Apple under fire for "homophobic" comic censorship, but it's Comixology who's to blame

SAGA 12 is not for sale due to gay sex. Earlier issues, with explicit hetero sex, are still available.

Apple is under fire for blocking the sale of a comic book which features two "postage stamp-sized" images of gay sex, after previous issues of the comic, featuring larger issues of heterosexual orgies, were allowed through its censors.

The comic in question is Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples' SAGA, one of the New Statesman's best graphic novels of last autumn. Issue twelve of the series opens with one of the characters, Prince Robot IV, injured on a battlefield. On his TV-screen head (look, it's a thing in the series) images of gay porn are visible, as the damage takes its toll. You can take a look at the pages in question here and here, and while the small visible images are certainly explicit, they're far from erotic. They work in humorous juxtaposition to the chaos of the battleground, and underline the artificial nature of the character in question.

Vaughan, writing on fellow comics author Matt Fraction's tumblr, announced the ban, saying:

As has hopefully been clear from the first page of our first issue, SAGA is a series for the proverbial “mature reader.” Unfortunately, because of two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex, Apple is banning tomorrow’s SAGA #12 from being sold through any iOS apps. This is a drag, especially because our book has featured what I would consider much more graphic imagery in the past, but there you go. Fiona and I could always edit the images in question, but everything we put into the book is there to advance our story, not (just) to shock or titillate, so we’re not changing shit.

As a result of the images, Apple has banned SAGA #12 from being sold through any iOS app. That includes Comixology, fast becoming the monopolist in the digital comics space (as well as its own branded comics app, Comixology provides the back-end to Marvel and DC's apps). This is not the first time the company's over-zealous censorship has hit artistic works. It's refused to allow a comic version of Joyce's Ulysses, and famously rejected an app by a Pulitzer-prize-winning political cartoonist because it "ridiculed public figures".

But the censorship of SAGA #12 has a darker edge because of the content of previous issues which have been allowed through. In issue four of the series, a character visits "Sextillion", a sex-resort planet, where he ends up rescuing a child from prostitution. Needless to say, his initial wonder around the planet is far from safe-for-work, so I'll just link to the most explicit part, which features on-panel penetration and a champagne bottle where a champagne bottle shouldn't be.

It's hard not to conclude that the rejection is homophobic. Even if it doesn't come from explicitly homophobic guidelines on Apple's part – and the company is notoriously opaque about how its App Store approval process works, so we can't know that for certain – the outcome must be judged on its own merits. Gay sex has been treated as worse than straight sex, and unless Apple admits that its reviewers made a mistake (in either of the situations), that is a homophobic standard to impose.

If you're interested in reading SAGA digitally - and it's a fantastic series, so you should be – the best work around is to buy it from Comixology's website directly. That will then sync over to any account on an app linked with it, because Apple can only censor payments which have been made on an iOS device.

As digital markets become increasingly concentrated, the line between private companies exercising their right to not host content they disagree with and outright censorship is blurred. If this is the precedent set, we should be worried what happens if Apple's authority increases further.


There's more to the story than we thought. Comixology has broken its silence and released a statement revealing that it, not Apple, was responsible for blocking the publication of SAGA #12. The company's CEO writes:

In the last 24 hours there has been a lot of chatter about Apple banning Saga #12 from our Comics App on the Apple App Store due to depictions of gay sex. This is simply not true, and we’d like to clarify.

As a partner of Apple, we have an obligation to respect its policies for apps and the books offered in apps.  Based on our understanding of those policies, we believed that Saga #12 could not be made available in our app, and so we did not release it today.


We did not interpret the content in question as involving any particular sexual orientation, and frankly that would have been a completely irrelevant consideration under any circumstance.

Given this, it should be clear that Apple did not reject Saga #12.

After hearing from Apple this morning, we can say that our interpretation of its policies was mistaken. You’ll be glad to know that Saga #12 will be available on our App Store app soon.

We apologize to Saga creator Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples and Image Comics for any confusion this may have caused.

Comixology is trying to wash its hands of the "chatter", but as David Brothers writes, the company has played this appallingly:

1. Brian K Vaughan releases a statement that Apple has banned Saga #12, specifically citing “two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex.” Fiona Staples cosigns it. They stand behind their comic, which is the only sane choice.

2. These statements are later cosigned by Image Comics and ComiXology via retweets, tweets, and reblogs on Tumblr.

3. People urge others to boycott Apple and to buy Saga from ComiXology or Image Comics directly. ComiXology implicitly supports these actions by spreading word that the comic will be on the website, not the app.

4. Twitter goes ham, understandably, because it looks like Apple is back rejecting gay content for vague or unstated reasons.

5. Websites follow suit, and a widespread discussion about Apple’s past practices follow.

6. This morning, 24 hours later, ComiXology CEO David Steinberger releases a statement that basically says “oh it was us ha ha sorry!”

Apple does not remain entirely blameless. The company's "we'll know it when we see it" approach to explicit content is presumably what led to comixology deciding to not submit the issue in the first place, and the whole experience makes clear the need for strong, reliable guidelines as to what will and won't be allowed through the censors. It also shows the benefit of having a press office which actually talks to the press: a simple "it wasn't us" would have killed the story much earlier.

