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Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson on the ‘Saga’ App Store Fiasco [Interview]

Last Tuesday comics writer Brian K. Vaughan announced that Apple declined to sell the latest issue of his and Fiona Staples’ hit Image Comics series Saga in its iOS App Store market on account of depictions of gay sex acts. The statement was affirmed by Image in various communiqués in the press and social media. But Vaughan was given a mistaken impression of things, for it turned out that ComiXology had in fact chosen not to submit Saga #12 to Apple at all, citing a belief that the comic’s graphic depictions of male ejaculations were not permissible by Apple’s terms of service concerning sexual imagery. Unfortunately, despite being asked (and declining) to comment further on the apparent banning, ComiXology didn’t make the full story known for about 24 hours, during which time Saga fans, other authors and many media outlets operated under the belief that the infamously inscrutable iOS App Store gatekeepers had made a distinctly homophobic decision.

On Wednesday Apple broke its usual silence and stepped in to correct the record in communications to ComiXology and Macworld, among other tech industry outlets, and the situation was repaired: apologies were made, press releases were issued, Saga #12 and even some other previously unavailable comics were made available to ComiXology customers using the iOS app, and the discussion about the App Store’s nebulous guidelines for mature content — and the inconsistent application of those nebulous guidelines — became a little louder.

That conversation continues in this interview with Image Comics’ Eric Stephenson, publisher of Saga #12 and other comics that were at one time unavailable in the biggest digital marketplace on Earth, who was keen to discuss Image’s side of the the saga story via email late last week.ComicsAlliance: Before we get into the situation with Saga, I think it’d be helpful for readers to get a basic understanding of how things typically work between Image, ComiXology and Apple. Can you walk us through the general process of publishing a digital Image comic?

Eric Stephenson: Well, we have zero contact with Apple at this point in time, everything goes through ComiXology. We upload PDFs of our books to them, they handle the conversion, and they deal with Apple.

CA: How did this sequence of events differ in the case of Saga #12? What was the initial message you received from ComiXology on the matter?

ES: The initial message was essentially, “The content is problematic; here’s what we can do to make the best of the situation.” And in that regard, I think ComiXology did exactly what needed to be done. My initial response to [ComiXology CEO] David [Steinberger] was that I didn’t want to sit and moan about how Apple wouldn’t allow this up, I wanted to hear about how we’re going to take this opportunity to direct traffic to the web stores on ComiXology’s and Image’s sites.

CA: We know now that ComiXology made the call to not submit Saga #12 to Apple on account of the graphic sexual content displayed on Prince Robot IV’s television head — specifically oral sex between men, ejaculations, etc. — which would seem to be prohibited per the Terms of Service language we’ve seen. But previous issues of Saga made it through which contained similarly graphic imagery like visible [heterosexual] intercourse. I suppose one’s mileage could vary about what specific sexual acts are more “pornographic” than others, but for many the only thing that sets issue #12′s sex content apart is that it’s gay sex. Did the nature of the sex acts come up in any of your initial discussions about the problem?

ES: No, there was no direct discussion about the exact nature of the sex acts in Saga #12 until Wednesday morning, when I was informed the decision to put the material on the app had been reversed.

CA: It struck some people by surprise that ComiXology was apparently electing to submit some products to Apple and withholding others. Which is not to presume that ComiXology was acting arbitrarily in doing so, because the App Store terms of service language is somehow at once specific and vague with respect to sexual content, and reports from other developers vary on how strictly and consistently those terms are enforced. I’ve also been told and read conflicting things about whether content updates to existing apps, like new issues of a comic book, are screened at all. Additionally, Mark Waid indicated that he signed an agreement with ComiXology that spelled out its own guidelines for what kind of sexual material could be made available through the apps.

So from your perspective, can you shed any light on the situation with the different terms of service, the various guidelines and standards for digital comics? It seems pretty confusing.

ES: Well, yeah. I think that’s what prompted Brian to mention that in the statement that went out on Tuesday. There has obviously been lots of sex in Saga, but suddenly this issue was a problem. There’s a gigantic orgy in issue #4 that absolutely depicts both oral and vaginal penetration, but no one said a word about that. And more confusing still, Sex #1 initially wasn’t offered for sale on the app, but Sex #2 went right up, and there’s as much sex in that issue as the first. Looking at books from other publishers, well, there’s From Hell on the app, and that has some pretty graphic stuff in it.

At the end of the day, I don’t see why the standards and guidelines should be any different for digital comics than print. If someone wants to make the argument that it’s easier for the wrong people to get their hands on digital material — and by “wrong people” I mean children — then I’d counter that kids looking for naked people or sex probably aren’t going to make digital comics their first stop. I think anyone at all familiar with the Internet knows that actual pornography is only a mistyped Google search away at all times and often at absolutely no charge, so I find the notion that a kid would opt to pay for a comic to see that stuff patently ridiculous.

CA: Along those lines, does the agreement between Image and ComiXology allow ComiXology to refuse to offer a particular Image product in any of its stores, or to remove existing content from its stores? Does Image’s agreement with creators allow them to take their digital business elsewhere if they don’t want to play ball with the various terms of service and DRM presently in play?

ES: No, there’s nothing in our agreement about content limitations. There’s a little bit of give and take with creators on digital business, but by and large, Image acts as the creators’ representative on digital rights issues.

CA: In the wake of the Saga news, you announced that Sex #1, which was previously unavailable as an in-app purchase, will now be offered via the ComiXology app. Was this book submitted, rejected, and eventually cleared as some app store products have been in the past? Or was it also withheld from submission for the same reasons as Saga #12, the mistaken interpretation of Apple’s rules that David Steinberger referenced in his blog post?

ES: All I know is that book, along with Rick Remender, Kieron Dwyer and Tony Moore’s XXXombies and Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss 2 are available now.

CA: Can you talk about your communications with Saga creators Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples during this fiasco? It seemed plain that Vaughan’s understanding was the comic was rejected by Apple specifically for gay sex content, and Staples indicated that nobody told her that Apple hadn’t even seen the book.

ES: After hearing from David, I let them both know what was going on and how ComiXology was handling the situation, that we’d be directing traffic to the web stores and what have you. Brian said he was going to talk to David directly in an attempt to get him to go to bat for the book with Apple. After exchanging a few emails with David, Brian let Fiona and I know he’d prepared a statement, which she and I read, and that was that. The initial email from ComiXology regarding the statement David made on Wednesday did not include Fiona, but Brian immediately corrected that in his response.

As far as Brian’s reaction regarding the reason Saga #12 was rejected, it was the only possible reason he could conceive of, I think. Like I said earlier, there’s been a lot of graphic imagery in the series, and it just seemed odd that these two tiny images somehow attracted more attention than any of the other stuff. The exact nature of the sex in question seemed to be the only difference.

CA: Have the events of the last few days changed the way Image operates in digital distribution? Are there steps you can take to prevent this kind of thing from happening again?

ES: Not really, no. I mean, we’re not going to censor our creators’ work. That’s not what we do here. I am beyond proud of the work Brian and Fiona are doing on Saga, just as I’m proud of what Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski are doing with Sex, along with Howard Chaykin’s work on Black Kiss 2 and Rick Remender, Kieron Dwyer and Tony Moore’s work on XXXombies. Our support for our creators and their work isn’t going to change, and in terms of how we deal with ComiXology, there wasn’t anything we did or didn’t do that created the situation, so there’s nothing to change there. That said, I don’t anticipate it will be a problem going forward. ComiXology seems to have the situation well enough in hand at this point.

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