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.

Update

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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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.