Content warning: Curse words
Patrick: Welcome to Pop! Whiz! Bang! a comic conversation with Meggie Ramm and Patrick Lay. I’m Patrick Lay. My pronouns are he/him.
Meggie: And I’m Meggie Ramm! My pronouns are she/her or they/them, and I don’t know why I say my name like a radio announcer every time, but… This is not a podcast about the most recent releases from Marvel and DC; it’s about the theory and process behind the comics that you know and love.
We have a fuckin’ awesome podcast today. We have a guest with us - it’s Cordelia McGee-Tubb. Cordelia, say hi!
Cordelia: Hi everyone!
[Meggie and Cordelia make excited sounds]
Meggie: Am I saying your name right?
Meggie: Okay, good. Cordelia’s here to talk to us about accessibility in comics. Cordelia is a cartoonist as well as a bunch of other really awesome things. They’ve had multiple online comics, like one two six oh four, a comic detailing their life at Vassar College, as well as echo through the fog, which features autobiographical comics and illustrations. They’re also a web accessibility engineer and most recently are working on accessibility at Salesforce and Dropbox.
In fact, you were just saying that you were at a women in tech conference this weekend?
Meggie: That you had to drive 3 hours to get to, which sounds like way less fun.
Cordelia: Not driving, taking 3 different modes of transportation to get there! [laughs]
Meggie: Oh, that’s the worst.
Meggie: They’ve worked with senior citizens to help them improve their computer skills and done tech talks around the globe about accessibility and universal design. They already have a graduate degree in comics, which is where we met, but right now they’re also working a full-time job while getting another graduate degree in – gerontology? Gerontology?
Cordelia: Gerontology, like Jerry.
Meggie: Almost made it! Gerontology [laughs] which is the study of Jerry’s! Um, no, so it’s the study of aging. And they’re also really good at D&D, ‘cause we play D&D together. So, hey Cordelia! Welcome to the podcast!
Cordelia: I’m super excited to be here! I also kind of want to study Jerry’s.
Meggie: Just Jerry’s.
Cordelia: Jerry… Seinfeld.
Cordelia: …That’s the only Jerry I can think of right now.
Meggie: Jerry from Parks & Rec, maybe?
Patrick: Gary, Jerry, Larry.
Meggie: But before we get into ze nitty-gritty, how is everybody doing right now? Patrick, how’s Ohio.
Patrick: Ohio’s good. It’s been a long week! I worked so much this week. I worked all the days this week. So many weird little baby shifts, too. I think that definitely it is more exhausting for me to go into work on a day I don’t normally work for 2 hours than to go in on a day I don’t normally work for an entire shift. Because then at least I know what I’m doing, right? It’s my whole day, but when you go in for just 2 hours, ugh! It just interrupts everything. … But, we are here podcasting today! So it’s already a good’un. It’s a better’un.
Meggie: That’s so funny that you’ve been working so much, because I’ve been working so little because the strike is still happening.
Patrick: I thought it was, uh - is it not over?
Meggie: Nooo, it’s not. Well, maybe it happened. I haven’t heard any news from over the weekend but I’ve had no classes. It’s been really weird and I don’t like it. I know that I can use this free time to work on other stuff, which I have been doing, but not teaching has been way harder for me than I thought it was going to be. And now every time I see a kid, I’m really enthusiastic, maybe to the point of being a little creepy.
Meggie: Whenever my students show up, I’m like, “OH MY GOD! I haven’t seen you in forever!” and they’re like, “Alright, tone it down, Meggie. It’s been a week.”
Patrick: You see a stranger in the grocery store, you’re like, “LET ME TEACH YOU!! Let me – I’ve got a chalkboard right here! Here’s a paaaanel.”
Meggie: I told you that one of my students that I had a year ago came into the comic book shop a while back and didn’t recognize me. She came into the comic book shop with her dad, and I wanted to be like, “Hey! How’s it going? How’s school been?” But if she didn’t remember me, that would be insanely creepy to her father.
Meggie: This random person that he’s definitely never met, just being like, “HEY! Remember me?!”
Cordelia: You were her teacher. That’s not that weird.
Meggie: Yeah, but people don’t recognize me. If I don’t wear my glasses, or if I’m wearing a hat, or if I’m wearing lipstick, or if I’m not wearing earrings … I had a guy come into the shop who I’ve seen come in every other week that I’ve worked there, and we’ve had interactions, and just this last Thursday, he was like, “Oh, uh, I’m sorry for not introducing myself. My name’s Don.” and I was like, “Yep. I’m Meggie. We’ve met before.”
Meggie: “I’m sorry.” And then he was like, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry.” I’m like, “No, it’s fine. My face just doesn’t ever look the same.” [laughs] He was like, “Okay, now I’m even more intrigued.” So… super fun!
Cordelia: You’re a master of disguise. Just put on earrings and now you’re –
Meggie: I mean, honestly, I put on a hat and earrings and apparently that’s just like my glasses, a la Clark Kent. Nobody will know who I am. That’s when I’m gonna commit all the crimes.
Cordelia, how’s your week been? Have people been recognizing you?
Cordelia: People have been recognizing me. It’s been a bit of a stressful week. I had a midterm exam for my study of Jerry’s, I went and spoke on a panel about being a woman in tech, and now I’m speaking on this podcast, so I’m basically just doing all these different disparate things that all sort of overlap in my head. So, I dunno.
Meggie: It’s good, at least you’re doing talks about stuff that you really enjoy, as opposed to talks about, I dunno, Trump.
