Hey, let’s talk about someone else’s digital comic. You can download it on your iPad. No, wait, you can’t. Wait, wait, this just in… yes. Yes, you can.
Like most comics professionals yesterday, I was blowing off all my deadlines to follow the internet-consuming drama surrounding SAGA #12, a creator-owned series published by Image that’s been one of the few true “indy” breakout hits of the past few years. (Deservedly so.) Comixology, the medium’s primary digital distributor, announced Tuesday that even though the previous eleven issues had been available through their iOS app for iPhones and iPads, the twelfth Chapter would not be. Customers would be able to purchase and download it directly through the Comixology site, but not through Apple devices.
Comixology called the publisher, Image, to advise them of this… and it’s at this point that the entire chain of communication crashed and burned spectacularly. SAGA is a brilliantly written and drawn science-fiction story that is not shy about being sexually graphic. Previous issues have shown orgies, nudity, acts that only Virginian legislators still call “sodomy,” and a fight with a giant whose readily apparent testicles are the size of two Sherman tanks. And despite the fact that Apple is somewhat prudish (says I, the liberal) in its Terms of Service about what iOS Apps can and can’t publish, terms that Comixology must adhere to, all previous issues of SAGA have been approved. But not this one. The content — two postage-sized images on the first couple of pages — was deemed too sexually explicit.
Image was pissed. Writer Brian Vaughan was pissed. It seemed to them to be a totally arbitrary ruling given the standards they’d already set… and then the crashing/burning went full-bore when, having no further information to go on other than this , Brian concluded that the difference this time was that this was a scene of male homosexuality… and, as a longtime defender of LGBT rights, he went nuclear and issued an angry statement saying as much.
Jeezum Crow, the ensuing storm. Over the next few hours, Twitter and the media exploded with stories and headlines all using the words “Apple” and “homophobia” and “gay sex” and “censorship” in various hyperventilated combinations. As a faithful SAGA reader, that got my attention. I found the offending images on the net and got confused myself because I saw the second one first. Several erect penises geysering into the open mouth of a… woman? A man? Impossible to tell. But if I’m to be perfectly honest, I’ll admit that the first thought I had was a startled, “wow, bukkake, that’s new,” not “oh, there’s the gay sex.” It wasn’t until I doubled back to the first image, of a man giving a blow job, that I understood how the phrase “gay sex” entered the controversy.
Following my urge to continue ignoring my deadlines, I re-read the Terms of Service that I’d signed between Thrillbent and Comixology, paying particular attention to the age-rating guidelines. Hey, look. There, under the qualifiers defining what material cannot be published through apps but only through the web, is this one: “Explicit pornographic depiction of sexual activity or genitalia.” Okay, call me an old biddy, but I could make a reasonable case that an illustration of gang-bang bukkake could be interpreted as “explicitly pornographic.” And it occurred to me that maybe this was more the Chapter than homosexuality.
Now to entertain you with a by-no-means-comprehensive list of all the things tomorrow’s internet is going to ignore about what I’m saying:
- I wasn’t offended by the content and think it’s perfectly fine for appropriate ages.
- Given what’s been previously approved in SAGA, I can easily see why the creators wouldn’t think this content was a problem.
- Whoever’s in charge of writing up Comixology’s own guidelines, God bless them, might ought to rewrite that one clause for clarity; my educated guess is that the “or” is intended to give the terms “sexual activity” and “genitalia” equal weight (“Explicit pornographic depiction of… genitalia”), not to suggest that genitalia in any context is web-only material. Key words are “explicit pornographic depiction of.” A lot of people have obviously misinterpreted the clause.
- Yeah, flagging this one instance could be seen as “arbitrary”; personally and objectively, and while I can see how this specific multiple-exploding-penises imagery could be ruled “explicitly pornographic” in ways that some previous imagery wasn’t, that’s just me. Your mileage almost certainly varies, and that’s cool. That’s what makes horse races. That’s what gives society the flavor and friction it requires to grow (he said, teetering on the verge of explicit pornography himself).
