Sex! Nudity! Comix! iPhone App… Censored!
Artist’s Gallery, screen shot. This version shows a detail of Robert Crumb's Home Grown Funnies cover, which was deleted from the iPhone version of Comix Classics.
Adrianne Curry on a Comic-Con panel, discussing how liberating it is for women to wear sexy outfits. Later, she was officially escorted from the convention because of her barely-there Aeon Flux costume. Photo by M. Dooley.
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Adrianne Curry’s “bust” for revealing her butt wasn’t the only “scandal” unfolding during the recent San Diego Comic-Con. Elsewhere, cartoon characters were getting totally naked, and having sex, and taking drugs. And since they were images on an app, Apple was banning them from their iPhone.
But then, Comix Classics is a visual history of those anarchic, hippie-era undergrounds. And, Apple does have a record of blocking “inappropriate” iPhone apps.
Kim Munson, the app’s creator, had planned to introduce versions for iPhone, iPad, and Android platforms at Comic-Con. She first told me she’d been denied iPhone authorization during an opening day session on Wednesday, July 20th. Ironically, the session dealt with “advances” in digital comics publishing.
Kim kept me updated throughout the convention. And I connected with her afterward, to hear the full story.
A page featuring Rand Holmes’s History of Underground Comics, with audio narratives.
Michael Dooley: What’s your overall perspective on this year’s convention?
Kim Munson: “Transmedia” and apps were constant themes. In the panels I attended, people seemed to feel that “motion comics” had been a failure, and Dark Horse was the only major comics publisher that planned to experiment with any sort of interactive content. Everyone is trying to figure out what apps mean to the comics industry, and how they fit in. There was a wide range of speculation, and no one has an answer.
The comics apps discussed at SDCC were almost always distribution channels for digital comics. Ours is more of an interactive art exhibit.
I was also excited to hear that Fantagraphics will be republishing the complete run of Zap Comix. Many of the images that originated in Zap are also featured in our app. I will also be speaking on the undergrounds, Robert Crumb, and his illustrated Book of Genesis at the San Jose Museum of Art on September 7th, in conjunction with the Genesis touring exhibition.
Comix Classics: Underground Comics is a co-production between Toura, an app platform that is commonly used by museums for touring exhibitions, and Comic Art Productions and Exhibits – CAPE – a new partnership that is developing comics-themed projects and museum exhibitions. The app is based on the Underground Classics book and art exhibition authored and curated by Jim Danky and Denis Kitchen. It features about a hundred pieces of comic art by a wide range of underground comix artists, plus audio narratives, photos, and other information.
CENSORED! Denis Kitchen, 1972. Collection of Denis Kitchen.
I worked with Toura for some time to find out if an app based on Underground Classics would be a good fit. Ultimately, I designed and built the app. This involved reconfiguring all the images and other content from the book and museum exhibition, creating some app-specific graphics and new content, and structuring it all for an interactive digital medium. This included integration with social networks like Facebook and Twitter, promotional graphics for the app stores, and a new CAPE website.
Toura’s original concept for their apps is that they take the place of audio tours for museum exhibitions, so the app is also easily adaptable for that purpose as we find venues for the show. Our Toura rep, Chris Alexander, has been working with institutions like the Art Institute of Chicago, the V&A, and the British Library. He was very helpful in terms of testing and design feedback.
Since your eye perceives contrast differently when you are looking at a backlit screen instead of a printed page, I experimented a lot with color. The app looks good on the phones, and the art is stunning on the iPad.
After we get some user feedback I plan to add some new features, like a cover gallery, that I didn’t have time to build for this version. I also hope to add more audio and video features. Any upgrades we make would be free and automatic for anyone who already owns the app.
One of the hardest things was to come up with a memorable desktop icon, as this is the key image that brands the app in the app stores. And people have to live with it on the desktop of their device. I must have tried a zillion different ideas. I found the Cyclops that I eventually used in Denis Kitchen’s Chipboard Sketchbook, and based the icon on that.
Denis also created a great cartoon logo of a caped alien puzzling over a framed piece of comic art on a wall next to the Mona Lisa, which I used on our website and the home page of the app.
CENSORED! Robert Williams: Dormasintoria, 1969. Collection of Eric Sack.
Now what happened with Apple?
We planned to launch the app in time to begin promoting it at Comic-Con. Toura submitted the finished version to Apple. iPad and iPhone go through separate approval processes. The iPad version was quickly approved as submitted, with a long list of warnings attached… intense sex, nudity, drug use, violence, and so on. As my biz partner Jim Danky remarked, “I always read these warnings carefully so I know where to find the good stuff.”
Soon after the iPad version was launched in the iTunes store, we were surprised to hear that the app for iPhone was rejected due to “excessively objectionable or crude content.” After some back and forth, I removed 16 specific images that were deemed offensive, mostly for sex or nudity. Toura resubmitted the app to Apple, minus those images, and it was finally approved. The iPhone version became available in the app store on Saturday, the day before Comic-Con ended.
I don’t think that Apple actually wanted to censor us. They did, after all, approve the iPad version with no changes, just warnings. It’s a shame that the whole irrational attitude people have about depictions of sex in the USA can even make a forward-thinking company like Apple nervous.
The Android market doesn’t have the same type of screening process, so that was never a problem.
CENSORED! S. Clay Wilson, 1974. Collection of Eric Sack.
And what about those crude and objectionable deletions?
There are some images, like S. Clay Wilson’s Head First, that are just as provocative today as they were when they were first published. It’s really hard to equate that with a piece like Will Elder’s cover for Snarf #10, his commentary on the end of the underground era, which is based on Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. The deletions were plainly based purely on the visual representation, not the context of the pieces.
CENSORED! Reed Waller, 1983. Collection of Denis Kitchen.
I felt a sense of déjà vu when I saw that one of the works that had been rejected – censored – was a 1983 page from The Adventures of Omaha the Cat Dancer that showed Omaha waking up naked in bed after a festive evening. Omaha had been the focus of a 1986 obscenity case that eventually led my biz partner, Denis Kitchen, to found the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. And here we are censoring Omaha again in 2011.
And by a weird coincidence, my husband, IP attorney and law professor Marc Greenberg, had just finished writing an in-depth article about cases of the CBLDF, so all summer I had been hearing horror stories about people having their lives wrecked for happening to own, sell, or transport the “wrong” comic book.
The CBLDF also had a strong presence at SDCC, and had sessions about their cases. There’s a recent Canadian case in particular, where someone is facing a minimum sentence of year in prison and being forced to register as a sex offender just for having explicit Manga comics on his laptop.
In general, I think the topic of the weird schizophrenia in the US about violence and sex in visual media has been on everyone’s mind, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision about it being unconstitutional to censor violent video games. Director Guillermo del Toro said it best during a Dark Horse panel I attended. He was talking about how censorship was an everyday battle in Hollywood. He said, “the MPAA is the seventh circle of Hell. I can decapitate eighty people and that’s okay, but sex is not.”
CENSORED! Roger Brand, Joel Beck, and Kim Deitch, 1978. Collection of Denis Kitchen.
CENSORED! Drew Friedman, 1984. Collection of Eric Sack.
CENSORED! Jim Mitchell, 1971. Collection of Denis Kitchen.
CENSORED! Will Elder: Snarf #10 cover, 1987. Collection of Denis Kitchen.
The Scorsese of Commix (Denis Kitchen)
Mr. Unnatural at Society of Illustrators (Robert Crumb)