Image’s Eric Stephenson on the Saga #12 Drama

April 12th, 2013 by | Tags: ,

For context’s sake, here’s a post that breaks down just about everything that happened, and I use this comment to talk about what I think about the situation. I think those links should be pretty comprehensive, if you’re not clear what went down. The short version, which is a lightly edited version of what I posted in that first link:

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.
2a. ComiXology tells CBR “Unfortunately, because of our business relationship with Apple, we can’t comment.” when asked for comment.
3. Normal 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, by way of tweets directly to consumers.
4. Twitter goes ham, understandably, because it looks like Apple is back rejecting gay content for vague or unstated reasons, something they have done before.
5. Websites follow suit, and a widespread discussion about Apple’s practices follow.
6. 24 hours after the news originally broke, ComiXology CEO David Steinberger releases a statement that basically says “oh it was us ha ha sorry!”

Now that we’re all on the same page, Eric Stephenson, Publisher at Image Comics, reached out for an interview to clarify things from the POV of Image. I shot him some questions, he shot me some answers, and away we go:

Can you give us a timeline of how things went down earlier this week? Did Comixology inform Image, and then Image informed Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples? I know it was a big deal on Twitter, but how was the news received in the Image offices?

Comixology informed Image on Monday afternoon; Image informed Brian and Fiona immediately thereafter, and in this case “Comixology” = David Steinberger and “Image” = me.

From there, Brian stated his wish to contact David directly, in an effort to get David to go to bat for the book against Apple. I wasn’t privy to what went down between David and Brian, but I do know they exchanged a few emails, and the result of that was Brian’s statement.

As far as how it was received, well, we were frustrated, which I think is understandable. We’d had a problem with XXXOMBIES recently, and I remember talking about that here in the office, wondering how it was that there was this seeming double-standard where books like THE WALKING DEAD and SAGA were approved issue after issue, but then XXXOMBIES was bumped back. So in a way, it was kind of like the other shoe dropping, but yeah, it’s never good news to find out that one of your top books isn’t going to have full distribution.

The iOS approval process is pretty opaque for most people out there. How far ahead of time does Image generally have to submit comics to ComiXology for conversion and approvals?

We generally turn stuff in about three weeks ahead of time.

How does ComiXology communicate to you, or their liaison at Image, that comics have been rejected? BKV specifically called out gay sex in his note about Saga #12. Do they supply an itemized list or some type of guidance?

With this and SEX #1, we found out pretty much right before the release date, like, the Monday before the Wednesday in-store date. With XXXOMBIES, a couple of the issues were up at one point, then they weren’t, and we inquired about what happened. We got a response about Apple’s guidelines and the amount of sexual content, graphic violence, and profanity in the book.

There was no itemized list about SAGA #12. David told me there was a problem with the sexual content and we went right into figuring out how to direct readers to their site and our site, etc. I think the focus on the gay sex just came from the fact that every other issue of SAGA had gone up without so much as a peep. The book has had a lot of adult content since the first issue, much of it much more prominently displayed, so that was mainly a case of, “Why was the gigantic orgy in issue four okay, but this isn’t?”

What’s the protocol when a comic is rejected? I assume ComiXology informs Image. Is that a situation where Image has the opportunity to request an appeal, if that’s possible, or is it just a notification that the comic will only be allowed on the web and Android stores?

The latter, basically, but in this instance, I think due to SAGA’s high profile in the marketplace, David was anxious to be proactive about alerting readers to the issue. We’ve argued this stuff in the past, like with XXXOMBIES, and in this case, Brian went to David and asked if there was anyway to change this decision so the book could go up. He was told no, as we were with XXXOMBIES, and we accepted that at face value.

I know there are people out there who think Brian jumped the gun by issuing a statement at that point, but his goal was to draw attention to the fact the book was going to be available digitally, even if it wasn’t going to be on the app.

Saga #12, and a couple other books were released on iBooks with no problem, as far as I know. Those are produced by Graphicly instead of ComiXology. Has Graphicly ever come back to you and said, “Hey, Apple says this doesn’t fit their guidelines?”

No, but the iBookstore has different guidelines, which was one of the things we all found particularly maddening about the whole situation.

Does Image generally let ComiXology handle the digital side of things, from conversion to approvals to whatever other processes may be required? Is it a pure hand-off situation where ComiXology has full or near-full autonomy, or does ComiXology consult with Image or the creators along the way?

We upload the files to them and generally speaking, they take if from there. We’re involved as necessary, but the whole point of the relationship is for Comixology to do the heavy lifting, as it were.

Since this news broke, Joe Casey & Piotr Kowalski’s Sex #1 and Rick Remender & Tony Moore’s XXXombies have been made available on the iOS apps. Are you going back to series that have previously been rejected and re-submitting them? I’m not sure how long the in-app purchase approval process goes. Were these approved by Apple upon release, but held back? Another situation entirely?

