I describe the Broodhollow comics for my friend Zack, which in this case means that I translate them from images to text, adding descriptions of the background, the characters' actions and body language and the way the comic is presented. (I take the term from described movies, which add descriptions of the action onscreen to the audio track.) I've been describing the strips since the very beginning, and I've also described the comic book Watchmen.
Spoilers for both Broodhollow and Watchmen follow.
For stories like Broodhollow and Watchmen, where small details often turn out to be important later on in the story, I believe that a blind or low vision reader should be able to access all of the relevant information a sighted reader gets. This means that I try to describe everything that's new or relevant, without repeating unnecessary information.
Because of the level of detail I include, a blind or low-vision reader may get more information from reading the descriptions than a sighted reader might get from a quick reading of the strip. For Watchmen particularly, the descriptions were often loaded with information and many of the details were things that a sighted reader would probably not get until a second or third reading. That's because of the way we treat comics as a fairly disposable medium and tend to read them by looking at the words and the action and getting a general sense of the panel before moving on to the next one. So my friend Zack picked up on a few central mysteries of Watchmen like Rorschach's identity before most sighted readers would have, since the clues are all there and in a couple of cases fairly obvious on a close reading.
So far my attention to detail hasn't helped us figure out the mysteries of Broodhollow, but it's allowed me to make several connections that I think the average sighted reader wouldn't notice immediately. In one scene, a chair makes an appearance in Zane's dream; when I saw it I knew that the chair was the same one as the one in his great-uncle's bedroom, and I added that to the description. But there's nothing memorable about the chair, and it hadn't been highlighted in the comic up to that point. Details about the furniture are just the sort of thing that most sighted readers don't tend to pick up on during their first reading.
I want someone reading the descriptions to have a similar experience to someone reading the strips, so I want to strike a balance between giving the reader information to make their own inferences and giving the reader an explanation. Part of the fun of reading stories is thinking "Oh, I get it," and I don't want to take that away, but if the odds are low that a reader would understand a connection without being able to see it, I might make it more explicit. For example, in Watchmen the bloodstained smiley face is a recurring motif which is sometimes very obvious and sometimes very subtle. So at times I will say outright that the motif is being referenced, and at times I'll let the reader come to that conclusion.
I add as much detail as I can while describing things in a logical order. When I start to describe a panel, I'll often try to consider in what order a sighted person would take in the panel. The focus of the panel is usually where the characters are and what they are doing and saying, then there's other considerations like the tone of the panel (is the atmosphere dark? light?), the expressions and body language of the people and the way they're relating to each other, a basic description of the background, a detailed account of anything that seems to need it, the colors and so on. I write the descriptions in the order of what seems most important to me. When there's a lot to see in one panel, as there was with the first panel of the final strip of book 2, it's more difficult to know what to describe first and how much detail to add before moving to the next point -- but in that case it's difficult for the sighted reader too, as we're overwhelmed with meaning and insights.
I try not to repeat things without a good reason; I tend to assume, and hope that the reader will assume, that something remains constant until I indicate that it's changed. If the first panel background is blue, all other panel backgrounds are assumed to be a similar shade of blue until one of them abruptly turns yellow. So when I do repeat things, it's usually because I think it has some significance. For example, in Broodhollow the antique shop's windows have a unique grid pattern which I often mention, because it helps give a sense of place, is often one of the main background elements and is sometimes referenced in unexpected places, such as some of Zane's dreams.
Making things consistent by using the same or similar words or phrases to describe design elements that make multiple appearances is also important to me, and I'll often go back to previous strips to copy the wording I've used before. My hope is that someone using a screenreader has the same emotional reaction to reading the phrase "horizontal gleam" as a sighted reader does when seeing it in the comic.
I try to convey the general feeling of the artwork when a straight description doesn't do the job. For example, in one panel we see Mercy, Zane's pet bat, upside down and drawn in a semi-realistic style. It is intended to look scary, but if you look closely at it, it's not actually strange or upsetting in any way - the fear produced in the reader comes from how strange things look upside down and the change in drawing style from simple and cartoony to semi-realistic, which tends to indicate something bad is happening but didn't in this particular panel. So if I just wrote "The bat is upside down" it doesn't convey that seeing this bat upside down freaks you out at first, and it doesn't convey that although this is a horror comic where we may reasonably expect to see supernatural things, this isn't one of them although it appears to be so at first. So I wrote "She is drawn and shaded in a way that is much more realistic than usual, and the first impression is that she looks monstrous." I go on to write why she looks scary to a sighted reader, but also why she isn't actually scary.
