November 25, 2013

Apple fumbles “Sex Criminals” comic decision


In another complicated snarl of prudishness, money, multiple gatekeepers, and above all, unclear standards, the comic series Sex Criminals, by writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky, published by Image Comics, has been banned by Apple, one of at least 59 comics banned by the retailer this year.

Or rather, partly banned: Apple recently rejected the third issue of the comic — about a book-loving couple who discover that they can stop time when they have sex, and decide to use their powers to rob banks and give the money to endangered libraries — and retroactively rejected the first issue, which had previously been available for purchase through iOS apps like Comixology and Comics Plus. The second issue was rejected flat out.

However, all three issues are still for sale in the iBookstore and through the various apps’ websites. Which poses the question, what exactly is going on? Neither Apple nor Comixology have commented, but so far, it doesn’t seem like this is a repeat of last year’s Saga story, where writer Brian K. Vaughan initially believed that Apple had banned the new issue in his series “because of two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex,” only to learn that in fact it was Comixology over-exuberantly censoring their own content before it even got to Apple.

Though it’s hard to know for sure where the ban came from, or what the logic behind it was. It’s kind of a total mess. When the second issue was banned, earlier this month, at least the publisher was given an explanation, albeit not a very satisfying one. From a Wired piece by Laura Hudson:

It was rejected by Apple for in-app purchase on the basis that it “contains content that many audiences would find objectionable, and is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.”

The decision confused Fraction and Zdarsky, as well as their publisher, Image Comics, especially since the first issue of the comic — whose sexual content was just as strong — went on sale a month earlier with no issues. Why did the second issue cross the line? Was it the vagina-shaped sleeping bag? The gravity-defying ejaculate? Fraction and Zdarsky don’t know, and Apple’s not saying.

But there’s been no such relative clarity for the third issue. Brigid Alverson reported on the story for Publisher’s Weekly, in an Nov. 22 article:

In an e-mail interview, Image publisher Eric Stephenson said that no reason was given for the rejection. “We received notification from Comixology, not directly from Apple, but they give us no explanation whatsoever,” he said. “They just say they’ve rejected it.”

Regardless of the rationale, it’s the inconsistency that’s really damning here: first, Apple accepts a comic, then it rejects it. It pulls the comic from its apps, but keeps it up for sale in the iBookstore, because, as Hudson describes it, “according to the App Review guidelines, apps are treated differently than books, apparently even when the apps exist to sell books.”

It would all be an almost charming degree of buffoonery from a company lauded for its efficiency and sophistication, except for the fact that it’s costing the publishers so much money.

From Alverson’s article again:

Although readers can buy Sex Criminals on other platforms, including the Image Web site, that doesn’t compensate for the loss of in-app purchases, Stephenson said. “It absolutely hurt digital sales on Sex Criminals #2,” he said. “This is a series that is getting fantastic word of mouth, it’s amazing work by Matt and Chip that is receiving rave reviews and selling out instantly. Not being able to offer the book to curious readers through our app or the Comixology app is a significant deterrent to reaching the widest possible audience.”

“The Comixology app and the Image Comics app that runs through Comixology are far and away the most important of all the digital platforms we’re working with right now,” he said. “the iBookstore is a distant second.”

So, Apple’s decision-making process is inconsistent, it’s screwing over publishers, and it means that readers may not discover a series that’s clearly intended not to be pornographic, but instead a reinvention of that venerable and excellent genre, the sex comedy (see this highly entertaining interview with the creators, and this one).

Is there any upside to this story? Maybe only the fact that Fraction, Zdarsky, and Image’s response to the ban has been so even-handed, if critical, that Apple will risk looking ridiculous if it doesn’t take steps to clarify its standards. When issue #2 was banned, Fraction commented (in a Kotaku post):

I want it clear I do not believe we have been censored and I think Apple is entirely within their rights to decide what they sell where and how to whom… A tremendously forward-looking and forward-thinking company has done a goofy thing for which they should be lightly shamed, mocked, and inspired to re-examine certain policies and systems.



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.