Tag Archives: comics

Comics and Accessibility

Prior to the start of classes this semester, our teachers’ union (AFT Local 1650) organized a Professional Issues Conference (PIC) that all full-time faculty were required to attend. This year’s speaker was Thomas Tobin, who talked to us about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a concept that aims to make educational materials accessible for people with disabilities and for people who might be accessing information on-the-go, i.e.: let’s talk about not just how people access information via screen readers, but let’s also talk about when and where and why they access information in the ways that they do.

Colleges and universities are facing significant pressure in regard to ADA compliance, and rightfully so. But accessibility for people with disabilities isn’t the only issue in need of addressing. Here is a link to an infographic illustrating demographic information for today’s college students, from the Lumina Foundation (you can read this article about the Lumina Foundation’s foundation if you’re interested; I think the infographic is still useful despite this criticism). In sum, college students are NOT always white, middle-to-upper class, fresh out of high school with lofty dreams and parents footing the bill. We can probably agree on that much: anyone who has walked the halls of a public university, and especially anyone who has been on a community college campus, can attest to the range of ages, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and expressions of personal identity. However, there are less visible but still apparent differences in lifestyle: some people might be raising children (or siblings), others might be working multiple jobs, some may have arrived in the United States just a few months ago, others might be in temporary housing situations. UDL takes these factors into consideration in addition to making materials accessible for those relying on technology or other assistance because of disability. It’s about reducing barriers. Here’s a video to illustrate:

One thing I was able to do for this semester was to check my syllabus and calendar for accessibility using Word 2016. I also chose an accessible theme on WordPress, meaning that it is flexible and can be viewed on both desktop and mobile devices. I’ve also tested the screen reader on my iPhone (Settings>General>Accessibility>Speech>Speak Screen) by having it read posts to me out loud, which was especially useful. After making sure that my electronic materials were accessible (I am still learning, so if you find something that needs fixing, please let me know!), I created a Google calendar for each class nd embedded it into a page on my site. I’m not sure how accessible these are on mobile devices, but it’s certainly useful to pull up quickly if the paper document isn’t available. One student told me they really appreciated the calendar, so I’m hoping that it’s actually going to be used; if it’s not accessible easily by phone, I’m not sure I’ll put the time and effort into making them in the future.

Despite my best efforts to make these materials accessible, it occurred to me this weekend that traditional text is fairly easy to adapt to devices like screen readers, but texts that rely heavily on images are not so easily translated. We have apps like Audible, or even audio books through the library, that can do the work of seeing words on a page for us and speak them out loud so that we can get information or follow a story. But comics, even when digitized, pair words with images in order to communicate, and the images can be especially significant. Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics, illustrates several types of word/image combinations that writers and illustrators use.

A friend of mine sent me a link to a comic that uses texture to tell a story, and the creator’s hope is that storytelling could happen by way of tactile exploration. This is ultimately what got me thinking about Blankets, by Craig Thompson, which students in my ENG 132 classes read. For traditional novels, a person who is visually impaired or blind would perhaps use the audio book or VoiceOver/other text-to-speech features to listen to the story. With a graphic novel, that doesn’t quite work. There are a number of wordless panels in Blankets, and plenty of panels that use both words and pictures to convey information, particularly subjective information about the characters. How is this information delivered to somebody who is not relying on sight to see and interpret what is on the page? Here’s an example:

blankets2
This is a wordless panel from the graphic novel Blankets. The image shows Craig and Raina laying together in bed in their pajamas, on top of the blanket that Raina made for Craig. Raina’s eyes are closed, and she is laying in Craig’s lap, holding on to his arm. Craig’s arms are wrapped around Raina, but his eyes are open and he looks uncertain or worried.

You can see my caption below the image. Is that how you would have described the image? What details led you to see Craig and Raina in the way that you did? Can you think of any experiences from your own life that allowed you to relate to the image? Do you see yourself in Thompson’s story (think about recognition as one use of literature we are exploring)? It’s likely that our descriptions of this image would be similar, though they may differ depending on how descriptive we chose to be, or what details stood out to us. If this panel did have words, we’d need to include in our image description whether those words were narration, dialogue, or thoughts that were not said aloud.

