Who Hears The Watchmen? Canker Canison on transcribing the classic graphic novel

I work in a recording studio for the blind, where we transcribe the printed page into audio books. With the recent release of the film Watchmen, I’ve been reminiscing about one of my most difficult assignments…

That’s right; I had to figure out how we were going to record Watchmen —a graphic novel (which is difficult enough), but also one that broke conventional panel use, that had recurring graphical elements not directly related to the action at hand, and had characters that went by more than one name.

How in the world was I going to do this?

The first step was to re-read the novel. If I had just dived in to transcription I would have discovered halfway through that Rorschach was said to speak in a creepy, monotone voice. Without the advance reading, I would not have been using the right voice. As well, certain items like a specific brand of perfume kept appearing so mention needed to be made when it did.

Opening Announcement:

As part of the opening announcement, a description of the artist’s style and technique was made, including:

General art style
That the book is in colour
The absence of sound effects
The absence of thought balloons or other elements common to the comic book or graphic novel format
The heavy reliance on text boxes
The fact that the illustrative style was based on film

It was also necessary to give a brief description of the fonts used, as different fonts were used for different speakers. I wasn’t too technical with this; I just gave broad descriptions of the fonts—such as saying it is thick and bold, or thin and flowing. The fonts used were chosen to reflect some facet of the individuals using them.

I also included a cast list as there are a large number of characters.

It is not uncommon in graphic novels and comic books for a character to have more than one name (especially in stories concerning superheroes). For consistency’s sake I always referred to a character by the same name throughout the recording. I noted in the opening announcements that most of the characters would be referred to by their real last name, though two characters who had lost touch with their humanity were referred to by their superhero names (Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan).

Panels and Pages:

This aspect may be too technical to be of interest to anyone, but I am including it for completeness sake.

At the first panel on a page I announced “First panel” and then described the broad action and pointed out any important graphic items (such as a poster or item sticking out of a pocket). Each character’s speech was read as from a script, with the character’s name announced before their speech. When the panel is finished, I announced “Next panel” and began describing the broad action in the next panel.

I thought it would be beneficial to the reader to indicate when the scene changes. In these cases I said “Next panel, new scene,” and then briefly described the new setting.

When moving from one page to the next (if page numbers are not being announced) I said “Next page.” With Watchmen the print pages were not announced as it was a collection of comic book issues and each issue started over again with page one.

Describing the Graphics (including speech and thoughts):

Usually when transcribing print for the blind we differentiate between the actual text and any graphics on the page. When we encounter a graphic we say “Producer’s Note”, describe the graphic, and then announce “Text”, to alert the listener that we are now returning to the written word. Due to the highly graphic nature of the graphic novel it is impossible to preface each description of graphic elements with “Producer’s Note” and end with “Text.” This would completely bog down the recording, making it unintelligible.

Instead, after announcing a new panel, I described the setting, read any text appearing in newspapers, posters or other print medium, described any actions taking place and so forth. The level of detail required needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis. With Watchmen only broad action needed to be described.

Facial expressions were also described, and were incorporated into the characters’ speech. For instance, if Adrian looked upset, I would have read his dialogue as follows:

“Adrian, obviously upset, says…”

Sometimes a character’s text balloon would appear in a panel in which they themselves do not appear. In this I would normally have read:

“Adrian, from out of panel, says…”

However, with Watchmen, the illustrative style was purposely based on film, so instead I said”

“Adrian, off screen, says…”

For textboxes—such as Rorschach’s journal—I prefaced them by saying what the text was. In the case of the journal I said “Journal text” before reading it.

There was no need note the end of text from a textbox, since the style of the next speech or text was also announced, alerting the listener to the switch in focus.


As you can see, this was no small undertaking. It required a lot of work, but in the end I think I came up with a style that gave the listener a good read, while still supplying them with all the minutiae that help make The Watchmen such an excellent story.

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