Apple Falls into an Old Trap. Censors Comics.

| April 9, 2013



Well, I didn’t think we’d be printing a retraction so soon in our careers, but here it is. Today it was revealed that Brian K. Vaughan statement that Apple was censoring Saga was false. It was in fact Comixology that was misinterpreting the rules given to them by Apple that caused Comixology themselves to choose not to release the book. Cooler heads than mine prevailed, including the seasoned writer Josh Flanagan over at iFanboy whose article today explains how this happened and his take on the response by the inflammatory internet–that includes me.

I’m sorry to have added to the anger and confusion yesterday.

What follows is the article as originally posted. While the circumstances have clearly changed, the history is certainly still true.

So as not to be a hypocrite: Warning! Mature Content!Saga12Cover

Earlier today Brian K. Vaughan posted a press release stating that the next issue of their book Saga was not going to be available for purchase through any iOS apps. Apple chose not to allow retailers like Comixology to sell the issue because of the adult content featured within. As digital distribution of comics is still suffering from birthing pains, this battle against censorship was inevitable, though while I expected it to be Apple against somebody I wouldn’t have dreamed it would have been against Saga or Brian K. Vaughan.

Apple is no longer a medium, they are a retailer but without the benefit of the sixty-plus years of retail experience that most comic shops either have or have inherited. This means that before I get angry—hard as that is to quell—I need to remember that they are approaching this issue from a place of ignorance, having not survived perhaps the worse occurrence of government induced censorship that the United States has ever endured. They are making the same mistakes that were made in the Fifties. So let’s very quickly educate the completely unaware.
CrimeSuspense22CoverIn the mid-Fifties there was an explosion of paranoia surrounding comics as parents, educators, and law-makers around the country began to really examine what kind of content was in the comics that they were reading. This was somewhat fueled by the growth of the horror comics genre, an extremely popular genre at the time that covered everything from True Crime to fantastic monsters. True Crime—often something of a misnomer since it was mostly fiction or sensationalized for shock value—was used as the tip of the spear plunged into the side of comics. Under the most scrutiny was William Gaines and EC Comics, most visually for their cover to Crime SuspenStories issue 22, which despite his best efforts Gaines was never able to properly defend while being questioned publicly on the stand. Rather than spending any real time collecting data or, better yet, properly monitoring what their children read and properly refusing to buy comics for them that clearly featured mature content, parents and law-makers listened to a man named Frederick Wertham. Wertham was a doctor who’d written a book called The Seduction of the Innocent. It gathered the data from his investigations into the effects of violent comics on children and concluded that comics were “a contributing factor in many cases of juvenile delinquency.” All this data has since been debunked as bad science gathered by a man who had an agenda rather than a pure curiosity. Laws were eventually passed stating that comics couldn’t contain images of violence, sex, or crime. These laws were quickly revoked by the supreme court for being unconstitutional but not before laying the groundwork for the creation of the Comic Code Authority which would stifle the medium for the next twenty-five years. This organization eventually broke down around 1986, starting a new era of comics heralded in by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, two of the finest pieces of comic book art and literature that the medium has ever known. Ever since, the comic book industry has been wary of censorship, maybe even overly sensitive on the subject, while also struggling to find ways to avoid facing censorship like that again by instituting their own rating systems—like the one Comixology uses to label Saga for Mature Readers—in an attempt to make shopping easier for parents; though that system is not good enough yet, in my opinion.

But enough history, lets take a second to consider the content that has provoked Apple today. Obviously the issue isn’t out till tomorrow so I can’t actually show it to you, but according to Vaughan it is “two ‘postage stamp-sized’ depictions of gay sex.”

More appropriate than gay sex.

More appropriate than gay sex.


Is this adult content that children shouldn’t see? In my opinion, yes. But Saga is an adult book. It’s had content like this before. There is nudity on the fifth page of the first issue and a two page, detailed sex scene halfway through that issue leaving little to the imagination—other than wondering what those people would look like if they didn’t have televisions for heads. Provided that Vaughan’s description isn’t a lie, I’m left to think that Apple must only have a problem with issue 12 for one of two reasons: because it is homosexual sex, or because the panels are so small on the page that it cannot really be enjoyed as the erotic material that Apple believes it was intended to be. And upon further review it must be that second issue, the one about size, and not the fact that it’s a homosexual sex act because they must know that Vaughan’s magnum opus Y: The Last Man—which is also available for purchase on Comixology though not adapted for mobile viewing—features a panel more than half the size of the page of two women having sex. So maybe women having sex is okay but if it’s men then it’s dangerous. Except that I can buy Brokeback Mountain on the iTunes store. Hmm…

GhostGirlSagaLet’s give Apple the benefit of the doubt, however, and presume that this is something more graphic than simply nudity and horizontal body placement—though I seriously doubt it. If that’s true then we get into two arguments: one is that there is plenty of content equal to or worse that is accessible on their devices, and the other is the classic question of why sexual content is so much more unacceptable than violence. The second issue is one that better writers than I with far more research have spent countless pages discussing and while I’m not even sure how I feel about it or why, it doesn’t change the fact that in this country sex is worse than violence. The ghost girl in Saga who died getting her bottom half torn off and whose entrails hang out under her as she floats around caring for our characters’ newborn is always going to be more acceptable than sex—though that’s a bad example because that undead girl is so cute and lovable.