One thing I worry is that this focus on the details of a drawing will make scenes that should be scary feel too clinical. After all, it's a common horror principle that the more you know about something, the less scary it is. Still, I'd hate to leave out something that may be a clue or an important detail later on, so even when faced with a stitched-together skeleton or an alien that's leveled half of New York City, I stick with my usual methods and try to describe things thoroughly. In these cases I tend to run what I come up with by Zack, and if he's creeped out then I don't worry about it.
The use of color is also something I think about; I'm most likely to make a note of it if it seems relevant. When I noticed that Broodhollow's strips with white backgrounds tended to be more normal and the ones with black backgrounds tended to have something bad going on, I went back and added a line of text to each strip about the background color. (Then Book 2 went and turned the background pattern on its head -- despite a number of bad events, there were no black backgrounds until the last couple of strips.) I use color words even though I'm describing for Zack who has never seen colors, because the use of color forms a pattern. I also tend to specify whether a color or a strip's color scheme feels warm or cool, and what sort of feeling it produces.
I always describe the main characters' features and clothing, while supporting characters probably just get a line about their appearance. Lately I've tried to specify the character's skin color, because I tended to only make a note of it if they weren't white, and I didn't like that I was thoughtlessly accepting whiteness as the default. Once I've described a character, I generally don't do it again although I might make reference to some aspect of their appearance that's emphasized in subsequent panels, such as Angstrom's glasses or Iris' hat. If the appearance changes, then I'll describe it again. I personally tend to pay a lot of attention to clothes, so I like describing Iris' Peter Pan collar or Laurie's superhero outfit.
The fact that I'm not the work's creator sometimes gives me trouble. For example, there are some parts in my Broodhollow descriptions which are clumsy because I'm not quite sure if something has meaning. In one part, we see a corpse in a dream with withered skin, and there's what looks like a small circle tucked into its elbow. What I wrote at the time was "On his other elbow there seems to be a small dark circle, although again I can't tell exactly what it is or if it has significance." Book 2 has finished and it's never come back up, so I can conclude it was just a quirk of the drawing and not significant; I've since deleted it. But it could have been a pin (as we've seen a small circular pin in the story before), a nail hammered into his elbow, a tattoo or something like that. This sort of thing can't be helped, as I'm not the creator and I don't know what's going to be important, and so when I have doubts about something's importance or whether I'm understanding something correctly, I often indicate them in the text.
Also, I can't get everything. After Book 1 was done, Straub wrote that, although there were exceptions, whenever Zane was facing right he was generally doing something positive, and whenever he was facing left he was generally regressing in some way. It's a subtle thing that works visually, but sticking "He is facing right" or "He is facing left" in every panel sounds pretty awful. I may try to to work it in more naturally at some point, though.
I also have to translate subtle expressions and movements to words. Broodhollow's characters are drawn in a simple, cartoonish style, yet you know how they're feeling just from details like a raised eyebrow or a small frown. Choosing a word that describes a complex expression feels like catching a butterfly and pinning it to a card: it's difficult and in a way I'm doing violence to the work. It is, after all, only my interpretation of how the characters feel, and I can't promise I'm right. When I'm troubled by trying to decide what word is best to use, I step back and think "What emotional reaction is this producing in me right now?" It's easier when I can describe the physical characteristics of emotion without having to name them. (No prizes for guessing how Zane is feeling when he's producing about a cup of sweat in each panel.)
I try to be direct about what I'm describing; it's never really been an issue in PG-13 Broodhollow but in Watchmen, this meant that I described Doctor Manhattan's penis and made a note of the times where Laurie's cleavage or legs were emphasized. It's sometimes a little awkward for me, because I'm describing these things for my platonic male friend with whom I would otherwise never talk about penises or cleavage, but it's important to me to accurately represent what a sighted person sees. I think there's a stereotype of disabled people somehow needing to be sheltered or kept 'pure,' and I've seen the effects of this in closed captions, where hearing audiences get the dialogue uncensored but words are starred out or full lines omitted for listeners who are deaf or have hearing loss.
I try to keep names consistent. This is actually a bigger deal than you might think, because how you refer to people is a clue to how you feel about them. I started out the description calling the main character "Zane," probably because he's initially referred to as "Mr. Zane" by Angstrom and his first name is generally used less often. But every time things start looking bad for him, I have to go back and change a half dozen times I've called him Wadsworth instead, because I'm worried about him and feel close to him. If I was starting the description today, I might call him Wadsworth and not Zane. I don't feel so close to Angstrom, so I've never even considered calling him Klaus.