But Comixology played it particularly badly. It perpetuated, implicitly and explicitly, an entirely false narrative for 24 hours, and will undoubtedly have profited from it (sales on the company's website don't give Apple a 30% cut, and there was a mass campaign to buy the issue from there). It clammed up just like Apple, but without the excuse of being the biggest company in the world dealing with an issue that was only on the fringe of its core business. And, whether it did it because it was projecting concerns Apple didn't have or not, it still must face the same charges of enabling a homophobic outcome.

Again: if censorship is done on an ad-hoc basis, there is always the risk that unconscious biases will affect the outcome. It's not immediately clear whether on-panel ejaculation is worse or better than on-panel penetration; but it is immediately clear that the one presented in a homosexual context is the one that didn't make it through. Simply saying "we did not interpret the content in question as involving any particular sexual orientation" is not enough to explain the differing treatments, and runs the risk of a chilling effect for creators in the future.


Photograph: Image Comics/Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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On World Aids Day, let’s end the stigma around HIV for good

Advances in treatment mean that being HIV positive is no longer a death sentence, but attitudes still lag behind.

Stigma is a dangerous human construct, principally based on unfounded prejudices. None more so than the stigma surrounding HIV. The condition has been a recognised health issue in the UK for more than 30 years, and the advances in treatment have been staggering. Unfortunately attitudes seem to have remained in the 1980s.

A recent Terrence Higgins Trust poll asked people who are living with HIV for words that they have heard to describe their health condition. “AIDS”, “riddled”, “dirty”, “disgusting”, “promiscuous”, “dirty”, “deserved”, “unclean”, “diseased” – were the most cited.

Imagine turning to someone, who lets say has a long term health condition like high blood pressure, and branding them “lazy”, “fat”, “deserving”. Or someone who has just been diagnosed with diabetes being dismissed as “greed”. Of course, I’m not saying that these health conditions are without their own stigma. Rather I doubt that Charlie Sheen would have been subjected to such a vitriolic witch hunt, had it transpired he had either of those.

Once the nausea of that coverage subsided, it was telling to note the absent voices from most of the media debate around HIV and stigma. The thing that struck most was the total lack of understanding of the condition, the treatment, and the lack of representation of those who are living with HIV.

There was little written about the stigma women living with HIV face. That which those within the black African community, or the trans community, or the over 50s – the first generation of people living into old age with HIV – are subjected to.

Such is the stigma and the shame of HIV in black African communities that it can divide families. HIV positive people can be asked to leave home, resulting in separation from their family and isolation from their community. We know of a woman from the black African community who felt so stigmatised for not breastfeeding her baby – due to her HIV treatment – that she stopped her drug regime. She died unnecessarily of an Aids-related illness. After her death, her medication was found in the attic.

While living with HIV can be stressful for all ages, ageing with HIV can introduce challenges to mental health and quality of life. When compared to their peers, older people living with HIV are disadvantaged in a wide range of ways – from poorer health, to social care and financial security. We’ve found that older people fear that social care services will be prejudiced about their HIV diagnosis. One man shared that he feared hugely going into a home – the attitudes towards HIV that he might find, and ignorance from the staff. This fear is rooted in many people’s historic and continued experience of HIV-related discrimination.  

Often considered to be a lower risk group than gay men, women are sometimes forgotten in HIV discourse and yet women are stigmatised as much as any other with HIV. Women living with the condition face a unique stigma. Some are mothers and have been accused of being “irresponsible” and “putting children at risk”.

For the record, taking antiretroviral medication (ART) lowers the amount of virus in your blood to “undetectable” levels. When the level of HIV in your blood is so low that it can’t be picked-up in tests it is undetectable. This means there is an extremely low risk of passing on HIV.

Because of ART, undetectable women have a very low risk of passing on HIV to their babies. New-borns are given their own short course of ART to further reduce their risk of developing HIV, and undergo a series of tests during the first 18 months of life.

Many transgender people are on a difficult gender journey, which includes lots of access to GPs for onward referrals to specialists, and still they worry about HIV stigma. Some deny their HIV status in settings where possible, as they look at it as a barrier to achieving their goal. Gender specialist clinics are embedded in mental health departments, and some positive trans people worry that the stigma of diagnosis might be seen as an indicator of promiscuity, which they feel might work against their cases.

And what of stigma in the gay community? The poll mentioned earlier found that of 410 gay men living with HIV, 77 per cent experience stigma – with more than two thirds experiencing this most from within the gay community.

Those gay men who take the plunge and live openly with their status are often heckled, and sent abuse on dating apps like Grindr, even receiving messages that they shouldn’t be using it because “they’ll infect others”. It’s all too easy in the digital age for stigma to persist, and ignorance to remain faceless.

Stigma is best countered with fact. But there’s a clear lack of education amongst many – both positive and negative. Growing up with sex and relationship education lessons that only teach the reproduction cycle is not enough. Young people should be given clear and detailed information about the risks of HIV, but also how living with HIV in the UK has changed, and it is now an entirely manageable health condition.

Officially, stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. Let’s turn that around today, and use the red ribbon to stop stigma. Let’s use it a mark of solidarity, compassion and understanding.

Let’s start a conversation about how we speak and write about HIV. Let’s stand together, today of all days against HIV stigma. Start now – join the solidarity on social media by taking a selfie with your red ribbon and #StopStigma.