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'Y: The Last Man' creator's new comic will soon return to Comixology after Apple controversy (updated)

'Y: The Last Man' creator's new comic will soon return to Comixology after Apple controversy (updated)


The distinction between app and art breaks down

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According to Comixology, Saga #12 will soon be back: it's come out with a different story than Image Comics, which reported that Apple banned the comic. According to Comixology, it interpreted Apple's guidelines as banning content, and after further discussion with Apple, it's determined that you'll be able to buy it "soon." See update at bottom.

It's no secret that Apple curates its App Store. Apps occupy a strange space between tools and art, and it's one that Apple has repeatedly shown itself to be uncomfortable in: among other things, it's banned games that explore death or war and admonished developers to "write a book" or record a song if they want to deal in controversy. "We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate." But as the pending release of Brian K. Vaughan comic Saga shows, that distinction isn't always so clear.

Earlier today, Vaughan (best known for Y: The Last Man), issued a statement saying that Saga #12 would not be for sale through Comixology or any other third-party app on iOS. "As has hopefully been clear from the first page of our first issue, Saga is a series for the proverbial 'mature reader,'" he wrote. "Unfortunately, because of two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex, Apple is banning tomorrow’s Saga #12 from being sold through any iOS apps. This is a drag, especially because our book has featured what I would consider much more graphic imagery in the past, but there you go."

The response from artists and writers was immediate. Locke & Key writer Joe Hill called the decision "bullshit," pointing out similarly explicit books and movies sold through iTunes and content in past issues of Saga itself. Author William Gibson weighed in as well, echoing others in suggesting that Apple was cracking down not only because of the sexual content, but specifically because the panels involved gay sex. We've reached out to Apple for comment but did not immediately get a reply.

If you want to see the (admittedly explicit) panels, you can click over to Comic Book Resources, but it won't be hard to find them when the comic is released on Wednesday — even on iOS. For one thing, Image can't sell Saga #12 through Comixology on iOS, but users can buy it on the web or an Android app, then sync it over. But there's a more curious wrinkle to the case: Image has told us that you'll also be able to find it on Apple's own iBookstore. That's precisely what happened with Sex, a previous Image comic that was banned from third-party apps but not iBooks.

You can't buy 'Saga' through Comixology on iOS, Image says, but you'll find it on the iBookstore

Ultimately, it's that fact that points to what the Saga controversy is really about: the collapsing distinction between publishing something and distributing it, and between apps and art. If you're familiar with Apple's App Store guidelines, this ban isn't remotely surprising. Apple has made it clear that app developers are playing in its sandbox, and we're all accustomed to it, partly because Apple is as much creating the market as it is controlling it. Its book and music stores, by comparison, are understood to be more or less open markets.

From the outside, though, Comixology looks a lot like Amazon or the iBookstore, making the idea of picking what goes through it seem much more like censorship than curation. The distinction between apps and books may seem obvious to Apple, but it's becoming increasingly hard to explain to anybody else.

Update: Comixology has weighed in with an apparent reversal: though it believed Apple's current guidelines would have prohibited the panel, it now says it has heard from Apple and gotten the okay to run it:

We believed that Saga #12 could not be made available in our app, and so we did not release it today.

We did not interpret the content in question as involving any particular sexual orientation, and frankly that would have been a completely irrelevant consideration under any circumstance.

Given this, it should be clear that Apple did not reject Saga #12.

The comic, it says, will now be available for sale on iOS devices "soon." While we still haven't heard back from Apple, the issue now seems more like a misunderstanding — great news for comics fans and supporters of free expression alike.