Meggie: That’s the only person that came into my head.
[Patrick laughs, Cordelia groans]
Meggie: At the comic shop we have a lot of MAD magazines about Trump kind of up at the front, and I had this one kid just come up and look at the Trump magazine and just be like, “He’s not cute” and just walk away. [laughs] They were like 3, and that was the only thing they said. Ah, I love kids who visit the comic shop, it’s so great. Alright-
Cordelia: Of all the things you could say about him [laughter] - “He’s not cute” - there are a lot of other things I would also say about his character.
Meggie: Yeah, but they were like 3. Their insult capacity hasn’t really evolved to the point where they can be creative with it.
Patrick: Yeah, at the 3-year-old level, that was probably about the right amount of sophistication.
Meggie: That was a sick burn. [laughter] That was the sickest burn that kid’s ever gonna give. [laughter]
Meggie: So, today we’re talking about accessibility in comics, which is something that Patrick and I know very little about but that Cordelia knows quite a lot about, because you’ve given a couple talks about this. And we’re actually going to put your slideshow onto our Twitter and our Instagram - not the whole thing, but a link - for people to check out. So, that’s really cool!
Cordelia, tell us about accessibility in comics! I’m so fucking excited, you don’t understand!
Cordelia: Well, maybe I’ll just start with a little bit of background on why I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I spend my days working on web accessibility, on making websites that work well for people across this wide range of abilities. A lot of what I do at work is think about if someone is blind, how are they accessing these websites we’re building? A lot of that is about making sure things are screen reader accessible; a screen reader is this form of assistive technology that literally reads the screen to you, either in braille or audio output. So I was doing all this as my full-time job and on the side making comics, and realizing, hey, comics is a really visual medium and that is kind of in contrast to the work that I do every day. How can I start to think about those two overlapping with each other?
So then I started doing research on comics accessibility. I’m not an expert, but I just like chatting with people about it.
Meggie: I feel like it’s a very niche thing, so I feel like you probably are the closest thing to an expert that we’re gonna get on this podcast. [Cordelia laughs] Have you always been interested in accessibility? You went to Vassar for tech, right, specifically?
Cordelia: So, it’s a liberal arts college, I studied Computer Science there. The Computer Science department was, like, 5 people literally in the basement of a building called the Old Laundry Building.
Patrick: [snorting with laughter] Ah, I’m sorry, that’s the perfect liberal arts college experience.
Cordelia: It was a great experience!
Patrick: Right, right. You would get a good education at the Old Laundry Building, but damn!
Meggie: Great education, still smelled like fabric softener, but great education.
Patrick: Honestly, it was probably the best-smelling building in the joint, if it smelled like laundry. Unless it smelled like old laundry…
Cordelia: My favorite smell of all-time is the smell of the exhaust from dryers.
Patrick: YES. Oh my god, it’s the greatest! It’s the greatest.
Meggie: Especially when you’re walking down the street and you just smell it coming out of a building, I’m always into that. Is that weird?
Cordelia: No, that’s why I picked it.
Meggie: Okay, good.
Patrick: It’s the only joy at the laundromat to be had. I do my laundry at the laundromat and it sucks, but it does smell hardcore like dryer laundry, and it’s just like, “Mmmm… I want to put on all these clothes now.” Is that weird? Everything’s so dry and warm!
Meggie: There’s this stand-up comedian I can’t remember, but she has something on Netflix, and she’s like, “If you ever want to feel truly loved, just take a huge amount of clothes straight out of the dryer and lie in it.” [laughter] Just make yourselve a little cave.
Cordelia: Can confirm.
Patrick: So at the Old Laundry Building…
[laughter as we try to get back on track]
Meggie: Patrick’s gonna get so stuck on this Old Laundry Building.
Patrick: No, no, no, no, I’m on board. So, at the Old Laundry Building, doing Computer Science … We’ll get back on track. What were you doing?
Cordelia: Oh, right. I studied Computer Science there, but because it was a liberal arts college, I was also studying Anthropology and, uh, I was gonna say Sociology but [voice trailing off] I didn’t study Sociology.
Patrick: Some people did.
Cordelia: … Just a lot of liberal arts things. Some people did. That was an option. And, I think when I first started out in the tech world, I was like, “Woah! Everyone else here has this intense Computer Science degree from an engineering school.” It took me a while to realize that, actually, studying Computer Science at a liberal arts school was one of the best things that could have happened to me, because I thought a lot about Computer Science and technology in terms of how people use it. There are a variety of people in the world. Everyone’s different, so everyone uses technology different, so it needs to kind of adapt to everyone’s unique situations.
Meggie: Yeah, if you’re young and want to be employed, soon, or you’re trying to pick a major, you should do that. Get a Computer Science major from a liberal arts college. Because, if you get a graduate degree from a comic book college, you’re gonna be unemployed as shit, lemme tell you! [laughter] … Keep going!
Cordelia: Don’t cry, Meggie.
Cordelia: Anyway, so that’s been my passion in tech, but then I’ve also been making comics forever. So I was like, “How do we combine all of these, and what does it look like to make comics that are accessible to people with vision impairments?” And that can be everything from someone who’s low vision to someone who’s completely blind, to even if you think about color-blindness - I think it’s 1 in 10 men is colorblind? How are we using colors in our stories? What impact does that have on someone who may perceive a wide variety of colors as a murky shade of brown? So that’s kinda what I’ve been thinking about.
Meggie: That’s awesome.
