Comics seem like they would be easy to adapt for visually impaired readers. Just raise up the comic lines, like braille, and you can "feel" the story, right? Think about it for a few moments, though, and it all falls apart: if you'd never seen a cloud, or a sunset, or a bird, or a dog before, would you be able to tell a drawing of one by tracing it with your fingertips.
Multidisciplinary comics artist Ilan Manouach's project Shapereader aims to give the visually impaired their own comics—not by adapting Batman into braille, but by creating a tactile graphical medium of shapes and glyphs which can be combined to tell a story.
According to Manouach, he was inspired to create Shapereader after a solitary retreat in Lapland, the extreme Nordic region known for Santa Claus and reindeer. There, he says, "my whole visual landscape consisted of layers of dense snow imprinted by different animal traces, leftovers of a frenetic night activity. I wanted to produce a sensual work, that could bypass verbovocovisual stimuli and address directly the plexus of deep linguistic structures in the brain, solely by the universal use of touch."
Inspired by this experience, the first Shapereader story is called Arctic Circle, a 57-page, original graphic novel which tells the story of two climatologists digging in the North Pole. Manouach describes the plot like this: "In the midst of an imbroglio of conflicting interests from traders, human rights activists and impoverished Inuit dwellers, the two protagonists are pursuing research for an ice column that contains records of climate changes of past ages. They hope to decipher those cryptic patterns, pretty much the same way the readers of Arctic Circle engage with the work."
Reading with Shapereader doesn't require a knowledge of braille, but it helps. Each character, object, or concept in the story is represented by a separate tactile glyph, called a "tactigram," which is meant to evoke the feeling of what it represents. A reader knows what each tactigram represents thanks to a braille index, which translates them from feelings into characters and concepts.
In all, there are over 200 story-specific tractigrams assigned to Arctic Circle, laser-engraved across six wooden pages. The tactigrams are grouped on a given frame so that the nouns are surrounded by the verbs and adjectives that influence them. For example, an iceberg is a craggy polygon of interconnected ridges, representing its crystalline nature. Anxiety is a block of sharply oscillating lines, while a hot air balloon comes in a diagonal grid that resembles hot air rising. Spoken text is represented by standard Braille. Ultimately, each tactigram is designed from scratch to be as simple, distinguishable, and easy to memorize as possible.
Why create such a new way to tell a story for the visually impaired to begin with? Isn't braille a simpler, better way to communicate the plot? Not necessarily, says Manouach, who points out that Braille isn't actually a universal language in the same way comics are: an American trying to read a French person's Braille reader would think he was reading gibberish, while a Japanese person trying to read a French comic would at least be able to follow the basics of the narrative, as long as the tactigrams were identified for him verbally beforehand. Other projects, like this tactile comic created by a design student in 2013, have attempted to solve the same problem.
But the Shapereader was also designed to acknowledge what Manouach calls the "sensuous pleasure of cognizance, and the particular gratification that derives from the awareness of subtleties and nuance." In other words, the alienness of the Shapereader—which is just as much of a puzzle as it is a medium for storytelling—is meant to give pleasure, in and of itself, as a reader gradually learns to decode it.
Arctic Circle is just the first story planned for Shapereader. Over the course of the next year, Manouach says that there will be multiple exhibitions, workshops, and conferences related to building a community of storytelling around his invention. If you want to check it out for yourself, Arctic Circle will be on display at Seattle's Washington University as part of an exhibition starting in September.