Well, there were the books you mentioned, plus Howard Chaykin’s BLACK KISS 2, and that’s about it. No issue of THE WALKING DEAD has ever been rejected, for instance, and there’s obviously a lot of graphic violence in that series — a guy had his head very brutally bashed in with a baseball bat in one issue and there wasn’t so much as a word about that — along with profanity and some nudity and sexual situations. There are obviously other books with nudity, but yeah, that stuff has never been a problem.

In terms of the books that were rejected, I can’t really speak to what the situation was there. I just know we were told they couldn’t up due to the content.

Can you talk about how has this changed your relationship with ComiXology? Is there an oversight protocol in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening again?

It sounds like Comixology has a better idea what Apple will accept at this point, so really, I don’t see this being an issue going forward. As I told David yesterday, the upside of the whole situation is we have the books up there no, so even though it was kind of a shitty ordeal for everyone involved, the outcome kind of made it all worth it.

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14 comments to “Image’s Eric Stephenson on the Saga #12 Drama”

  1. Thanks for posting this, David. Still not sure what to think about the relationship between Comixology and Apple, but this does help to clarify what Image, BKV and Fiona Staples were thinking.

  2. Interesting. Thanks for posting.

  3. To be clear about what happened: did the comics and tech news sites who reported that Apple killed the book go to Apple for comment and get the hand? Or did they report without seeking comment from Apple first?

    That seems like a substantial difference for the comics and tech press.

  4. CBR says they went to Apple and got the hand and moved to publish.

  5. Then again, as folks elsewhere have pointed out, CBR published a story as soon as BKV made the tweet, deeming “BKV says etc.” to be a news story, and didn’t include even the ComiXology comment until an update some time later.

    I suppose the dispute comes down to whether “BKV makes an accusation” is a news story that should be published.

  6. One of the biggest problems with the whole controversy is at the vast majority of reporters simply accepted BKV’s framing of the issue with no questioning or interrogation.

    His press release said Apple banned for “gay sex” and so all thhe comics sites started reporting on e press release and soon major media outlets were reporting about “homophobic” Apple.

    No one seemed to question e most basic framing of the story.

    Did Apple actually ban Saga #12?

    Was it actually due to “gay sex”?

    How do we know, other than BKV’s press release?

    No one that I can recall said “BKV alleges” followed by comiXology and Apple have declined an opportunity to comment. No one said Image reps confirm at Apple banned due to “gay sex”. All we heard was that Image supporter their creators (as they should).

    But the press, for the most part, blindly accepted BKV’s framing of the narrative and it was a long time before anyone started to ask if he was giving an accurate portrayal of the situation.

    Happy to see the interviews with Stephenson now, but this is pretty late in the process after major media outlets have been reporting on “homophobic” Apple.

  7. Sorry for all the typos. It’s late, I’m on the iPad, and I’ve had several drinks. Apologies.

  8. I’m actually more concerned with the combat medic’s cheerful, idealistic combat medic’s fate. So much lost due to an administrative oversight and a violated mystic arms treaty. Much more shocking than a couple dicks that are easily ignored.

  9. Gay sex was the only sex in the issue. If the comic was banned–and it was pushed back by Comixology–it was because of the gay sex. That’s not inaccurately reporting what’s going on, it’s just describing why the comic was not released. It’s also telling, on the Comixology side, that straight sex was deemed ok and that gay sex was not. This isn’t really up for debate, and seems like an area where a clarification on the policies would be helpful.

    And while I can understand that there is a substantive difference between asking Apple for a comment and not getting one (because you’re not going to) and not asking Apple for a comment, it’s going to amount to the same thing in the end every time. It seems, to me at least, that there is a lot more justification for being irritated with Apple and Comixology in all of this rather than the creators or the sites that report on the comics industry. They’ve got a stranglehold on digital distribution and there don’t appear to be any regulations, or even consistently applied policies in the digital marketplace.

  10. @Daniel:

    That is inaccurate.

    There is a difference between saying that the issue was restricted because it contained sexually explicit images that happened to involve sexual acts between men, and saying that the issue was restricted because it contained “gay sex” images.

    You and many commentators seem to be arguing that the only reason it was banned was because the images were of “gay sex”. That is not the only possible explanation and should not have been blindly accepted as the explanation.

    There is a difference between saying the issue was restricted due to graphic sexual content and saying the issue was restricted due to gay sexual content.

    BKV made an assumption that “gay sex” was the only possible explanation for why this particular issue was banned. While we don’t know all the details of the conversation between BKV and comiXology, we have no reason to automatically assume BKV’s interpretation of the conversation was the most accurate.

    Had individuals and the press investigated comiXology’s history of dealing with sexually graphic comics via the iOS app it would have quickly become clear that comiXology had a history of restricted access to several comics due to graphic content that had nothing to do with depictions of homosexual behavior. While graphic sexual content in Saga may have been unrestricted previously, that does not justify the conclusion that the sexual content in Saga #12 was flagged because it depicted homosexual behavior, and only because it depicted homosexual behavior.