Cordelia: Yeah, and we can just kind of jump in?
Meggie: Yeah, jump in to it! Cordelia did this awesome thing where she printed out basically a whole run-down on accessibility in comics, which is great. Like I said, Patrick and I know very little about it. Can you go through this terminology for us?
Cordelia: Terminology! When we talk about accessibility, just to make sure everyone’s on the same page here: Accessibility is literally making sure that everyone has access to something. We usually talk about accessibility in terms of disability. Disability itself is a wide spectrum. I think a lot of times, people think of disability as this binary of you either have a disability or you don’t, but it’s again a huge spectrum. It can be a permanent disability, it could be a temporary one, or even a situational disability. Like, what am I thinking about right now? I’ve got an earpiece in my ear, so I’m hearing you all really well but I am not hearing other sounds nearby as well. So that’s a situational impairment that I have. Trying to think of other things…
Meggie: I’m thinking of D&D, when we go into a cave, you and I both have dark vision, but -
Cordelia: I don’t have dark vision!
Meggie: Oh, well my character has dark vision, and the other two don’t.
Patrick: But do you have low light vision?
Meggie: I have low light vision. I’m a Tiefling, man. I can see into the dark bowels of Hell, man.
Meggie: The other people in my party would be impaired in a low light situation.
Cordelia: Absolutely. So if we’re going to go in there and try to read a comic in that environment, I’m screwed, unless that comic has been made accessible to me in some form. … So we think about that through this wide array of things. Again, blindness itself is a spectrum. What I like to think about with comics is how do we make comics accessible to blind people and how can we do that on the web, how can we do that with tactile comics - I’d love to chat about both web and tactile with you all because there’s a lot of awesome stuff that’s happening.
Meggie: Yeah, I looked at the examples you showed me and actually - we’ll get into that later, but yeah, really cool!
Cordelia: And there’s also the question of, if comics are an inherently visual medium, how can you make them accessible in a non-visual way?
Meggie: Yeah, we talked about that little bit when we were in our digital comic design class with, um, I can’t remember her name! Her Instagram handle is @teenyrobots.
Patrick: Joyce Rice!
Meggie: Yes, Joyce. I love her so much and I forgot her name!
Cordelia: We love Joyce!
Meggie: Joyce did a whole thing in our digital comics course about creating comics with access to the other senses. Including comics that, when you scrolled past them at a certain point, sound would play. Or interactive comics that would move when you got to a certain point. And since comics are a visual medium, and usually a static visual medium where things don’t move, there’s a lot of new work being done in terms of adding the senses to it. And it’s really fun because emanata’s all about adding the other five senses into a comic visually. But then technology’s advancing to the point where we can actually add sound to a comic, or add motion to a comic that wasn’t there before.
Cordelia: Going back to that technology of the screen reader: If you put text on a page, it will read aloud that text, either in audio format or in braille. Some people read that in braille; there’s this really cool technology called a refreshable braille display that, as you’re reading lines of text, pops up new dots for you to read.
Meggie: That’s so cool.
Cordelia: So you read that one line, then those dots go away and it puts up another set of dots, and you read that next line. That in itself is an interesting tactile experience and now I’m thinking, “Woah, what if we could create some interesting tactileness to our webcomics…”
Meggie: I’ve seen some new technology where they have interactive topographical tables. They’re reactive. From what I remember, it’s made out of a bunch of different blocks. Then someone put their keys in the middle of this table full of blocks, and then it created a cup -
Cordelia: Oh woah!
Meggie: - so that way the keys wouldn’t roll off the table or something. Somebody wanted to put their computer on it, and it tilted in such a way that the computer was at the right angle. So you could do a tactile… but you’d have to do it on a smaller scale for fingertips, rather than a giant… well, I guess you could do a giant one.
Cordelia: You could do a giant one!
Meggie: Yeah, a giant one would also be super fucking cool.
Cordelia: Also, going back to our favorite thing from Matt, which is that everything is a comic, why does a comic need to be visual at all? What if - is an entire room a comic?
Meggie: I wanted to do comics in exhibits, like class or something. A lot of times when people put comics in exhibits, they just blow up the pages really big and put them on the wall. But I think it would be so much fun to have a group of people try and make comics that were specifically for an exhibitive format. Not necessarily “yeah, we’re going to make the pages really big,” but making a 3D comic, or making a comic that went all the way around a wall, or something you had to interact with. That’s my dream… Somebody give me money and I’ll do it!
Cordelia: I’m throwing fake money at you.
Meggie: Cordelia’s throwing fake - oh my god, look at all this fake money! I’m set!
Cordelia: So much fake money. Um, so, web comics! Let’s talk briefly about what are some ways that we all may struggle to understand the content of an online comic. One is, can you actually read the text? I don’t know about you all, but a lot of times I run into comics that are really low resolution and the text is all grainy and weird and you can’t actually discern what the words are.
Meggie: Yeah, or the text is really, really, really tiny.
Cordelia: Yes. So that’s an issue, font size and kerning. Another thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about is, if you are a dyslexic reader and you can follow the images just fine, what about the text itself that’s within those comics? That might be a little bit of a stumbling block. Can you even highlight the text and have that read aloud to you? That’d be kind of cool. There’s the high resolution stuff, and the other access issue is: Is it in your language? Is the comic in your language? And if it’s not in your language, what do you do?
Meggie: Google Translate.
Patrick: You get a really weird, messed up version of it, though. “I’m pretty sure I know what they’re saying, but I don’t know what they’re saying.”