This became an issue for me in Watchmen: Do I call someone by their first name, their last name or the name they've chosen? Edward Blake was "the Comedian" in my description as often as he was "Blake," because he embraced that identity so thoroughly, and even when Rorschach was unmasked I never considered calling him by his birth name, I suppose out of respect for the character's perception of himself. Near the beginning of the story you see the past from the perspective of Dan Dreiberg, Jon Osterman and Adrian Veidt. At that point, as three former superheroes they're equals in the story, and we have a fairly intimate view of their thoughts. As the story goes on, we learn more about Dan and Jon and feel closer to them as characters, but we don't get another peek inside Adrian's mind until much later in the book, when we find out that he's the story's antagonist. Because I have read the book several times, I tended to write Dan Dreiberg as "Dan" and Jon Osterman as "Jon," but I don't think of Adrian Veidt as "Adrian," I think of him as "Veidt" -- I hardly feel like I'm on a first name basis with the guy. However, couldn't the discrepancy in how I refer to the three men be an early clue that one of them isn't like the others? So I ended up calling him Adrian throughout the book.
Another issue with naming is when the reader doesn't know a character's name. Angstrom's name wasn't introduced until well after the character himself was. For a sighted reader, having a character in a comic without a name is not a big deal -- there's only one glasses-wearing dude with a blue shirt in Broodhollow -- but having to repeat "Zane's psychologist" or "The man in the blue shirt" a dozen times in a description is tedious. Where the name isn't important, I will tend to introduce it when the character is introduced, and so Angstrom's name shows up in the first description. I've listened to described movies that do this and also see it in captions, and I think it's an acceptable sacrifice of the intended experience in return for a better understanding of who's doing what.
I had the same issue in Watchmen: the two detectives are the first characters to speak in the book, but they don't get named until the middle of the book. Their names didn't lead to any sort of big reveal or insight, so I went ahead and named them; I liked that solution better than "the blonde detective" and "the dark-haired detective." However, there are two other characters who we see over the course of the story who aren't named until the very end; in that case, the names and the time at which the names were revealed had a great deal of importance, and so those characters were referred to by epithets.
When the Broodhollow descriptions were first made available, some people thought that they might make good radio dramas, but I can't agree -- putting them to that purpose would require a lot of editing, because what I'm trying to do is replicate the experience of reading the comic when it's not possible for someone to do so themselves. So they often read as very dry, and I add things that a radio drama wouldn't, like descriptions of the speech bubbles or of the various cartoon shorthands used to express surprise or pain.
I try to add typographical elements and comic shorthand. After consulting with Zack, I decided to use asterisks around a word that's bolded to emphasize it. This feels clunky to me, compared to the visual impact of a bolded word, but it can't be helped. I also work around screenreader limitations: screenreaders won't specify if a phrase has quotation marks around it or note that a character is using extra punctuation for emphasis (like double question marks), so I explicitly add both things. I also note if there's comic shorthand, such as short lines around someone's head indicating surprise, dotted lines indicating the direction someone is looking or stars indicating pain. That's because Straub 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.
Broodhollow also plays with elements of comic layout: text is shown in different kinds of speech bubbles, panels have different sizes which reflect their importance or give a feeling of time passing differently, and in one scene I felt was particularly effective, the panel borders started to disappear. This was a sign of Zane's increasing discombobulation, then when they returned, it showed that he had regained his equilibrium. Again, I want to preserve these presentations and convey the feelings that they produce in the reader, because every panel is a choice that the artist made.
I don't rewrite or edit the descriptions very much - they take me about 15 minutes, Zack looks them over for typos or confusing parts, then they're done. I want to use plain, understandable language that doesn't take attention away from the story or make my presence as a writer more prominent. I tend to only describe what I can see: if it's very, very obvious that a character is speaking in a different tone of voice, such as in a whisper or in an angry way, I sometimes add that. However, I usually prefer to let the reader make the inference by, for example, noting that the text is larger or smaller.
I do these descriptions for my friend Zack. He's been blind since birth, and we got to know each other because we're both fans of the game King of Dragon Pass, which is fully accessible using iOS' VoiceOver function. Before my son came along, Zack and I used to watch described movies together. We don't live near each other, so I'd put the audio file through the speakers, turn up the volume and share it over Skype.
I learned about Broodhollow from a Metafilter thread about it ( http://www.metafilter.com/121552/A-little-postHalloween-Lovecraftian-horror ), and I started to follow it. It wasn't long before I wished Zack could read it too, because he's really into the Lovecraft stuff, much more than I am, and he has a dry, low-key sense of humor and an appreciation for good stories. I thought, why couldn't I use the same techniques used for movies to describe this strip? So I started writing up the descriptions for him. Unless the strip is particularly involved, they usually only take me about 15 minutes. I've also described Watchmen, which took me considerably more than 15 minutes per page.