The matter of “Who censored Saga #12?” has been termed a fiasco by some, and that’s probably the right word. While I certainly didn’t foresee the shocking swerve that saw comiXology revealed as the actual entity that thought those two tiny BJ/bukakke panels weren’t Apple-friendly, in private conversations yesterday, I had begun to suspect that everything didn’t add up. WHY had Apple ejected SAGA #12 when so much worse had been seen in previous issues? Was it new guidelines? A new inspector? Was someone having a bad day?
While we will never know—and probably wouldn’t want to know—what went on behind closed doors, we can make some educated guesses. Was Apple aware they had been tarred with the wrong brush? A couple of tweets from the Macworld account (which is a magazine about Macs, not an official Mac account) suggest that Apple did know and wanted the record set straight:
Update: Apple has confirmed to Macworld it did not block Saga #12 on Comixology. We’ll post an update shortly.
— Macworld (@Macworld) April 10, 2013
The Saga, er, saga is at an end. Comixology takes responsibility for blocking explicit comic in its iOS app. macw.us/YcKYUy
— Macworld (@Macworld) April 10, 2013
Soon after ComiXology and BKV’s official statements were released Image Comics also had an official statement:
We’re pleased to update everyone that SAGA #12, written by Brian K. Vaughan and art by Fiona Staples, is now available in the Image Comics iOS application and available for purchase and your reading enjoyment.
Additionally, SEX #1, the hit new comic from writer Joe Casey and art by Piotr Kowalski, which was released in March and previously unavailable to iOS users, is also now available for you purchase and enjoy in the privacy of your home, or anywhere your iPad takes you.
And as if that wasn’t enough, one of our favorite mini-series from back in 2007, XXXOMBIES, written by Rick Remender with art by Kieron Dwyer and covers by Tony Moore, is also now available for purchase and your sick, sick reading enjoyment.
All three series as well hundreds of others can be purchased in the Image Comics digital comics web store or in the Image Comics iOS application.
The plot thickens. Did Apple ever reject SEX #1 and XXXOMBIES? No one we contacted would comment on the matter, but you can draw your own conclusions here.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, a few shops had vowed to stop selling SAGA #12. Our own frequent commenter Brian Jacoby of Secret Headquarters in FL tweeted:
@fionastaples UGH. I can’t sell Saga #12 in my store because of the explicit sex on page 1. AND IT’S MY #1 BOOK. This could land me in jail.
— Secret Headquarters (@SHQtallahassee) April 9, 2013
which led to a long Twitter argument about why he had been okay with selling the book up until now and ended with
I am not discussing this issue on Twitter any more.
— Secret Headquarters (@SHQtallahassee) April 10, 2013
In answer to this, the CBLDF had a very very important post on why carrying Saga #12 wouldn’t get you thrown into jail:
That said, it’s important to note that while the images are sexually explicit, they and the issue that contains them are protected by the First Amendment. Retailers have a right to sell Saga #12, readers have a right to possess it, and the creators and publisher had the right to create it. For Saga #12 to be unprotected by the First Amendment, it would need to be found legally obscene — an outcome that is highly unlikely.
Meanwhile, after the big reveal, artist Fiona Staples was a bit nonplussed:
@hermanos You nailed it. Comixology never stopped us from blaming Apple until this morning’s statement.
— Fiona Staples (@fionastaples) April 10, 2013
@hermanos I heard second-hand through Image, but was told “Apple won’t approve it.” Now we look like idiots looking for controversy, haaa…
— Fiona Staples (@fionastaples) April 10, 2013
The tweet is in response to David Brothers’ quick take on the matter which raised most of the questions you’re all probably thinking right now:
5. The criticisms that were previously aimed at Apple should now be turned toward ComiXology — who on their staff is in charge of content approvals? What are they using as a guide? Do they have the best interests of the comics industry at heart? If no, should they?
Beneath the surface of the Saga fiasco lies the more important questions for the digital comics scene going forward: who are the gatekeepers, and what do they care about? In my experience in digital media, guidelines with respect to sexual content are extremely strict not so much because of morality but because of liability. Retailers, television networks, websites and application developers care less about sex or anything having to do with human anatomy (except for violence, of course) than they do about somebody’s parents flipping out and suing them, so consequently anything “flagged” on sites like Facebook or apps like Instagram or content websites or products in digital marketplaces like Apple’s App Store is zapped just as a matter of course — often without even inspecting the offending material to make sure it’s in violation of anything! C.Y.A. is the order of the day.
But the Saga #12 situation complicates that gatekeeper question in a profound way, because it’s confirmed that ComiXology has changed its position from that of a pure retailer to a kind of content curator. To wit, we can infer that someone at ComiXology judged that graphic heterosexual intercourse in an earlier issue of Saga would meet with Apple’s approval, but that graphic oral sex between men would not. There are many possible implications built into that decision, but the ultimate result was that ComiXology was wrong and the company’s second-guessing of Apple’s admittedly oblique guidelines tipped the first domino in this embarrassing and painful story.
In the end, as far as we know, the winners here are BKV and Fiona Staples—SAGA #12 is surely going to sell a gazillion more copies that it would have before the controversy. The big loser is comiXology, and it gives me no joy to say that, obviously. Just a few nights ago, I co-hosted a party thrown by comiXology as a MoCCA wrap-up, and I told several people that the reason I felt comfortable teaming up with comiXology—despite the suspicious way they are viewed by some—is that everyone I know there is an upfront, honorable person. In the past I’ve seen co-owner David Steinberger deal quickly and directly with controversies, and they’ve been as transparent as possible most of the time. Does L’Affaire Saga change my opinion of the company? Not entirely–it’s probably a result of growing very big and very fast and perhaps not really having a corporate philosophy set up to handle these kinds of things.
It’s just not all black and white. Mark Waid jumped in with a timeline and a defense of comiXology:
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 issue than homosexuality.
The SAGA #12 Fiasco is going to get a lot of people talking about content and gatekeepers and who should carry what. I’ll leave you with a few bullet points of my own:
• Sure, comiXology is a near monopoly in the digital space—like Diamond in the physical. And like Diamond, it is mostly a benign monopoly. While this was not a shining hour for them, if they learn from their mistakes and move forward, good will come of all of it.
• It is still better to buy from the webstore than through Apple apps, because creators and publishers get a bigger piece of the digital pie.
• Something that comiXology and Apple and everyone else need to understand: kids today don’t care about ownership, they care about access. They grew up in a world where everything is available free all the time, legally or not. While there are legit content issues for any distributor, not carrying things is ultimately going to threw readers back into the arms of bit torrent, or whatever the bit torrent of the moment is. This is a reality that everyone has to face.