Meggie: The other thing is, if it’s text that’s embedded inside the image itself, and especially if it’s hand-lettered, Google Translate doesn’t translate that, does it?
Cordelia: Unless you make it accessible to robots!
Meggie: Okay, yes! Let’s talk about talking with robots.
Cordelia: Let’s talk about making comics accessible to robots. This sounds like “why am I talking about robots,” but it is really interesting. If we trying to make existing comics accessible, as Patrick was saying, one of the best ways to do that is to literally transcribe it. When we’re transcribing it, we make it accessible to 3 different types of robots. One, in the accessibility context, is this screen reader technology. Right now, screen readers can read text just fine, but if you show it an image, it’s not going to know how to interpret the image. Some people are doing all this fancy AI stuff to figure that out; on Facebook, if you upload an image, it’ll be like, “This image may contain a smiling face and a tree.” [laughter] So it gives you a little bit of context, but if you think about all of the context and nuance of images in comics …
Meggie: The way that you preface this, I’m just imagining it like there’s 3 robots. It’s not just one robot. It’s a robot, and his name is Jerry [laughter] and he’s like, “Yeah, I can read this, but images? I don’t get that!” And you go on to the next robot. [laughter] And it’s just 3 robots sitting in a room and they’re doing all of it.
Patrick: The next robot’s like [robot voice] “I know trees.” The next one’s like [in a robot voice] “Smiling faces.”
Meggie: “I know trees, I know smiley faces-“
Patrick: Give us a 4th Jerry and we might be able to find a car and a stop sign!
Meggie: Alright, so there’s screen reader robots…
Cordelia: So there are screen reader robots that are basically taking your content and reading it aloud, or reading it in braille, to someone. Then there are search engine robots. If you transcribe your comics, there’s this extra benefit: It makes it really easy for people to then find your comic again. If I’m like “Oh man, this one person on the internet is making this really cool comic about these stick people, and I remember one of them said this really funny thing, and I’m trying to find that comic again.” If they could type in what happened and then find it, that’d be really cool. Fortunately, your comic is called Stick World [laughter] so you can Google “stick.” But imagine there’s a super obscure comic - you read this amazing webcomic years and years ago - I remember this was the case when I used to read a lot of Harry Potter fan fiction. [laughter] I’d remember, like, one thing that happened and then I’d spend five hours trying to search for this one thing.
Meggie: I mean, that’s still a comic thing. Every day at the comics shop, we have somebody come in and they’re like, “Ah, I read a comic, and the character wore green.” And I’m like, “Oh God.”
Patrick: “They had, like, a stick and the stick shot out fire and they were jumping. Do you know which one I’m talking about?”
Patrick: “It was the one with the guy in it, and the thing…”
Meggie: “It was a character, and they had super powers. I can’t remember which kind. He was wearing spandex at one point.”
Cordelia: Oooh, I know just the one!
Meggie: I know just the one.
Cordelia: So, there’s that added benefit: If we transcribe our comics, we make the content more accessible to people who use screen readers, we make it easier to find them via search engine, and then also for people who aren’t speaking that language - say you find an awesome comic in Sanskrit or something -
Cordelia: - and you’re like, “Wow. The art’s beautiful, but I don’t know what these words are.” How cool would it be if there were a transcript that you could then plug into Google Translate? I don’t think Google Translate actually does Sanskrit, because it’s a very old language. But say you had a more modern language, like Hindi or Greek, you could just highlight all that text, paste it into Google Translate, or have it auto-translate the text for you on the page because Chrome is smart enough to do that. Then you get this international audience. So it’s access in a variety of spectrums, of both the physical accessibility of can someone who’s blind access this content, but also the wide-ranging, globalness of it.
Meggie: So basically, if you’re making comics, the more accessible you make your comics, the bigger your audience is going to be. And it’s easier for Google, and other search engines that aren’t Google, like Bing, and Yahoo. [laughs] Sorry.
Cordelia: Ask Jeeves.
Patrick: I was on AltaVista the other day, and I couldn’t find anything I wanted.
Meggie: Oh my god, I was on somebody’s computer the other day and they had Bing.
Meggie: I used Bing the other day! I didn’t even know that Bing was a thing anymore! But anyway, making your comic more accessible also behooves you as a cartoonist. Short answer.
Cordelia: But then the question is, how do you actually do that? I’m curious if you’ve started to notice - I’ve noticed there is a trend of cartoonists transcribing; more and more people are starting to transcribe their comics.
Meggie: Yeah, I’ve actually noticed that, too, and I’ve noticed I actually have a couple friends on Facebook who do what Cordelia does. Whenever Cordelia posts a picture on Facebook, she’ll have a sentence or two describing what’s happening in the actual picture. I’ve had a couple of friends do that as well, which is another way of doing that.
Cordelia: Yeah, absolutely. And I should also mention in terms of talking to robots, one last thing about talking to robots – there’s a really cool website called Oh No Robot, which is basically a site where you can search for comics by transcript. People have written transcripts of comics; you can submit transcripts of comics, you can transcribe your own or transcribe other people’s. It’s an awesome database of web comics that you can search.
Meggie: I think the next digital comic that I do, I’ll do a digital transcript for. I just don’t want to go back through Stick World at this point, because it’s so much work and I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna keep that boat afloat. But I think it’s something to think about when you’re creating a comic. Because if you do create a transcript, it’s basically just your script pared down, going panel by panel. I think it’s a smart move. If you’re starting a comic, think about making that accessible script.
