Chad Allen explains how losing access to comics after becoming blind inspired Unseen, the first audio comic aimed at readers who see with their mind
Wed 18 Sep 2019 08.00 BST
Last modified on Wed 18 Sep 2019 08.27 BST
Comic books were not at the top of the list of the things that Chad Allen would desperately miss when he went blind, but they were certainly on there. Growing up in Rhode Island, a friend’s older brother had a huge collection of Marvel and DC comics, which the two younger boys would carefully remove from their protective sleeves to immerse themselves in the four-colour world of superheroes – especially Allen’s favourites, the Hulk and the Punisher.
From a young age, Allen was dealing with some of the effects of what would develop into full-blown sight-loss: “It started off as night blindness, and if I came out of a movie theatre into the sunlight I wouldn’t be able to see for a while.”
In 1988, when he was 15, he was diagnosed with Retinitis pigmentosa, and by the age of 28 he was completely blind. In those 13 intervening years, he had been determined to get as much out of life as possible: taking up competitive tap dancing, spending time in a fine art studio in Providence, Rhode Island, and even studying magic. (He has been a member of the Academy of Magical Arts in Los Angeles, where he now lives with his wife and son, for the past 17 years.)
The last comics Allen remembers reading are Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Punisher series, which ran from 2001 to 2004. Those comics exemplify for him “the loss I felt of no longer having access to comics”. When he went blind, he turned to audiobooks and learned to read Braille, and returned to the prose literature he had loved, from Mary Shelley to Ray Bradbury. But he still missed comics. Then, he wondered: if you could listen to prose, then why not comics, too?
The rebuttal to that is obvious: comic books are a visual medium, a marriage of text and graphic art. But the idea wouldn’t go away. “The root of every comic is highly visual. But we don’t see those pictures with our eyes, we see them with our brain,” he says. “It’s the whole story that matters. It’s how we describe to our brains what that story is.”
The result is Unseen, an audio comic book. It is the first comic book aimed at blind people, featuring a blind character and made by a blind creator. The experience is akin to audio-described cinema: each panel is described in a matter-of-fact way, dialogue is spoken, and a “whoosh” sound indicates when the next page is starting. Set in the near future, the first issue opens on the US-Mexican border, where a tyrannical American regime is allowing immigrants to be experimented on for nefarious purposes. Into this scenario come Afsana, an Afghanistan-born assassin who also happens to be blind. She can also turn invisible – not unalike how blind and disabled people can be made to feel by the rest of society, who often choose not to notice them at all.
“I see the narrator as kind of fulfilling the role of the caddy in golf,” says Allen. “She is filling in the gaps, carrying the story along, allowing you to experience it all. Say an alien landed on Earth and you had to describe to them what a comic book was. You’d be doing that with speech. You’d be describing the action in a panel, and the dialogue. That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
The first issue, which is around 20 minutes long, was completed this year and featured in an exhibition at San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum of science, art and human perception. It proved immensely popular, prompting Allen to release it for a limited time as an audio stream. It ends on a cliffhanger; so listeners’ most frequent question is: “What happens next?”
“I’ve got 12 issues laid out,” he says. “Now we’re just planning out how to release them all.” And he has his audience: “I got a message from a man in China who said he had been listening to Afsana while walking down the street in Beijing. I find that incredible. Afsana is for everyone.”
• Unseen issue one is available on unseencomic.com