Here’s a link to a WordPress page that gives tips for making blog content accessible; one strategy they mention is how to write descriptions for images like the one I’ve used above. WordPress suggests not just describing objectively what is in the image (i.e. two people laying in a bed) but to convey the feeling of the image as well, which I have tried to do in my caption above. However, this is complicated by the fact that interpretation of images is subjective, and unless the author/illustrator has contributed to the alternative text, it’s possible that the story could be lost in translation, or at least mixed up along the way. Think about all of the Bible translations! Scribes put their own twist on the material, and differences of interpretation (which is something Thompson gets at in his book) led to some pretty serious divisions within Christianity. Whose interpretation should we trust? Would my descriptions of the images in Blankets do the story justice? Would my own experiences color my retelling? I imagine they would, just as they influence my teaching.

I will be the first to admit that I am not well-versed in accessibility; I don’t teach online, and I rely on pretty simple and easy to find methods to assist me when I need it. I’ve never had a student who needed accommodations, but I would like to become more knowledgeable so that I can provide that support should the need ever come up. I’d also like to assign material that can demonstrate these needs for other students who may take their sight, or even their ability to access material without logistical complications (language! time! money! patience!), for granted. We’ll spend some time working on writing rich descriptions with some panels from Blankets together to experiment.

Below are links to a few sites regarding comics and accessibility; I’d love to know if you have any feedback or resources to share!

“Digital Comics: Successful, Accessible, and Ruining How We Read Comics?” This article addresses the concept of time in comics, the individual reading experience, and how digital comics may fall short. The title is misleading; the only mention of accessibility is “anyone…anywhere.”

“Enhancing the Accessibility for All of Digital Comic Books” This is an article from a Belgian publication that argues comics “[do] not completely fulfill the needs of a large segment of public such as mobile users, motor-impaired people, and low-sighted people.” The article highlights the physical nature of comic books (they are distributed primarily as paper copies), and in regard to sight only addresses how to make the images viewable to users who have low-sight, not those who are completely unable to see.

Accessible Comics for the Blind by Paths to Literacy links to Comics Empower, an online comic book shop that makes comics accessible using audio.

Further Reading on Thompson’s Blankets/Extra Credit

Per class discussion, here are links to interviews with Craig Thompson, author of Blankets

Craig Thompson at Meltdown Comics (this is the full video that we watched a clip from).

Qulture – WEB EXTRA – Graphic Novelist Craig Thompson discusses ‘Blankets’ (another video)

Graphic Novelist Craig Thompson on Parental Censorship, Leaving Christianity, and His Epic, “Habibi” (article from Mother Jones)

Craig Thompson transcript – Contents (this is the transcript to a lengthy interview with Thompson; part 7 includes information on Raina and his source of inspiration for her character)

If you liked Blankets, you might also enjoy:

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Marbles by Ellen Forney

Stitches by David Small

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Daytripper by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá (apparently Craig Thompson did the introduction!)

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

Little Fish by Ramsey Beyer

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

Tomboy by Liz Prince

This One Summer and Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

Lucy Knisley’s books

and Lynda Barry’s books.

Extra Credit Opportunities:

1) Every semester, I invite students to submit something in response to the text that I can use for a mini-zine. There are a few ways to get involved here: you can write a mini-book review (think micro: a few sentences to a paragraph), create art (do you like to draw? Did Thompson’s book inspire you?), make a playlist for a mixtape they might have listened to in Raina’s truck, write a letter to the author or to any of the characters, write fan fiction, poetry…I’m open to other ideas, if you have them. Up to 5 extra credit points will be awarded for submission, OR you can also help me put the zine together if making content isn’t your thing but designing a layout and making photocopies and cutting/folding/distributing is. 