Patrick: And there are, I want to say it’s The Nib? Is it The Nib that has transcripts of all of their comics?
Meggie: Oh, Everyday Feminism does transcripts of all of their comics.
Cordelia: Oh, that’s cool!
Meggie: When I worked for Everyday Feminism, I had to do a transcript of all of my comics, which is really nice. And I dont know - is it The Nib, or is it, I think it’s the Believer Mag - we’re just throwing out words here, we should probably double-check before we back any of these horses. [laughter] All of the comics! Mad Magazine! Peanuts!
Patrick: It is something you’re starting to see more and more.
Cordelia: Adding a transcript, it’s really useful for people who, just from looking at the comic alone, don’t get all of the information out of it. And that may be due to blindness, it may be, again, just because you uploaded a really shitty quality file. I know a lot of times, I have to zoom really far in to see all the specifics of things. It’s neat because traditionally, unfortunately, when we talk about intersectionality, in general, and diversity, a lot of times disability is left out of the conversation. It’s really neat that Everyday Feminism - that’s a great example of intersectionality; they care about feminism, but they also care about accessibility and making everything inclusive. So they’re thinking about readers who may have trouble reading the image files themselves. Then, if you think about, I don’t know about you all, but to save data on my phone, whenever I get an email that has images in it, the images don’t load. So thinking about poor internet connections as well, it’s just a nice thing to have.
Cordelia: I’d like to chat with you all about how do we actually transcribe our comics. This is something I still …
Meggie: Is there any kind of rulebook for how to do it, or–?
Meggie: Cordelia gave this great example of a web comic, it wasn’t Life…
Cordelia: Which one? Was it Postcards in Braille?
Meggie: Postcards in Braille, yeah! So Postcards in Braille is a web comic that features a, the main character is visually impaired. There’s a transcription of all of it, of all of the comics. It’s hard because, if you’re doing a transcription, you want it to be more than just “This person is in this panel. This is what the speech bubble says.” You kind of want it to be more interesting than that, I feel. Wouldn’t you?
Cordelia: Yeah, it’s tough because, as cartoonists, we make these conscious decisions of what we’re going to put in a image versus in speech balloons or, uh, you all are experts - is there an official name for –
Meggie: Narrative boxes?
Cordelia: Yeah, narrative boxes! That works. What do we show versus tell? For transcribing, we’re telling everything, and it is interesting because you have to make a lot of judgement calls about what are the most important visual aspects of this comic. Do I wanna write down every single color that each person is wearing? Is that important? What is important about this panel?
Patrick: There’s a lot of stuff that you’d have to convey about the mood of the characters and the acting that’s going on from the characters. Otherwise, you’re giving a very, very poor version of the experience. It’s not the full experience by any stretch, it’s not really even an attempt. It’s sort of bare-bones.
Meggie: Here’s the thing - you could do something that’s very bare-bones, but I’m thinking that this could be a job that someone could have, translating a comic book page into something that’s narratively intriguing as well as visually intriguing. Part of comics is the interaction between the words and the pictures. That’s part of the magic of comics. If you’re going to take away the pictures and just try to do it narratively - you’re basically turning something visual into a mini bit of prose. That’s what I’d want to do if I wanted someone to enjoy reading the comic thing. I don’t wanna just have Stick World be like “Red’s in the left corner of the panel, and Red says, ‘Fuuuck you’” - [laughter] - “In the next panel, Pod says, ‘What the heck, man?’”
Patrick: I guess that’s what I mean. All of the things that - even in this podcast, we’ve talked about how when you’re writing comics, you maybe don’t need to write all the things that you can’t draw. But if you’re going back the other way, then you totally could do that. You could be like, “There’s a breeze blowing. It’s a sunny day. They happily walk down the street.” So it’s got a narrative flow that’s interesting and engaging, and not just this bare-bones skeleton version of describing the situation, because that would feel like a disservice.
Meggie: I just feel like, in my mind, comics has been, like, you script it, you draw it, it’s this third thing, and then all of a sudden, it’s like, “Oh no, but there could be this fourth thing!” My brain is running with the potential and the possibilities for that. Ah, that’s so cool.
Cordelia: I feel like maybe there’s no wrong way to do it, there are all different ways. So my webcomics, the form they usually take is it looks like this long, stream-of-consciousness thing; there isn’t really individual panels, it’s kind of text and then a scene, then text and a scene, then text and a scene. I do, when I’m transcribing those, break it out into “narration” and then this happens, and then “illustration of blah blah blah.” I kind of indicate that part’s text, this part’s illustration. But then I have this comic book that I’ve been - that I was - working on for 2 years, that I haven’t worked on in 2 years, but that one was an autobio comic that I was working on. And my thought, if I ever publish it, is I’m going to have the comic, and then I’m going to have a downloadable audio track, which is basically me telling the same stories but in prose. Not trying to say what’s happening in the actual comic, panel by panel, but just telling the same stories and adapting them a little bit, so the beats might be a little bit different.
Meggie: Ah, no, this is so cooool!
Cordelia: Yeah, sorry, now I’ve made it – there’s no wrong answer. Just another thing to throw into the mix here when we’re transcribing our comics: Should we transcribe our comics or should someone else? I ran into an issue when I was transcribing one of my retrospective comics a few years ago. I had this drawing I did of my brother-in-law juggling a bunch of quarters, and in the drawing, since I’m not super good at drawing, the quarters are just these little flat grey discs. You wouldn’t really know that they were quarters, because I didn’t bother putting any George Washington faces on them or anything. So then I was trying to transcribe this scene, and I was like, should I say that he is juggling quarters because that’s something that, if someone is looking at this image, they’re not going to get that. [laughs] So do I say that, or do I say that he’s juggling these things… I think I ended up saying, “He’s juggling these flat disks that the artist meant to be quarters.”
