EDITOR: Brett's column was written and edited prior to the word from comiXology CEO David Steinberger that Apple did not reject BKV and Fiona Staples' "Saga" #12
When did being a comic book fan become exhausting? Is this something that other people think, or am I alone here? It hasn't always been this way, but it seems like every week there's a new controversy to get angry about.
This week's episode of "Comic Book Controversy" stars Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples in the clunkily titled episode, "Apple Refuses To Sell 'Saga' #12 Because Of Graphic Sexual Content." Spoiler alerts for those of you who haven't yet seen the episode, but Apple decided that a certain sex act pushes the envelope further than the giant, disfigured alien scrotum and full on, detailed sexual intercourse did. [Editor's Note: Since this column was written, it's come to light that comiXology preemptively pulled the book back.] Any time censorship of any sort is brought up, people are going to get angry (remember the episode that aired during February sweeps, "DC Hires An Anti-Gay Activist To Write Superman"?). This incident definitely fits the bill. To add insult to injury, the controversial images in the issue are of a gay nature, which just makes me shake my head and sigh.
For one thing, I'm tired of my minority being at the center of comic book controversies. We just went through this, didn't we, with last week's "Uncanny Avengers" #5 fiasco? It's incredibly upsetting to be reminded on a weekly basis that I'm part of The Other, but by now I'm just worn down. Do I have to get on Twitter and tell people, again, that there's nothing wrong with the LGBT community? That we're just people? Am I a bad advocate for my own community if I just sit this one out?
Truthfully I'm not up to speed on Apple's terms of service, and as a retailer they have every right to decide what they do and do not want to sell. Many comic book writers were quick to point that out, just as many other writers were quick to point out that being reliant on monopolized distribution system for our digital comics is itself faulty. Pretty much everyone was in agreement that Vaughan and Staples were right to stand by their story and not cater to the corporation. The thing is, I'm not entirely sure that the gay aspect of it is at fault here. Truthfully, that's a sexual act that this incredibly explicit comic book has yet to show. We don't know what Apple would have done if it was a woman and not a man. Whether or not the act depicted is actually any worse than what Apple has let slip by before is another matter (I would argue that it's not).
But honestly, I don't blame people for getting up in arms and calling the terms of service homophobic. When you live in a society that is custom built for the comfort of straight, white men of the Christian-persuasion, you encounter frustrating things on a daily basis. You're almost trained to expect the worst.
To give an example of what I mean by that, I'll recount an event that happened just yesterday. My boyfriend and I decided to celebrate him getting into grad school by going out to dinner. I arrived at the restaurant first, as we were both coming from work, and was seated at a table. Ten minutes later he arrived and said to the host upon being greeted, "I want to see if he's here."
"You want to see if she's here?," he replied.
"No, I want to see if he's here."
"Do you mean your brother?"
"No, I mean my boyfriend, and he's over there."
To get an accurate reading of the tone, know that my boyfriend thought this was funny; neither party was being snippy and the host was just a bit baffled. But that's the quaintest and gentlest example I can give of what happens to gay people daily. That's like "The Andy Griffith Show" of gay discrimination examples, but it's an example of what it's like to live in a society that assumes everyone is straight and has no idea how to adjust that line of thinking. People got up in arms about the Apple banning because our culture has made us sensitive to this stuff; we constantly have our guard up.
To go back to yesterday's dinner, I was waiting next to a table of two couples and their two children. I was worried about how they would react when I greeted my boyfriend with a kiss (you know, a thing couples do). We can't hold hands in some states, and pretty much all Wal-Marts, out of fear. When Apple bans a comic book that depicts gay sex after repeated issues full of heterosexual sex, people will assume the worst because the continued presence and prevalence of hate crimes have forced us to expect the worst. That was my gut reaction upon hearing this "Saga" story, but after thinking it through and seeing the images, I hinge my hope on the act itself violating Apple's vague terms of service, regardless of the genders involved.
Regardless of the terms of service, this entire incident speaks to an incredibly horrific aspect of American pop culture that I'm super sick of. Violence is fine, but sex is bad. Acts that take lives are great and acts that create life are bad (note: I know that what's in "Saga" cannot create children…but then again, it is sci-fi?). Why "The Walking Dead" #100 did not get a similar ban, after a defenseless human was beaten to death with a baseball bat across multiple pages, is beyond me. Why are we so okay with violence? Why are we so desensitized to it? Why are my nephews allowed to play games where the sole purpose is murdering people, yet they can't see a movie that might have a curse word in it? Why is a comic book that shows a person's eyeball getting bludgeoned out of its socket fine and what's in "Saga" #12 not?
"Saga's" success is equal parts due to Vaughan's fantastic story telling and Staples' game-changing art. The series marked the return of one of the most important writers in comics and catapulted a relative newcomer to the big leagues. But I'd argue that a lot of that success comes from the series' blunt portrayal of human sexuality and romance, even if it uses aliens to do the job. Alana and Marko talk about sex with the same intimate detail and frankness used by a lot of couples. Sure, maybe you go further or not as far as they do, but they're believable and feel more like a couple than those in most mainstream comic books. It's one of the series' strengths.
And yeah, I do know that the deed in "Saga" #12 is not between Marko and Alana, but I also know that it's tiny and brief compared to the page after page of gory human violence that other comics produce month after month. It all goes back to your own personal set of standards; I dropped "The Walking Dead" after #100, and I would not have even flinched at the page in "Saga" #12 if it hadn't made such a wave.
I started out this post being exhausted, but I now feel a lot more relieved. Yeah, it's stressful having a new controversy every week, but maybe I just need to write things out in order to relax. And maybe controversies are only as big of a deal as we make them out to be. As headache inducing as controversies are, they invariably lead to a dialogue wherein people who are ready to listen to other points of view can learn. That's where tolerance and accepting mindsets come from. So I guess we just have to deal with weekly controversies, and hope that we as a community can learn from them, thus ensuring that the controversies of the future are all-new episodes and not reruns.
Because this season has had a lot of reruns already.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre show Left Handed Radio: The Sequel Machine. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).