    To continue to assert that the only explanation of the restriction was due to “gay sex” is inaccurate and disingenuous. While it is possible that it was secretly, or even unconsciously, a factor for those at comiXology that made the decision, the evidence indicates that was not the case. ComiXology denies it. BKV stated he does not believe it was the case and he didn’t mean to assert it was due to homophobia. Further, there is a clear historical precedent for comiXology restricting access to “graphic sexual images” that are not homosexual in nature.

  11. @Michael:

    What? Straight sex was fine in the past. A comic depicting gay sex was deemed not to be fine. Taking prior issues as evidence that straight sex was acceptable, gay sex is all that we’re left with. It may be the case that Comixology has restricted other comics with sexual content, but that’s not previously been the case with Saga which has had much more explicit straight sex that was passed right through. Comixology’s representatives can say whatever they like, but the perceived issue here remains: Staples drawing straight sex was fine but gay sex was not.

  12. At best you can say that Comixology has inconsistently applied their standards. Whichever reading you take–that Comixology is applying the rules inconsistently or that they’re censoring homosexual content more strenuously than straight–it makes them look bad. This just reinforces my original point that shifting blame to the creators and the news outlets is unproductive.

  13. @Daniel:

    There certainly seems to be inconsistency in the application of standards. Still, that don’t not logically justify the conclusion that “gay sex” was the only reason Saga #12 was banned.

    I seriously object to your assert that “more explicit straight sex . . . passed right through.” There was significantly more sexual content in Saga #4, but the content was not as explicit according to the standards generally applied to sexual content. Almost all the gratuitous sex and nudity shown earlier in Saga could all be shown in a R rated film or on a show produced for HBO or Showtime.

    The only exception was one panel in issue #4 where the attentive observer actual realizes Staples has depicted a penis penetrated a vagina in one pairing and the strong impression of a woman giving a blowjob. These two couplings are the most explicit, but they are drawn in the background and are not highly detailed images.

    The images in Saga #12 are small and easily missed by someone quickly scanning the panels. Once seen they they are highly detailed images of sexual acts considered more graphic that what has been previously shown in Saga. The first image is a detailed close up of a blowjob. We see an erect penis in mouth. A hand around the shaft of the penis. We see pubic hair. The scene depicts a man giving the blowjob, but if it was a woman giving a blowjob in the same detail it would be just as explicit. This is an image that could never slip into a R rated film given our society’s current standards on sexuality, even if it depicted a woman, just look at the film Brown Bunny give an explicit rating due to a blowjob. The second image is even more explicit. It features three penises ejaculating onto the face and in the mouth of a forth character. We see ejaculate emerging from the penises and falling onto the characters face and outstretched tongue. Again, we’re told by BKV that this is “gay sex” but the image would be considered just as explicit if it depicted a woman being ejaculated upon by three men.

    This doesn’t mean that comiXology hasn’t made decisions worthy of confusion and befuddlement. The scenes in Saga #4 are probably more graphic, although probably less gratuitous, than the graphic sexual scenes in the majority of The Boys: Herogasm, which was previously banned. The Boys regular run, which was not banned, probably featured disturbing and graphic content, especially violence, that seems more problematic than the sexual content in Herogasm. There are a lot of issues raised by comiXology’s past behavior when choosing which content is explicit and which content is acceptable. You would have a very hard time finding a pattern of homophobia though if you examine all the content which comiXology was previously blocking from distribution via the iOS store.

    My argument has never been that comiXology is blameless in the whole scandle. I agree there appears to be inconsistencies in how the determined what to block. They certainly didn’t communicate clearly when the controversy was developing and allowed people to think that Apple was directly responsible for the decision to restrict access to Saga #12. None of that means they were guilty of homophobia though. It would take a lot more to prove that the restriction of Saga #12 was due to homophobia. It’s irresponsible to continue to assert that it must have been due to homophobia. That isn’t supported by the evidence.

    Further, comiXology being guilty of poor communication and inconsistent and over enthusiastic application of Apple’s ToS does not mean that BKV and the media are blameless in the controversy. There is still an obligation to question the framing of events and make a distinction between what BKV believes happened and what we are able to confirm happened. Even if no one else comments, you can’t just assume that BKV has given an accurate summation of events. Some of the worst offenders in the news reports were main stream media outlets accusing Apple of homophobia, but those stories began with the comics press unquestioningly reporting BKV’s press release as 100% factual.

    There’s a complex network of issues to be dealt with by the comics community over this issue, but the homophobia narrative is one of the least useful in this particular circumstance and trying to force it as the only explanation is doing more harm than good.

  14. […] § If you are not entirely sick of the Saga subject yet, David Brothers also interviewed Eric Stephenson and asked different questions than we did. […]