Cordelia: I was just like, let me just tell it how it is.
Patrick: I would wonder, too, I was thinking the same thing - when we watch TV, a lot of times we have the captions on. And a lot of times, the captions will either give away a punchline too early. Sometimes they’ll give away the identity of a character who’s being obscured, because they’ll attribute it to the actual character. So you find out “but he was the mom the whole time!” and it’ll say the mom’s name. And you’ll be like, [exasperated voice] “Well, I guess he must be the mom.”
Patrick: On the one hand, I get what you’re doing, you’re just dumping the script into a program and breaking it out. But on the other hand, you’re providing this really, really unnnuanced experience for somebody who can only experience it in that way. So I imagine it’s a similar thing - if somebody else is going to transcribe your comic, that might actually be better because it’s more reflective of the experience of someone who’s only ever going to experience it as a reader.
[Chorus of “yeah”s from Meggie and Cordelia]
Meggie: I feel like that’d be a pretty awesome self-contained job. If you could get somebody who is talented enough to read a comic and then rewrite it in such a way that it would be - or write a transcript that gives you the information that you need without revealing too much or – What the heck are you doing, Patrick?
Patrick: I didn’t have anything to draw on. I had to get a piece of paper.
Meggie: Patrick’s just jealous because he doesn’t have donuts on his side of the screen.
Patrick: I don’t have anything to do with my hands! Y’all have donuts.
Cordelia: That’s the same sort of conversation around when people translate comics from one language to another. There are certain jokes that don’t translate well across cultures, so you have to make that call of, am I going to change this to one that’s more culturally appropriate? If it’s a pun that’s wordplay that doesn’t translate into the other language… It’s similar. You’ve got these images. Hey, do I describe exactly what is happening in this visual sequence, or do I take a little bit of a creative liberty here in this description? Things are hard!
Meggie: [laughs] You heard it here first, folks! Things are hard!
Cordelia: I also wanted to do a plug for a fantastic essay that I always, always like to reference in these types of conversations. It’s called “On Describing Comics” and it’s by Liana Kerr. It’s an online wiki page about how Liana describes comics. I think the story is, one of her friends who’s blind really wanted to read this particular webcomic called BroodHollow. Liana started transcribing it and, through that process, learned a lot about, what are the things that I should include and not include. She also transcribed Watchmen -
Meggie: Oh god.
Cordelia: - so this essay also talks through things like, when do you talk about color? Color isn’t that important, but if you have this color of red that’s kind of creeping into the narrative or something, how do you –
Meggie: – or if something’s glowing, or if a color is sometimes a signifier or symbolic in some way – oh my god –
Patrick: – or in Watchmen, specifically in the middle, the 5th chapter, it’s a visual palindrome. If you open it up from the center, it mirrors itself. So you draw attention to that at any point when you’re describing it visually. Like, at the end, do you say, “By the way, the whole thing was a palindrome.”
Meggie: Do you talk about layouts?
Patrick: It’s a thing that’s difficult to communicate, even though it’s definitely a fundamental element of the book.
Meggie: Also, if it’s a standard comic book page, I feel like I would just write about the comic book page as it goes, if it’s just a panel, a panel, a panel, a panel. But if it’s something crazy like in Asterios Polyp where David Mazzucchelli is doing all kinds of crazy shit with layouts, do you mention that?
Cordelia: I think you do.
Patrick: I think you have to. I just don’t know exactly what order you’d have to put everything in.
Meggie: Ah! This is so - I’m so happy right now. Ah, this is so crazy.
Cordelia: It’s really hard to explain. I highly recommend reading her [Liana’s] article, because she also talks about that thing you were talking about, Patrick; when you have these reveals, how do you build up to these reveals? There are certain things, subtle things, that may be happening in the background of a panel, that you want to mention but you don’t want to draw too much attention to them. This is a great article.
Meggie: Yeah, you don’t want to be like, “And the mom’s handkerchief is on the back table, in the very back, on the right. But let’s get back to the story about the dog.”
Patrick: “In the background, there’s a guy who’s carrying a box.” It’s like, “Well, why did you even mention that, unless it’s really important? So now I know to look for a guy in a box later.”
Meggie: In terms of that, it’s sort of like in Netflix when they bring attention to something without actually … A side character will be like, “Oh yeah, and the moon is getting darker,” and you’re like, “Wait, that’s weird, we’ve never talked about the moon before.” That kinda thing. Oh, sorry, and Patrick I stepped on your words.
Patrick: You’re good! It’s like writing prose, except it has to be directly related to the original visual source material. Otherwise, it becomes its own thing entirely. So on the one hand, it feels like a trained prose writer, or an experienced prose writer, would be really good at this. Except for you’d have to resist the temptation at all moments to do anything that wasn’t already in the source material.
Meggie: You know what would be cool? Somebody’s probably already done this, but what if you had some story and you just translated it into all the different mediums.
Cordelia: That’d be cool.
Meggie: So you’d have somebody make it into a book, somebody make it into a short film, somebody make it into a comic, somebody make it into a song. And then at the end, you vote and see who did best! [laughter] No, you don’t do that. You see that all the time with fairy tales, like Cinderella’s been done way too many times by way too many people, both in terms of books and movies.
