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 the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.