SAN FRANCISCO — During his six months at the Colorado Center for the Blind, Chad Allen learned braille. He went skiing and white-water rafting. Most importantly, he learned to get around by himself. At the end of his stay, Allen, like all the residents, had to do two things: go to five cities on public transportation in one day, and find his way back to the center after being dropped off somewhere. He was only allowed to ask one question. Allen said both these things would have seemed impossible to him when he started the program, but by the end, he breezed right through.
To get back to the center, Allen had listened carefully to the direction that the van that had dropped him off took, which also helped him to determine where a major road was.
“I found the bus stop, waited, and when the bus stopped, I asked the driver, ‘Does this bus go to light rail?’ and that was my one question,” Allen said. “He said yes, so I got on, and went to the light rail and took it back to the center. That was it.”
Allen has given that self-confidence and the skills to get around to the main character in Unseen, Afsana, a blind assassin from Afghanistan. The audio comic — a comic experienced only with sound — starts off on the militarized southern border in a chaotic and totalitarian United States. The people Afsana fights often underestimate her because of her disability — and that’s a big mistake. In this first installment, she has two missions: to kill a soldier who is a serial rapist in the camps of immigrants, and then to disable a lab where the administration carries out experiments on disabled people without their consent. Taken prisoner by the soldiers, Afsana escapes by picking the locks on her handcuffs. She reads the braille in the elevator to get where she needs to go, and then uses her cane to find generators in the lab to make them overheat and explode.
Allen did not want Afsana to have superpowers. He felt that would be cheating.
“Making her blind intimately connects to my achievements as a person who learned to read braille at 28 years old and learned to travel independently and to do things like take my toddler to a playground in Los Angeles,” he said. “I wanted to give her a profession that people would think is so far out of left field they’d find it ridiculous or fascinating. By making her an assassin, people think, ‘How does a blind person do that?’”
Allen is a magician who performs at the Magic Castle nightclub in Los Angeles. Magic influenced Unseen, Allen says, because magic influences everything he does.
“When you start to perceive the world as a magician, your perception changes,” he said. “You realize we don’t see with our eyes, we see with our brains. Eyes just perceive light. The meaning is all in the brain.”
Unseen is Allen’s first comic project. He says it has been his way to respond to the ongoing chaos in the world — he came up with the idea after the 2015 bombings at nightclubs in Paris. “In my 20s, I used to go to shows and see live music — that was my jam,“ he said. “It so easily could have been me, or someday it could be my son.”
He wanted to react in some way — to create a character and a story. As a kid, Allen (who was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa at 15 years old) loved comics, so that’s how he wanted to respond.
“When I was growing up in the ’80s, comics were about the other, the odd, the unusual, the freaks, the outcasts,” he said. “When I was reading comics, I felt like I belonged. I also played Dungeons and Dragons and other role playing games with character development and story telling, so doing a comic made the most sense.”
Creating the disciplined and skilled Afsana gave him a sort of respite from the current political chaos.
“It was like a kind of shield from the outside world,” he said. “We all don’t know what to do sometimes, and I feel that too and not because I’m blind.”
Allen considered other ways of creating a comic for blind people — maybe in braille with tactile pictures — but he settled on the audio comic, a genre he says he came up with. The narrative describes the action and the setting in detail. A whooshing sound signals the panel is changing, and the dialogue is typical of action comics with the villains saying things like, “I don’t care who you are — you’ll never get away with this!” When Afsana is offered native born status if she continues working against the president, she says, “Native born status is appreciated, but I was promised money as well, General Harris.”
Unseen has been one of the most popular works in the exhibit Self, Made at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, says Jessica Strick, an exhibit developer at the museum. Strick felt strongly there should be some representation of disability in an exhibition that broadly explores identity (in one section of the exhibit, visitors are invited to digitally combine different elements of clothing and hair, and are then asked to consider whether the result seems masculine, feminine, both, or neither). Strick says Allen’s work fit perfectly with what they wanted.
“I like that the character is a really strong character and tough — she’s not someone you’re worried about at all, and it doesn’t romanticize her blindness,” she said.
Allen plans to go into more of Afsana’s backstory in future episodes, and he has already sketched out 12 more episodes of Unseen. He is exploring with collaborators how to go forward. People tell him it reminds them of old radio series, like The Shadow, but Allen says it has a specific purpose.
“There may be a familiarity to it, but the intention is completely different,” he said. “I’m happy that sighted people can enjoy it, but it’s for blind people.”
You can listen to Unseen here.
Self, Made continues at Exploratorium (Pier 15, the Embarcadero, San Francisco) through September 2.