No it’s the first question that offers a treasure-trove of argument. Apple is spending time censoring comics but it does not however censor the internet, which the porn crazed children clamoring for tiny swashes of animated sex could much more easily just ask Siri to collect for them—I checked, she will. The content in this issue is something Apple believes they shouldn’t be a part of distributing to you, but you can get similar or worse content in other ways through their devices. And it’s not simply that censoring the internet is too hard a job because they are selling similar content on their own store, so the only conclusion left is that they are doing this to comics and not other mediums because when it’s a movie it’s art and when it’s a comic it’s for children.

What a monumental failure of imagination on their part.

I'm honestly not afraid of this happening again soon.

I’m honestly not afraid of this happening again soon.

Apple exists in a very bizarre place here. They aren’t really the retailer, they are the medium. They build the machine and the operating system by which people access other retailers and consume content. They aren’t simply saying that they choose not to sell something because of its content, they are telling another retailer that they can’t sell that content because it’s their device being used to consume that content. They have no reason to fear this content because Comixology, Image Comics, and even Brian K. Vaughan are responsible long before they are. But while I absolutely believe that they have the right not to sell content they see as being in bad taste, as does any retailer, I also believe that I have the right to call them ignorant for it. I have the right to refuse to buy products from them because of the way they treat both their consumers and their business partners. They aren’t doing this because they are afraid of the ramifications on them, they are doing this for the same reasons that reactionary mothers fearing their son’s might turn into ax-murderers did sixty years ago. As William Gaines exclaimed back then in one of his own protest comics, “It isn’t that they don’t like comics for THEM! They don’t like them for YOU!”

In an age where knowledge is free, where the consumer demands content the way they choose to have it, this kind of infantile and haphazard censorship needs to be left behind.

Now before I go I don’t want you to think that I’m saying that all content should be handed over to kids just because I’d hate for Vaughan to censor himself or for him to make a little less money because his readers are inconvenienced. That’s not true. Instead I’ll end with two sections from David Hajdu’s book on the subject, The Ten-Cent Plague:

In discussion of Walter Geier’s choice to write romance comics.

“’I thought romance is a complicated subject, and young girls are pretty smart, probably smarter than boys. So I tried to give them something worthy of their attention.’ In a rare instance when he received a response to one of his story-length synopses, an editor told Geier, “Don’t overdo it—remember, you’re writing for the chambermaid in the hotel.” Geier ignored him.

“’That really bothered me,’ Geier said. ‘I don’t know about chambermaids, but I was still pretty young then, and the young girls I knew weren’t stupid.’”

 In discussion of Frederick Wertham’s book.

“Equally patronizing in his treatment of those who created comics and those who bought them, Wertham never wavered from the promise of his title; he portrayed comic-book readers exclusively as innocents, describing virtually all readers of titles of all kinds as ‘children.’ Wertham was correct to note that the very young had access to every type of comic book on the newstand, and he pointed out, usefully, that warnings such as the ‘For Adults Only’ label that Fox used on its most lurid comics were likely an enticement to the wrong readers. If Seduction of the Innocent encouraged some parents to keep copies of Stanley P. Morse’s Weird Chills out of third-graders’ hands, Wertham performed a worthy service. At the same time, his obdurate initialization of the comics readership was inaccurate and tactical, rather than scientific. It diminished the adolescents and young adults who turned to comics in part because the books represented an escape from childhood, a way to begin dealing with the mysteries, the titillations, and the dangers of adulthood while reading safely in their bedrooms, under the covers.

“’To me, the most offensive thing about [The Seduction of the Innocent] was that [Wertham] presumed that everybody who read comics was a child or an idiot,” said Al Feldstein. “We [at EC] functioned out of a presumption that our readers were at least fourteen, maybe thirteen, and older—up to adulthood, through adulthood. Mature readers, in terms of comic books. That never occurred to [Wertham]. That never occurred to a lot of people who didn’t understand comics. Our readers were more mature. They were almost adults,. Or on their way there, that’s why they were coming to us.”

The unfortunate truth is that these days the majority of comic-book readers are adults, but even for the ones who aren’t, the people who should be deciding what children have access to is their parents, for better or for worse. We should raise the expectations for parents to be present in their children’s lives and—even in an era of information overload like the one Apple thrives in—actively choosing content for their children rather than swinging open the floodgates and blaming artists or retailers for their own apathy. And for parents with older children that they believe are more mature and able to handle or understand adult content, that should be their choice too. What I haven’t addressed yet is that Vaughan explains in his post that this adult content isn’t in Saga #12 for shock value, it has a purpose in the story. For all we know this issue could open up a dialog among some families with mature children whose parents choose this story to be one that shapes the kind of person they’ll be. Heaven forbid that we allow a mature content to get in the way of telling a story about love and heroes, bravery and adversity, war and death, life and pain, and the adventure that ties it all into our lives. Heaven forbid we keep stories like that from shaping young adults.

TenCentPlagueCoverIf you want to know more about the comic-cook scare in America I highly recommend David Hajdu’s Book, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America.

About the Author:

James grew up in a house where Friday night was Movie night, which meant that he’d watched more movies than anybody else his age before he was even old enough to watch the rated R ones. He’ll watch just about anything, though he tends to avoid the horror movies without a sense of humor. Among his favorite movies are: Alien, Fargo, True Romance, Ed Wood, and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. He’s a die-hard LOST fan and a Brown Coat. As a writer, story usually comes first for James. Memorable characters and sharp dialogue are the things that separate the classics from the chaff. That said, he does his best to keep having fun at the movies. He’s seen plenty of critics who would once have accepted summer blockbusters as entertainment become jaded and nit-picky. Sure James loves the art of film and storytelling, but fun comes first, the fun that he had watching Raiders when he was little. Also, E.T. scares the pants off him.
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