FRANCISCO — Chad Allen was feeling helpless. Not
because he happened to be blind. He had a healthy handle
on that part of his life. It was the insanely dark news
cycle that was dragging him down. The sense that the
world was falling apart and he could do nothing about
anxiety before the 2016 presidential election propelled
him to do what he does best: tell stories. He created an
audio comic book titled “Unseen,” featuring a blind
heroine, an assassin from Afghanistan named Afsana. It
is believed to be one of the first audio comic books by
a blind author, made for a blind audience.
in a highly visual art form, Allen managed to create an
auditory experience that closely mimics the sensation of
reading a comic book. A whooshing sound occurs whenever
a panel changes; the intentionally stilted delivery of
lines, as well as narration that prompts mental images,
conjure a feeling of being inside a high-stakes comic
book world. Aside from a slick red-and-black graphic
image of Afsana created for the cover, “Unseen” has
no visual art whatsoever.
tied for first place in a competition for blind or
visually impaired comic book writers held by the
now-defunct Comics Empower store for the blind.
Allen’s audio comic book also was selected for the
current exhibition “Self, Made” at the Exploratorium
museum of science, art and human perception in San
character is written for a blind audience, but all of us
can identify with her because we can identify with the
experience of being underestimated,” says Melissa
Alexander, the director of public programs at the
Exploratorium. “His specific experience becomes more
among marginalized groups — people of color, women,
LGBTQ people and others — that they have been
underestimated has made “Unseen” a popular part of
the exhibit. It’s an exploration of human identity
that uses lenses of race, gender, disability and more to
help visitors explore their own biases and discover
their unique identities.
thrilled to have his work included in “Self, Made”
because it validates one of his main objectives in
don’t see art with your eyes. You don’t see anything
with your eyes. All your eyes do is filter light. You
see with your brain, and that’s what I’m trying to
teach to people more than anything,” Allen says,
sitting in a basement classroom at Hollywood’s Magic
Castle, where he has been a member magician for 20
years, wowing guests with tricks they mistakenly believe
one would need sight to perform.
created Afsana as a barrier between my helplessness and
what was really going on in the world, because she could
do something. She was bad ass. She was an assassin,”
quick to point out that Afsana does not have superpowers
like Marvel’s Daredevil. She has a skill. Her skill is
to slip in and out of places without being seen. She is
not seen because people with disabilities are often not
seen. They can feel invisible to society at large, Allen
other day, he was waiting for a lane to swim laps and a
number of newcomers took advantage of his blindness and
hopped into the lane before him. Finally another swimmer
told him her lane was free, that she had seen him
waiting patiently for far too long.
I was visible again,” Allen says, adding he could give
other examples all day long.
how it is with Afsana. The catchphrase for the comic is,
“Discounting her abilities is her enemies’ gravest
installment of Afsana’s journey, which is available
for streaming at unseencomic.com , finds her at the
American border with Mexico in a not-so-distant future,
when a dictatorial president is rounding up immigrants
and conducting scientific experiments on disabled people
with some very spooky results.
mission is to destroy the lab where evil Dr. Magnus
conducts these experiments, a task she completes with
the aid of a cane, an earpiece that delivers
instructions (including where to steer a stolen bus) and
a special black material that absorbs all light,
shrouding her in darkness.
all sounds marvelously Marvel, that’s because comic
books have long been an ideal medium for exploring
issues of identity and otherness says David Steinberger,
a fan of Allen’s work and co-founder and CEO of the
cloud-based digital comics platform ComiXology, which
features content from Marvel, DC and more.
Lee created a universe of real human beings, with
problems and flaws, who also had superpowers, usually
hidden,” Steinberger wrote in an email. “In the
Marvel universe, there’s a flawed hero for nearly
anyone. Scrawny nerds — like me when I discovered
comics — got to read about Peter Parker’s heroics as
Spider-Man and his bullying at school; people with anger
issues got the Hulk; Tony Stark is an alcoholic; and the
X-Men were part of an entirely oppressed group, the
mutants, that anyone persecuted for being themselves can
46, grew up loving comic books. He was born in Warwick,
R.I., and he describes a normal, if not idyllic, New
England childhood filled with bike rides, Catholic
school, Saturday morning cartoons and regular excursions
to the magical seaside amusement park Rocky Point.
not born blind. He was diagnosed with retinitis
pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that causes vision loss,
at the age of 15, around the time his parents were
divorcing. His world was thrown into turmoil in a way
his fragile teen psyche had trouble processing.
were what saved him — telling them and building them
via role-playing games with others. Making them as
fantastical and far-out and complicated as possible.
28, living in Denver, going to college part time and
working the magic counter at a costume shop called the
Wizard’s Chest, when his world went irrevocably dark.
He was frightened and depressed. He began to isolate
of people say life is short, but when you’re 28 years
old in a basement apartment by yourself day in and day
out, life is not short; life is long,” Allen says.
to learn how to exist in the world as a blind person.
His quest led him to the Colorado Center for the Blind
in Littleton where for the next six months he spent
eight hours a day, five days a week, training to live
without sight. He can’t speak of the life-changing,
life-affirming value of that training, or the
instructors who aided him, without choking up.
years later, Allen is sitting at his dining room table
in front of a small braille keyboard attached to an
iPhone that reads emails, books and writing back to him
at breakneck speed. It is hard to imagine a time when he
lacked confidence in the world.
rabid public curiosity about blindness, says his wife,
Melissa Eccles, and people are always asking the
darndest questions. When their 9-year-old son, Harrison,
was a baby, Allen would take him on walks in a Baby
Bjorn carrier around Runyon Canyon. People either
treated him like a superhero or a menace to society,
Eccles says with a bemused smile.
of cultural education around blindness is partly what
Afsana is meant to rectify, says Pamela Allen (no
relation), director of the Louisiana Center for the
so important for blind kids to have superheroines and
heroes who are blind, and for sighted kids to realize
that disability does not mean inability; it merely means
utilizing our other senses to accomplish our goals,”
Pamela Allen writes in an email. “ Afsana shatters
gender stereotypes as well. She affirms that it is not
the lack of sight that is the issue but the low
expectations that society has.”
the questions lobbed his way, Allen says one of the most
obvious and compelling is often asked by his son’s
friends: How do you see in your head? His reply is
beautiful in its simplicity.
to them, ‘Do you go to bed at night? When you sleep do
you dream? When you dream do you see places? Do you see
people that you know? Do you see your family and
answer in the affirmative, he asks, “Are your eyes
shake their heads.
that’s how I see you.”