Apple, the iPhone, and the Forbidden Fruit of Adult Comics

This unpublished page by Reed Waller from Omaha the Cat Dancer is one of the images Apple doesn’t want on your iPhone.

I think my iPhone is a great piece of hardware, but here’s the kind of thing that makes me think twice about giving Apple my money. In this interview from Print magazine’s Imprint blog, Kim Munson talks about an iOS and Android app she developed called Comix Classics: Underground Comics based on Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix, a book and exhibition on the history of underground comic-book art. The Android version is complete; there is no review process for apps published in the Android marketplace. The iPad version, happily, is also complete. But the iPhone version is missing 16 specific images that Apple demanded be removed before the app could be approved.

Apple’s micromanagement of apps has caused much frustration over the years. Developers tell stories about the app-approval process that recall the pain movie directors have felt over the MPAA’s ratings system. And while Steve Jobs is purported to have smugly suggested that iPhone users can get their “porn” elsewhere, Apple’s censorship policies affect mainstream publishers as well. (The editorial team on fashion magazine Dazed & Confused is said to have referred to the publication’s iPad app as the “Iran edition” due to Apple’s hardline policy on nipples.)

But something about the changes made to Comix Classics bugs me more than all that. There is, of course, the enduring double-standard in American culture that favors the most graphic depictions of violence over even relatively tame sexual fantasies, which Munson addresses directly.

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 [at the recent San Diego Comic Con]. 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 80 people and that’s okay, but sex is not.”

But it’s the fact that Apple is creating a kind of revisionist culture where this stuff is concerned — reviewing someone else’s painstaking research into an important thread of American art history and demanding that the results be softened up for mass consumption — that seems presumptuous. There is a decades-long history among publishers and booksellers in the U.S. of fighting, hard, to retain the right to sell a broad range of material, despite censorious objections on the grounds of indecency or obscenity. Their efforts to shepherd important, precedent-setting cases through the legal system — fortunately, the Supreme Court generally agrees with an absolute right to free speech — are one important reason why First Amendment rights remain to a large degree unassailable in this country. And now Apple, acting in a general capacity as both publisher and retailer, seems not just willing but eager to unilaterally suppress the same kind of materials that the book industry has fought so long to defend.

I know that’s Apple’s right as a private business, and I sympathize with parents who’d like to ensure that their kids’ iPhones and iPods remain raunch-free zones. But app purchases require a credit card, and the iOS already enables further parental controls for anyone interested in using them. Reading digital comics on the iPhone and iPad is great fun, and the idea of an underground comics retrospective sounds terrific. But the fact that only a bowdlerized version is available on one of the dominant platforms for digital media consumption shows that we have a long way to go before digital media grows up.

It’s certainly true that if I just want to look at naked ladies, I can load up pretty much any random porn site in my iPhone’s web browser and get material — much of it in the kind of extraordinarily poor taste that might make even Richard Crumb blush — that would curl Jobs’ pink little toes. But if I want to look at a carefully designed and expertly curated collection of comics artwork that includes some raunchy but significant illustrations that are placed in their broader cultural context, well, that’s not allowable on my iPhone. Allow me to rant: This is a farce, it’s un-American, and it’s retarding the proper development of digital media as an serious channel for content creation and distribution. If I end up buying an Android phone when my iPhone contract is up next year, this kind of shit will be the primary reason why.

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