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Tuesday, Apr 09, 2013 6:58pm
Report: Apple bans graphic novel over explicit sex depiction?
The popular author of a "mature" comic book known as SAGA says that Apple has banned the most recent issue from its apps -- though not necessarily from its own iBookstore -- over two small images of explicit gay sex. Despite what Brian K. Vaughan says have been previous and "more graphic" imagery in previous issues, he and collaborator Fiona Staples claim that the issue is specific to the fact that in the two panels of the comic, a wounded character with a TV set for a head displays explicit male sex.

The story told in the comic is described by TNW as "surrealist Sci-Fi," telling the tale of two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending war who fall in love and have a child, then try to find a safe place for their new family. It has featured graphic depictions of violence and heterosexual sex and nudity in previous issues. All previous issues of the comic are available in Apple's iBookstore, and it is possible that issue #12 will be there also when it is formally released later this week.

In addition, it is highly likely that the collected version of the comic will also be available (a "Volume One," which collects the first six issues into a single e-book, is already available). The ban, if it indeed is a ban, only affects apps sold through Apple's app store rather than through the iBookstore.

Apple hasn't yet commented on the matter, but has warned other "comic book storefront" app publishers to remove titles that are clearly pornographic. Apple has previously expressed reservations with any sort of app that could be used by children to obtain pornographic imagery, going to far as to temporarily ban both the social video app Vine and photo gallery site app 500px until changes were made to increase the age rating or ability of the app to have adult images blocked through parental controls or other methods.

Vaughan, who has won four Eisner Awards for his work on other graphic novels, said in a statement that though it has "been clear from the first page of our first issues, SAGA is a series for the proverbial 'mature reader,' because of two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex, Apple is banning tomorrow's SAGE #12 from being sold through any iOS apps." The "ban" Vaughan refers to is, at best, partial: though it would prevent the issue from being sold directly through Image Comics' own app or comic bookstore apps like Comixology, the issue could still be purchased from those companies' web sites and added to iTunes, which can then sync it to Comixology's or Image Comics' apps collections.

As Vaughan himself points out, the issue will also likely appear in the iBookstore, which often sells material that offers graphic content. The "ban," such as it is, only affects apps that offer such material, since although the app itself may comply with parental controls, individual titles within an app do not necessarily. Apple has maintained a policy -- though often marred by selective or haphazard enforcement -- that apps (unlike films or e-books) should not be able to display adult or controversial material unless there are controls in place (including age ratings or preferences that can be set by parents or administrators) to block them if desired.

The situation reveals the difficulty in implementing any form of censorship, even with the best of intentions. A desire to protect Apple from being sued over explicit imagery accidentally being shown to children -- or as the late Steve Jobs said, a disinterest in offering anything pornographic -- has led to the company also having to censor some content due to depictions of sexuality, violence, cruelty or extremist political or religious statements, either through visual or written imagery.

However, many of the same concepts that find themselves censored on the App Store are accepted when in the form of books or visual media such as TV and films. Jobs even told developers that if they want to explore sexual themes, do so in a book or movie. While Apple doesn't sell any x-rated films or directly pornographic books, in those stores sexuality, extreme violence, political or religious views and other controversial topics can be offered without much in the way of boundaries.

The hypocrisy on the matter of adult content is more a North American societal issue than one directly attributable to Apple -- however, it has been pointed out by critics that Google's approach (allowing stores other than it's own curated Play shop to also sell Android apps) allows for apps that are much more explicit in nature (with the attendant problems). As noted earlier -- assuming Vaughan and Apple don't come to some agreement in the new few days -- despite Apple's more "walled garden" approach, it will be only minimally more difficult for those interested in the comic to buy and install it on their devices. It is only apps themselves that suffer from Apple's sometimes heavy-handed regulation of content.

Vaughan has suggested that readers employ one of a variety of ways to work around the problem, as he has made clear that he and Staples will not alter the images on the two panels, as they are part of the characters' development and integral to the story. Among the options are to buy a physical copy of the issue from comic stores, or download the issue directly from online comic sellers that offer digital versions (such as Image itself, or Comixology, et al) and then add it to existing comic collections through iTunes.

The two panels in question are reproduced below, but are pre-censored by Image Comics themselves for public distribution.