Patrick: Romeo and Juliet is all of those things, at some point in time or another.
Meggie: Yes. [laughs] Good point!
Cordelia: Going back to that idea of you have to reference these comic elements. I will say a million times, go read this “On Describing Comics” article - maybe we can link it somewhere.
Meggie: We’ll link to it and we’ll put it out on our Twitter. We got so many good links coming out of this episode!
Cordelia: But I wanted to - can I read a quote from it that I really liked?
Meggie: Yeah, go for it!
Cordelia: Liana said, talking about transcribing Broodhollow, which is this great webcomic:
I also note if there’s comic shorthand, such as short lines around someone’s head indicating surprise, [aka emanata] dotted lines indicating the direction someone is looking or stars indicating pain. That’s because Straub [the author] has chosen to present Broodhollow as a comic, not as a novel or a video, and I want to preserve the feeling of experiencing something that’s different from other media.
Meggie: That’s. So. Awesome. Okay, we’re definitely going to tweet this link out, and I’m going to read that essay so fast.
Meggie: But before we totally get out, because I feel like it’s so easy for us to continually get into more and more avant-garde comic things, can we talk about tactile comics?
Meggie: The examples that you put up are really cool, and I want to talk a little bit about Shapereader later. First, can you give us a little preface about what tactile comics are like?
Cordelia: Yeah! Tactile comics are ones that you can feel! And again, this goes into this idea of, do we transcribe? I guess you could take an existing comic and try to make it tactile. I went to a really interesting talk at an accessibility conference by some folks who were actually experimenting with this. As a model of this, they were basically taking superhero comics and raising the lines, so the lines were tactile, and then replacing the speech balloons with braille. That’s a really cool idea, but they were finding that didn’t really play out too well because if you think about the lines used to draw a face in 3/4 profile, that’s, like…
Meggie: So smushy.
Cordelia: It’s so smushy, and it’s not nearly the same as if you were to - what if you made that same comic, like, you 3D printed actual figurines that people could touch in 360 to see, oh, Superman is flying and I can feel the cape flying out from him. I can feel the shape of his nose from different dimensions.
Meggie: Yeah. Cordelia provided us with this example of this comic called Life by Philipp Meyer, which is basically a very short story that’s partially told in braille, but it’s told in raised dots. It’s basically two circles that start out, and one circle is distinguished from the other circle because one is empty and the other circle is filled in with dots. The circles come together, a third circle appears, and then the circles visually and tactilely dissipate. It’s supposed to be indicative of life. Philipp worked with his friend, who is also visually impaired, and was talking about all the different kinds of process they went through to do this. I think that it was a very good outcome of the project, but it’s really hard to say how complex you could make the story with that. He had to pare it down to the bare minimum. It’s, like, circles, because there’s only so much information that you can get - if I was reading that superhero page, I couldn’t get any of that.
Cordelia: No, that’s too much. I think life, in general [laughter], I mean Philipp Meyer’s Life, is a really, really cool example of creating tactile comics from scratch. Not trying to create a version of an existing comics, but creating a comic that is always meant to be experienced tactilely. What’s great is it draws on these concepts of braille because it uses these dots, but it’s also something that - I don’t know braille, but I could read that comic. And even visually, there’s that narration, but anyone could feel it and understand it, which is really, really cool.
Patrick: So, I did have a question. Life I’ve seen before, and I’m just thinking about what transcribing it would be like. It makes me wonder, if you were gonna transcribe it, would you have to imply the relationship between the dots in the transcription? It’s a thing you build reading it, visually or tactilely, because they appear to have a relationship. But if you were going to transcribe it, you’d have to say, “A dot appears from this lefthand side, and it seems to circle the middle dot. And then they connect, and they overlap, and then they separate and a new dot appears.”
Meggie: I think that’s how I’d transcribe it, though. I think if you said there was a relationship between the circles, that kind of gets into the area of putting an opinion on the artpiece. The whole main concept of Life, in general [laughter], is that you’re supposed to experience these dots and you’re supposed to come to the conclusion that it is a story on its own. I think that if you were going to tell it, I don’t think you could be like, [dramatic voice] “One dot appears. It’s all alone. A second dot appears. Their eyes meet across the room.”
Meggie: I think you have to do it: “One dot is here. Another dot is here. They move together.” I think, for this particular situation, that’s how I personally would do the transcript. I would want whoever is experiencing the art - if they’re doing it visually, if they’re doing it narratively, if they’re doing it tactilely - to try and place their own narrative on whatever their experience with it is.
Cordelia: This is an interesting exercise in itself. This is a podcast. There is no visual component to this podcast.
Meggie: It’s really hard. [laughs]
Cordelia: How are we describing these tactile or visual comics on a podcast? An interesting exercise, if you’re trying to transcribe your comic, is just to sit down and turn on an audio recording and read your comic aloud as if you were reading it on a radio or on a podcast. Then you start to realize what are the important parts of it, what are the things that someone needs to know in order to navigate this space. … Oooh, side note: I really want to talk about Shapereader.
Meggie: Cordelia gave us another example called Shapereader which is by - do you know how to say their name? Ilan?
Cordelia: I do not know, and I apologize in advance. I’m gonna try it: Ilan Manouach.
Meggie: Yes, and you should probably talk more about this.
