Given our current online environment, you’d think that comic book censorship would be a thing of the past. Well, not quite. Whether the contents are satirical, sexual or just plain sick, comics creators continue to battle the forces of repression. And when it comes to the web, it’s one thing to post whatever you want, it’s another to have it seen.
Take Apple, for example. The company has been on the receiving end of bad press these days and is regularly criticized for its digital device “gatekeeper” role. Even masterworks of classic literature aren’t immune. Ulysses “Seen” is a graphic novel app by Rob Berry and Josh Levitas, based on James Joyce’s iconic book. When it began serialization in 2010, Apple insisted that they remove an image of a bare-chested woman from the first chapter. In today’s version of “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one,” Apple has the legal right to establish safeguard standards for what it “publishes” via its App Store. It also has the right to revise its decision, as it ultimately did with Ulysses “Seen,” after public outcry made the company realize the public relations error of its action.
Marc H. Greenberg, law professor at Golden Gate University, practicing attorney and lifelong comics fan, points out the weakness in this tactic: “Without any clearly articulated standard, artists will succumb to self-censorship in an effort to get their work into the App Store, and free speech will become a casualty of the process.”
Cartoonist and archivist Ethan Persoff adds, “The wonderful thing about the Ulysses blunder was it highlighted Apple’s prudish intentions with such a classic example. Despite years of marketing themselves as ‘Think Different,’ they targeted a comic book based on easily one of the most ‘differently thought’ books in history, and tried to say, ‘Fine, but no tits!’ The backlash was useful, however. Media attention from Apple’s ban on the app allowed the creators to raise enough money for a second chapter.”
Similarly, Apple rejected curator and art historian Kim Munson’s Comix Classics app, an interactive history of underground comic books. “There’s still a lot of censorship of apps or of Apple’s partners protecting their relationship with Apple by self-censoring things they think wouldn’t get approved,” Munson says. “Gay sex still seems to be a major issue. There was a recent controversy over two panels in Saga, the acclaimed Image series by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples. In these panels, they showed postage-stamp sized depictions of homosexual sex as a character fantasizes in a distressing situation. This was eventually resolved and the issue was published intact by ComiXology (comics’ leading digital distribution platform). But confusing double standards remain. Tom Bouden’s graphic novel version of The Importance of Being Earnest contains some gay fantasy scenes, and these were approved only after agreeing to cover specific sections of the panels with black bars, although this decision was eventually reversed.”
Howard Chaykin, famed comic pro and American Flagg! creator, is familiar with having his work banned. First it was Black Kiss II, a darkly humorous tale of gangsters, vampires and the Vatican’s porn collection, rendered in a style that recalls the Golden Age masters of American illustration. Diamond Comic Distributors Inc., America’s overall largest distributor, wouldn’t ship Chaykin’s six–issue series overseas due to Customs regulations concerns. “I can’t say I’m shocked that Diamond mounted no protest when the U.K. and Canada opted to deny Black Kiss II entry into these respective countries,” Chaykin says. “Diamond is a company whose owner is a guy who asked me— and I presume others to pray for the election of John McCain in 2008.”
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