2) Book Club! Craig Thompson has another book called Habibi that came out in 2011. The artwork is similar as is the feel – it reads like an autobiography, but the story is set in a fictional Islamic world. NPR gave it a great review. However, some have criticized Thompson for taking an Orientalist approach, which is a word that describes how Middle Eastern people are stereotypically represented from a colonialist perspective (read: white people own black and brown people and their stories). Basically, Thompson is a white midwestern dude, and he used Middle Eastern story and art for play and to earn a profit. Is that okay? Why or why not? I’ve been wanting to read this book and would love to host a book club in my office for anyone interested. Meeting time is TBD depending on interest/availability. If you’re interested, please let me know. This would take place over several weeks, 2-3 meetings? Up to 10 points will be awarded based on attendance and discussion.

A Little Bit of Comics History

I didn’t come to comics by way of superheroes or films. I didn’t read them as a child. I had never even held a comic book in my hands until 2014, when I heard about Ms. Marvel and Lumberjanes through a friend on social media. I picked up my first issue of LJ (a variant cover!) at Motor City Comic Con in 2014, and started reading Ms. Marvel not long after that. Somewhere along the way I had understood comics to be a boy’s world, and so it was exciting to discover there were comics that had women front and center. Since then, I’ve become a regular reader of Saga and Bitch Planet in addition to LJ (though I’ve stopped following Ms. Marvel as closely), and my bookshelves include a number of graphic novels as well (mostly nonfiction).

I had read graphic novels and manga before I started reading comics, but honestly, comics were a harder genre for me to navigate as a new reader – my graphic novel and manga experience prepared me to read the panels, but the entire comic book world was unfamiliar territory. Marvel Universe was a phenomenon I couldn’t find a point of entry to. Same with DC Comics. On top of that, women in comics have historically been portrayed as sex objects, which is a huge issue for me. I had no interest in picking up something displaying a scantily-clad woman with large breasts on its cover (no matter how much I might appreciate the female body). I wanted to read about strong, smart women who didn’t exist solely for the purposes of male pleasure – and those series do exist, if you’re willing to do some digging (and fortunately, there is less digging to be done now that female-friendly comics have become more established in the culture). I do still feel a bit overwhelmed sometimes when I peruse the shelves at Green Brain Comics here in Dearborn, because there are so many titles. Comic book aficionados know the creators, the big names in the industry, the canon and its criticism, and that can be (okay, it is) very intimidating.

In April 2016, Dan Merritt from Green Brain gave a talk at the Dearborn Public Library on the history of comics. It was a small but fascinating discussion that helped me understand how comics became what they are now. As someone who still has major reservations when it comes to superhero comics, I do feel like an outsider, and maybe I always will. I’m okay with that. I value the history of comics, though, in that it helps me understand the larger context that the literature I do read is a part of.

Comics, traditionally, were seen as young people’s territory. This is partly because we associate pictorial representations with children (Dr. Seuss, anyone?), and because we’ve created a system in which literacy (in this case, the ability to read and write) is a marker of intelligence and status, therefore pictures are for those who are less smart (this is explained in further detail by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics). Comics were, for a long time, regulated by the Comics Code Authority, which limited depictions of violence and graphic imagery believed to be harmful to children. Keep in mind that this was the 1950’s, and what was considered “appropriate” for children was also racially charged (ie: people of color were rarely seen, and could never be portrayed as heroes).

The underground comics (comix) scene developed in response to such regulations. Comics that defied the CCA were published and circulated in underground networks. Mainstream comics were still very much present, though the Code was revised to include lessons of morality; in other words, comics were seen as potential teaching tool, still for an audience of adolescents. Marvel and DC generally followed the CCA; in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a three-part Spiderman story was released in partnership with the U.S. Dept of Health that explicitly portrayed drug use as dangerous. The CCA remained through the 1980’s, though its influence waned as it relaxed, and comics aimed at adult readers became more popular. Marvel and DC currently use their own ratings system to designate appropriate age groups for what they publish.

