Accessible Digital Comics

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.

Accessibility Issues

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.

Cover image. Free Comic Book Day 2022. Judgment Day. Avengers. X-Men. Eternals.
Page 1, panel 1, part 1. Earth in darkness is viewed from space. Caption: The Machine: "Thanks for joining me today. I am the machine. That is Earth. I'm to provide a prologue. Though if you think about it, all things are prologue. Each moment is a prologue to the next..."
Page 1, panel 1, part 2.. The camera pans right to reveal the moon can be seen behind the Earth. Caption: The Machine: "Anyway: These events concern three groups.".
Page 1, panel 2, part 1. The Eternals, human in appearance and dressed in bright costumes, are led by Icarus and are flying into action. Caption: The Machine: "The first is The Eternals. My protectors maintain the earth and its status quo. They curtail the deviants. They follow unbending principles. Among them: correct excess deviation."
Page 1, panel 2, part 2. The foe to which the Eternals fly are revealed. The deviants stand against the Eternals. They are monstrous in appearance and armed with bladed weapons.
Page 1, panel 3, part 1. The Avengers fly over a city. Present are Captain America, the Scarlet Witch, Iron Man, and Captain Marvel (in her previous Ms. Marvel identity). Caption: The Machine: "The second is The Avengers. To the Eternals this is a catchall phrase for the mightiest heroes of Earth who are not them."
Page 1, panel 3, part 2. The camera pans right showing Thor is also with the team. Caption: The Machine: "They are those with sufficient power to be worth Eternal consideration."
Page 1, Panel 4, part 1. Three of the first team of X-Men, Beast, Cyclops and Marvel Girl, are posed in front of their school and are dressed in their original black and yellow costumes. They are with their teacher and team leader, Professor X.
Page 1, panel 4, part 2. The camera pans to reveal two more X-Men, Iceman and Angel. Caption: The Machine: "And then there are the mutants."
Page 2, panel 1, part 1. Just shy of a million years ago. An ape-like creature sits in woodland and stares at the reader. Its blue skin, yellow fur, and pointed ears are unusual, and it's bald, veiny head and pink-tinged eyes suggest a hidden mental power. Caption: The Machine: "There, things are complicated. They have been for a long time."
Page 2, panel 1, part 2. The camera pans right, showing a leg, gloved fist and hammer. The figure with the hammer begins to speak. "er..."
Page 2, panel 2. The man with the hammer is revealed to be a large man dressed in Viking garb. He stands with two others: a blue, muscular man twice his size, and a smaller man, only slightly shorter than he. They stand together, looking down at the blue and yellow ape. The Viking speaks: "It's a monkey Uranos." The blue man replies, "Druid, explain to Odin what he's seeing." The man in green answers, "Certainly my eternal liege."
Page 2, panel 3. Druig steps past the monkey, and is seen walking into the woodland which is teeming with similarly strange apes. He assesses the colony. "This species has gained some rudimentary psychic abilities. A smattering of telekinesis and telepathy. Nothing to worry about individually... However, due to their species' communality, they've accessed something a little more potent... They've formed a primal hive mind."
Page 2, panel 4. Odin stands with Uranos and expresses his irritation at being brought to the woodland under false pretences: "Druid promised me drink to get me here, and unless these monkeys are psychically brewing something potent, I'm not sure why this is relevant." Uranos responds to Odin's complaint: "Druig was lying. It's what he does. I needed you here. We wanted to let your Avengers know."
Page 2, panel 5. Uranos' expression is emotionless. "We are going to eradicate this species."
Page 3, panel 1: Odin appears shocked by Uranos' decision. "That's harsh. Why do you care? A little thinky monkey is nothing to worry about. It's not a deviant. It's just a mutant." Uranos responds, explaining the severity of his decision. "An infinitely expandable hive mind is a genetic technology that cannot be put in the hands of lesser beings. The longer it goes, the more it will grow in power, and the bigger threat it will be. This "thinky monkey" left unchecked could destroy the world."
Page 3, panel 2. Uranos continues: "Yes, mutation can be mutation... but it can also be deviancy. Some children should be smothered in the crib."
Page 3, panel 3. Odin strokes his beard. "I'm not sure, Uranos...". Uranos interrupts, "Do not confuse our politeness with us asking for permission. This is one of our principles, and not something we can compromise on. Would you war with us for their fate?" Odin responds, "Get your lackey to get me a drink, and you can go ahead. You're right. A thinky monkey is not worth a war."
Pahe 3, panel 4, part 1. The trio look on as the woodland erupts in flames.
Page 3, panel 4, part 2. Caption: The Machine: "The two patriarchs watched as the forest burned, Odin sipping mead woven by molecules in a celestial hive. It tasted bitter. For Uranos, darkest of all Eternals, this was Excess Deviation - identified and corrected, not for the first time and not for the last..."

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?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.