Apple’s Comic Double Standard

“…we do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone. Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone.” — Steve Jobs

Apple has taken a firm stance against pornographic content on its iTunes store and on all its authorized devices, including the removal of any all pornographic comic titles from the store. These comics, which can be viewed on any number of mobile device apps, such as the aptly-named “Comics”, seem to be subject to some glaring inconsistencies with regards to Apple’s no-porn policy.

Apple has banned no less than 59 comics in the past year, including the recent Sex Criminals (Image Comics) about a husband and wife team that can stop time with their orgasms and use this skill to rob banks. The notion of a married couple having sex is, apparently, too blue for a company that sells any number of erotica books, including the audiobook Cheerleader Shower Orgy and podcasts such as “The Sexy Librarian”. The company’s statement to Image said that the book “contains content that many audiences would find objectionable, and is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.” Apple’s corporate standards for this are obscure and profoundly inconsistent. Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga #12, for example, was flagged by the ComiXology app providers as having adult content no more or less explicit than in Sex Criminals, but Apple approved that title for distribution through their network.

Apple, as we all know, is a bit different from other companies. They provide an engineered, locked-down digital experience that, under the guidance of Steve Jobs, often led to elegant design and clean interfaces. Jobs approached his customers like a Sushi chef: you’ll take what we give you, and you’ll trust that we’ve done due diligence in creating a flawless experience. The trade-off, in terms of the user, of buying into that concept is a certain abdication of selective freedom. You’ll read what Apple decides is suitable and what’s not, based on their standards (which are not shared).

The plethora of erotic material on the iTunes store, including films, books, audiobooks, and podcasts, demonstrates a very selective sort of filtering. For Apple, it seems, comics are different than other media in that more control needs to be asserted over the content. What’s different about comics that would lead them to this conclusion?

Sadly, I think we need to once again bring up the notion of medium legitimacy. This discussion never seems to go away: when I was in Bournemouth last summer at a conference called “Comics Rock”, our keynote speaker, David Lloyd, framed his whole presentation (called “Comics Rock?”) around the notion of comics as a legitimate adult medium. One could sense his frustration at years of being artistically lumped in with, as he put it, “Beano and Benny Hill”, rather than a serious modern artist. Scott McCloud discusses this at length in Reinventing Comics, where he relates the tragic story of a Georgia comics retailer who, in 1994, was convicted to distributing adult literature to minors simply because his store stocked explicit comics. There was no evidence that these were sold to children, but in the minds of the judge and jury, any comic is for children and therefore erotica in comics is also targeted to children.

Apple seems to be falling into this same pattern, applying arbitrarily harsh standards to comics that don’t apply to other media, equally accessible by users of all ages. Disturbingly, these mysterious standards seem to target LGBT material in particular, including the Eisner-winning No Straight Lines, whereas a title like XXXZombies was approved for distribution.

Over and above the notion of censorship in general and violations of the trust between a responsible adult consumer and the company providing media and technology, certain individuals at Apple appear to be holding on to outdated and frankly ignorant notions of what comics are and what they can be. “You can do anything with words and pictures,” as Harvey Pekar was fond of saying; that includes sexual content, and it always has. (Pekar himself wrote a comic in which he masturbates. Is that considered too hot for Apple?) If Apple were to just label the books with a warning about explicit content, that would bring this medium in line with others. But comics are still, in many (too many!) circles, considered children’s entertainment and suitable only for super-hero adventures. What we’re seeing with Apple is one bastion of ignorance that has not yet fallen.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this post, Ian! It’s important.

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