Cordelia: Oh my gosh, it’s such a cool thing, because they developed a framework for creating tactile comics. And it’s kind of abstract. At the beginning of this comic, which is a series of very large plates - not like eating plates but like, uh… -
Meggie: Like printing plates!
Cordelia: - yeah, printing plates! There’s a key of all these different textures, and it tells you what these textures represent. And these textures could represent feelings, like anxiety, which is a very common feeling for me [laughter]. They could represent feelings or characters, and then the actual comic itself is all these different textures butting up against each other in different shapes. It’s really interesting because there’s not a linear flow - you know, when you have a narrative, like a transcript, there’s a linear flow to it. But here’s this block of different textures butting up against each other. You feel around in whatever way you want, to understand this moment. It’s amazing.
Meggie: This does have a story. So, the tactile blocks - I want to say there’s 50 or more different ones? - and some have hearts, some have squiggly lines, and they’re - I want to say - an inch by two inches. Each one, like Cordelia said, indicates a character or an adverb. Some of them are light squiggly lines, and it’s like, anxiety. And then the squiggly lines get thicker, and it’s like, more anxiety. [laughter] Then the thickest iteration of that tactile block is, like, the most anxious. And it tells the story of these two explorers who go to the North Pole and find a block of ice that they try and translate. It’s really cool because it’s something that was designed for visually impaired people to show a story, but it’s also something that if you’re not visually impaired, you can also experience this.
Meggie: You don’t have to be able to read braille, you can just use this visual dictionary to get through. It’s just really cool!
Cordelia: It’s so cool. You all have to look this up online because also visually, it’s stunning.
Meggie: That’s the other thing - the way that these plates are set up, it’s just gorgeous.
Cordelia: To me it’s a really cool idea because we were talking about not throwing your own opinion onto an artpiece. What I love about it being this almost free-form block full of all these different textures is that you get to explore as the reader and find those anxiety lines, and find those anxiety lines are creeping around the texture for this particular character. You get to interpret into that how anxious this person must be feeling. It’s just soooo cool. It’s so cool.
Meggie: Sam, my partner, is working on this giant gallery exhibition that’s gonna take place in 2020. It’s happening in galleries across the country, and the theme is extraction and how extracting certain minerals from the world is not environmentally friendly. It’s a very environmental show, and he saw this and was like, “I gotta try and get that artist in the show.” So we’re hoping we can talk to this guy about it, because it’s just really cool. … Alright, I feel like this could be a 2 hour episode, but we should probably get to wrapping it up.
Cordelia: Tactile comics, I think, are going to be a really fun thing to explore. I just feel like that’s something we should all be paying attention to, and something that the children’s book world has been doing for ages, when you think about all these different textures within children’s books.
Meggie: It’s really in the very first stages right now. So there’s so much that you could do, if you’re like, “I really want to do tactile comics.” Just do it! [laughter] There’s no wrong answer at this point. The sky’s the limit! Do what you can. Really, Life and Shapereader - and there’s one or two others that are also examples - we want to have 50 examples to give you.
Cordelia: Te thing I’d close this episode out with is, going back to that idea that everything is a comic, can we make comics out of sound? Can we make comics out of texture? Can we make comics out of -
Meggie: - music!
Cordelia: - taste!
Meggie: A taste comic!
Cordelia: Think about all the different senses. If it’s really about the juxtaposition between two different things and the narrative that’s formed out of that, what if we make a comic about the smell of a laundromat [laughter] combined with the smell of these donuts?
Meggie: I’m just thinking of a taste comic that’s at an exhibit, and each panel is a different taste. You go through and you look and “Oh, that one’s bacon! Oh that one’s ketchup!” and then you’re like, “Alright, next person, it’s your turn to lick the comic!” [laughter] It would be so gross.
Cordelia: Maybe we’ll start with scratch and sniffs.
Patrick: In food and cocktails and stuff like that, narrative is already a fundamental element of how those things are crafted. A cocktail is supposed to be a full experience from start to finish. It’s a story! Right?
[Cordelia and Meggie laugh]
Meggie: Sorry, we’re getting distracted because the neighborhood cat just came to say hi at the window.
Patrick: Aw, what’s up!
Meggie: His name is Blinken -
Cordelia: That was pretty cute.
Meggie: - and he wants to hang out with Talulu. Talulu gives zero fucks.
Meggie: Alright, Cordelia, if people want to find you on the internet, how do they do that? Where do they go?
Cordelia: My internet name is Cordelia Dillon, so people can find me on Twitter, Instagram, on my website, if you type in CordeliaDillon. So it’s Dillon like dill pickles, not Dylan like Bob Dylan. And that’ll get you to all of my different stuff. My website links to everything.
Meggie: You definitely gotta check that out. Patrick, where do people find you if they want to find you?
Meggie: I am MeggieTheRamm on Patreon, Instagram, Twitter. If you want to find us and talk to us about this episode - I’m not gonna lie, I fuckin’ loved this one - you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or check us out on Twitter or Instagram @pop_whiz_bang. Am I missing any of our social media, Patrick?
Patrick: I think we got it all! [laughs]
Meggie: Okay, because I can never frickin’ remember. We hope you enjoyed this episode! Please tune in next week when we are going to talk about CeCe Bell’s El Deafo with, you guessed it, Cordelia again!
Meggie: We’re done talking about accessible comics now.
Patrick: You’re gonna have to go read, and touch, and listen, and taste some.
Meggie: And smell!
Patrick: And smell.
Meggie: Sniff it!
Meggie: Alright, bye!