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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Meet the ex-footballers launching a support network for victims of sexual abuse in the sport

The Offside Trust is set up after hundreds have come forward, and 55 football clubs have been linked to allegations of abuse.

In a sumptuous room inside a luxurious hotel in the centre of Manchester, the country’s media anxiously await the arrival of a man whose story has rocked English football to its very foundations.

Since Andy Woodward went public with allegations that he experienced sexual abuse as a young footballer in the 1980s, the nation’s favourite sport has been left in crisis and, in the process, forced to do some soul-searching.

Following Woodward’s story, a number of his peers have also come forward with tales of unimaginable suffering.

This week, some of those men have joined together to launch the Offside Trust, an independently-run body aiming to provide support to players and the families of those who have suffered sexual abuse in football and other sports.

According to Woodward and his colleagues, the Trust won’t just be a way to help those who have been abused while playing the sport they love, but also represents a direct response to institutions that, in their view, have failed to protect them.

“A number of people who have come forward have indicated that they don’t have trust in the establishment,” says Edward Smethurst from Prosperity Law LLP, a Manchester law firm in charge of administering the trust.

“We are not here to criticise any of the establishment bodies, but we do have to respect the sensibilities and the opinions of the victims.” 

Wearing a crisp blue suit, hair combed neatly into place, Woodward’s composed demeanour masks the tremendous emotional stress he has revealed to the world he had to endure for decades, in silence until now.

Hearing him retell his story time and again, it is evident that, although exhausting, this process of letting the world know the horrors he says he experienced as a boy is both cathartic and a way to help others.

“I’m totally overwhelmed, the emotions are just unreal,” he says. “I can’t believe how many [people] have come forward, but I just encourage more and more [people] to have that strength and have that belief to do it.”

Sitting beside Woodward is Steve Walters – a former football prodigy whose career was cut short due to a blood disorder – who says he fell prey to the same serial child molester as Woodard. The person in question can no longer be named for legal reasons.

Walters tells me how his story has affected every aspect of his life. “It has ruined marriages, the relationship with my children, flashbacks, lack of sleep, panic attacks,” he tells me.

Walters speaks of “injustices” done to him for the past 20 years by those in charge of the sport he once loved. But he also knows how he would like to start turning the page and move on with his life.

“An apology [from Crewe Football Club] would be a start,” he says. “For them to not even put out one small apology, it does hurt.”

Since Woodward’s allegations were first made public on 16 November, 18 police forces across the country are now investigating claims of historic sexual abuse in football.

Every player I speak to at the Offside Trust launch in Manchester describes this as an epidemic, and that, in modern Britain, some children are still at the mercy of paedophiles operating within the sport. 

“I do believe it’s happening,” says Jason Dunford, who also claims to have been abused at Crewe Alexandra. “I believe it’s happening on a lower scale than when we were children, but as a father of a young boy who is around the football industry at the moment, I still have worries.”

Woodward coming forward has had worldwide implications. Walters and Dunford tell me they have been contacted by players as far-flung as South America and Australia who say they have been through the same ordeal as young footballers. The men are adamant this is not a UK problem, but a football one – wherever the game is played.

Woodward is mentally drained. Prior to the interview, he repeatedly tells me how the whirlwind of the last few weeks has affected his health. But he knows that this is his chance, perhaps the only one he’ll get, to help those like him.

“The closure will be when I feel like I’m satisfied that I have done everything I can to help as many people out there as possible,” he says. “People with children in football need protecting.” 

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.