- I am not saying any of the above or below to defend or impugn Apple, Comixology, Brian Vaughan, Image, my Aunt Polly, your Cinemax subscription, or anyone or anything else in the known universe. I’m simply, as Comics’ Longtime Leading Authority On Mouthing Off Without Knowing All The Facts, fulfilling my karmic obligations to publicly separate information from hearsay when I am so able.
I made some more phone calls, I talked to various parties involved, and in one of those rare moments, what they said actually bore out my intuition. Neither Apple nor Comixology “banned” material for depictions of “gay sex,” though God knows that certainly makes a better headline. In reality, Comixology flagged the content as potentially problematic given both Apple’s and their own internal Terms of Service; a decision was made by Comixology to not attempt an end-run around Apple’s (and like it or not, making that decision is their right); Brian misunderstood the why of it and (quite logically) concluded that “gay” was the problem, not “explicit”; he vented; the media jumped on that angle; and Apple was left to ask Comixology why on Earth they were suddenly being besieged by angry customers regarding something they’d not even seen, much less censored. Comixology has since issued a statement clarifying that the decision to hold that Chapter from Apple was theirs, not Apple’s. (Again, you don’t have to like that decision, but they do have a right to conduct business as they see fit.)
Continuing the above list of statements that will be ignored in a rush to make me out to be a corporate stooge and/or a fussy prude:
- Since I wasn’t there and I’m getting conflicting reports, I don’t know for certain if Comixology flat-out told Brian this was Apple’s ruling or if Brian simply assumed or misheard that it was. My strong suspicion is that words to the effect of “this will be a problem for us with Apple” were either poorly phrased or misunderstood as “Apple says so.” Knowing all the parties involved, I find it infinitely more plausible that, miscommunications aside, everything said to everyone was said with the best of intentions, not out of deliberate attempt to shift responsibility, and certainly not with any consideration whatsoever as to whether the sex shown was gay, straight, robotic or between two pieces of lawn furniture. I could be wrong. I have misjudged people before. But that is my personal assessment.
- Brian had every right to be angry believing what he believed. I have known Brian for 15 years and consider him a dear friend. Brian, like me, does not excel at multitasking. And, right this second, Brian is in North Carolina filming and showrunning a major TV miniseries (UNDER THE DOME) and is thus doing that which he is least comfortable doing: spinning twenty-seven plates at once. The last time I spoke to Brian, about a month ago as he prepped for shooting, he already sounded like a jack-in-the-box with one note left to go, so I have zero problem picturing him yesterday simultaneously wrangling actors, doing on-set rewrites, choosing wardrobe, taking network notes…and right between some thespian begging to know his “motivation” and a lighting technician asking him to spell “fresnel,” Vaughan gets a phone call about SAGA #12 that buzzsaws into his last nerve. It is very easy for me, in the quiet of my office, to conclude that this isn’t a gay censorship issue; it is perfectly understandable that a man 3000 miles from home and making six expensive decisions a minute while a P.A. holds a cellphone to his ear would conclude otherwise.
In all matters creative, never attribute to malice what can be explained by bureaucracy. I really, genuinely do applaud anyone who calls out racist or bigoted behavior and shines a light on it, but that comes with a responsibility to know all the facts before making charged allegations. Some good did come out of all the misguided Nerd Rage in that it opened up hundreds of discussions about the role of censorship vs. the present and future of digital comics, so there’s that. Also, I bet SAGA #12 sold a bajillion copies thanks to the controversy (unmanufactured; again, knowing Vaughan as well as I do, I can promise you his honest response to any contrary allegation would be, “I wish I were that smart”). And Apple’s since told Comixology, “Sure, go ahead, put it up for sale!”, so that’s a win. Just remember, though… sometimes, bukkake is just bukkake.