standard with each of the mentioned OS’, so there’s no need to install any additional software.
Free Comic Book Day: Avengers/X-Men #1.
Written by Kieron Gillen, Gerry Duggan & Danny Lore.
Art by Dustin Weaver, Matteo Lolli & Karen Darboe.
Cover by Valerio Schiti.
If something like this were to be implemented on a digital comics platform it would need a skilled writer to express the image contents in a way that was both informative and entertaining. Comics aren’t necessarily a medium intended to be expressed in this way. The writer of the alt-text would need to have great knowledge of the story, the characters, and their histories. I expect it would take a team of people to transpose the comics to images with alt-text each week, or only a handful of the most popular titles would receive this treatment.
So what do you think? Does it work? I was very rigid in announcing the different panels and their pages, something that could be omitted for those who want a more streamlined version. It may also be better if the alt-text was less concerned with including everything on the page, and was more focused on providing the story in an entertaining way.
Is this something that could be used to allow blind people to enjoy comics?