The Comic Books Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) now owns the CCA seal, which serves as a reminder of the restrictions placed on comic book creators. The seal was acquired during Banned Books Week:

CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein says, “As we reflect upon the challenges facing intellectual freedom during Banned Books Week, the Comics Code Seal is a reminder that it’s possible for an entire creative field to have those rights curtailed because of government, public, and market pressures. Fortunately, today comics are no longer constrained as they were in the days of the Code, but that’s not something we can take for granted. Banned Books Week reminds us that challenges to free speech still occur, and we must always be vigilant in fighting them.”

If you were to walk into your local comic book store today, you may find a designated children’s section, but that section would be just a fraction of what is available for an adult audience. Traditionally, comics have focused on horror, sci-fi/fantasy, and the supernatural, and this is generally still true today though some stories have become darker and others have become more playful. High artistic standards have elevated comics as a recognized form of literature by readers and scholars alike, and film adaptations have brought comics to new audiences. Creators have also regained creative control, and independent publishers like Image (a spin-off of Marvel) formed to honor creator-owned work. There has also been a strong push for more diversity in comics, though one major issue there is with the readership: people who have historically been excluded from comics storylines aren’t likely to know that anything has changed unless they are explicitly, humbly, and kindly invited back to the table.

So where do graphic novels fit in? Graphic novels are essentially book-length comics with more sophisticated and varied content, according to the ALA. While I don’t love the ALA’s language (graphic novels are more “grown up?”), the sentiment may be true: graphic novels are more literary and “cultured:” they deal with subject matter that moves more slowly (compared to the action of comics) and is more intellectually complex. That doesn’t mean it’s “better” or that people who read comics are dumb, graphic novels just do something different; the genre features serve a purpose. The memoir is a common theme in contemporary graphic novels. Blankets is a good example of this, as are both of Alison Bechdel’s books.

I hope I’ve done comics justice here; again, as an outsider working her way in, I don’t always feel confident sharing backstory, because I may not fully understand it. However, the internet makes a lot of information freely available (much love, Wikipedia!), and people care enough to make sure that information is accurate and detailed (thanks to those who wrote, revised, and provided footnotes!). I’ve also picked up some new books to read, including Watchmen by Alan Moore, considered to be one of the key works that brought comics to mainstream readers. I have Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, and Enter the Superheroes: American Values, Culture, and the Canon of Superhero Literature on my to-read list this semester as well.

Below are some links to check out:

Much of this post was adapted from the Comics Code Authority Wikipedia page.

We Need Diverse Comics on Facebook

Women Don’t Read Comics (this one has a video *and* the article is a transcript of the video, hooray for accessibility!)

American Splendor is a book and film about Cleveland-based Harvey Pekar, one of the big names in underground comix.

ComiqueCon, a celebration of women in comics, is an event held annually in Dearborn at the Arab American National Museum!

Iconic Selves

The “iconic self” is a term coined by Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics. An icon, according to McCloud, is an image used to represent a person, place, thing, or idea.

mccloudicon
from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics

Some icons are very simple, others are more complex and realistic. Generally, the more simple an icon’s features are, the more easily recognizable it is. Simple icons are also adaptable to our own individual realities. An icon with greater detail will register as a distinct object (or person) in our minds; while we may recognize the object, we won’t see ourselves, or our realities, in that object quite as easily.

mccloudiconself
from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics

Before we read Blankets, we will be drawing our iconic selves in ENG 132. To do this, start by thinking about key features that make you identifiable. In the above examples, Rachel Dukes has Frankie, her cat, and the side of her head is shaved. Craig Thompson has a book and his timid personality is seen through his facial expression. Scott McCloud has round glasses. Props, facial features, accessories, or favorite clothing all help make a person recognizable, even when their icon is simple, like a cartoon. It’s up to you how cartoony your icon is – for those of us who “can’t draw” (I think we can all draw, but I sympathize with this feeling!), stick people are just fine! Work at your comfort level.