Saga, the Comic Book Industry, and Florida Obscenity Laws

Saga Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
Saga number 1 by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Saga is an epic science-fiction fantasy series created by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples. It premiered in March 2012 and tells the story of two lovers, Alana and Marko, who are from different sides of an ethnic conflict that has engulfed the galaxy. Their illegal romance means that they are constantly on the run from authorities and bounty hunters while learning how to be parents to their newborn daughter, Hazel. It’s a series that’s reminiscent of Star Wars and sword-and-sorcery fantasy series while also drawing from various other pieces of popular culture. Saga is one of my favorite new comics each month because it’s beautifully illustrated and features a cast of exciting and engaging characters. It’s also a book for mature readers, and that hadn’t been a problem until last week when the twelfth issue created a controversy that raised questions about the current state of the comic book industry, the divide between digital and physical retailers, and the continuing specter of obscenity laws in the United States.

The controversy erupted when it was announced that because of the content in the book, digital comics retailer ComiXology would not be releasing Saga #12 on any of its iOS applications. Apple has fairly strict content guidelines concerning what can be sold through their App Store, so many people just assumed that Apple had banned the book. Upon reading this news, many comic book retailers opened their new comic shipments on Tuesday to find an explicit image of a man giving another man oral sex on the first page of the issue in question. The actual image is quite small, as it appears on Prince Robot IV’s television monitor head. A similar image appears on the second page. To judge the explicitness of these images yourself, you can link to them from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s story about the controversy. A Salon article concluded that the censorship occurred because the images were of gay instead of straight sex, and numerous other commentators and comic book readers jumped to the book’s defense. While Apple was often portrayed as the prude and homophobic villain in these reports, it turns out that it was someone at ComiXology’s decision to not release the issue because they misinterpreted Apple’s policy. Writer Brian K. Vaughn issued the following statement as a result:

I wanted to apologize to everyone for this entire SAGA #12 kerfuffle.  Yesterday, I was mistakenly led to believe that this issue was solely with Apple, but it’s now clear that it was only ever Comixology too conservatively interpreting Apple’s rules.  I’m truly sorry.  I never thought either company was being homophobic, only weirdly inconsistent about what kind of adult material was permissible.  I’m grateful that the situation was cleared up so quickly, and I’m delighted I can go back to reading smutty comics on my Retina Display iPad.

So no problem. It was just a misunderstanding that involved too many people jumping to conclusions but can now purchase the issue on their Apple products so everything’s good, right? Not completely. I still wasn’t able to buy Saga #12 at Secret Headquarters, my preferred Tallahassee comic shop, and I won’t be able to buy new issues of Saga there going forward. While it’s unfortunate for me, I can understand why the store’s proprietor had to make this decision. The potential repercussions for a small business owner in the Bible Belt are vastly different from a company like Apple or even ComiXology who sell content digitally to users all over the world. Here are the tweets to artist Fiona Staples that alerted me to the situation:

He won’t sell the book because of how graphically the sex in question is depicted. It has nothing to do with the action shown on Prince Robot IV’s head being man-on-man but because of how clearly it shows what is happening. As he explained it to me in the store, it’s the difference between Boogie Nights and Debbie Does Dallas. They both depict sex, but one is just R-rated and the other would be rated X or NC-17.

Saga #12 was solicited with a summary stating "Prince Robot IV makes his move."
Saga #12 was solicited with a summary stating “Prince Robot IV makes his move.”

For selling Saga #12, he could be arrested for breaking Florida’s obscenity statutes (Title XLVI, Chapter 847). These laws use outdated words like “prurient” and “turgid.” They define things like Deviate Sexual Intercourse as “sexual conduct between persons not married to each other consisting of contact between the penis and the anus, the mouth and the penis, or the mouth and the vulva” and Sexual Conduct as “actual or simulated sexual intercourse, deviate sexual intercourse, sexual bestiality, masturbation, or sadomasochistic abuse; actual lewd exhibition of the genitals; actual physical contact with a person’s clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or, if such person is a female, breast with the intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of either party.” The definition for what is Obscene is any material which:

  • The average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
  • Depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct as specifically defined herein; and
  • Taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The laws go on to state that “Any person who knowingly sells … or has in his or her possession, custody, or control with intent to sell … any obscene book, magazine, periodical, pamphlet, newspaper, comic book, story paper, written or printed story or article, writing, paper, card, picture, drawing, photograph, motion picture film, figure, image, phonograph record, or wire or tape or other recording … commits a misdemeanor of the first degree.” As you can see, comic books are specifically named as potentially obscene material. Anyone familiar with the history of comic books in the United States knows that this is nothing new. All it would take is one police officer or prosecutor trying to make a point, and they could arrest the store owner for selling this issue of Saga. Even if he wouldn’t be found guilty, an arrest would probably be enough to put the store out of business.

The shop’s owner explained his decision, saying:

The key issue involved here is “Community Standards.” Our store is in the South, and while things are (arguably) better than they used to be, graphical sexual imagery is still something that locally is only sold (or rented) in stores that do not allow children.

Not only does my store allow children, but our children’s section is quite large. In addition, my 9yo daughter is in the store 26 hours a week, every other week. I don’t just have to worry about an overzealous prosecutor or angry clergy, I have to worry about a potential *custody* battle and a Family Court judge.

I support the CBLDF. I give them money every year, and have a collection box on my counter for customers to donate to them as well. I just don’t want to ever have to use their services myself.

I plan to keep reading Saga, but I’ll probably just start ordering the trade paperbacks from Amazon instead of getting the single issues each month. Other stores in Tallahassee still sold the issue, and one of them more than doubled the cover price when Secret Headquarters customers were scrambling to get ahold of it. I appreciate that the comic shop I go to is not a creepy place (unfortunately there are some of those out there), and that it not only welcomes families and female readers but actively caters to female fandom. So Secret Headquarters will still get my money, just not $2.99 for Saga each month.

This whole situation raises a few other things worth addressing:

– Obscenity laws are horribly vague and outdated. While the intention of protecting children is good, they need to be clarified and rewritten so that they can not also be used to enforce one person’s idea of moral standards on other consenting adults.

– How is a serialized comic book supposed to be “taken as a whole” to determine literary, artistic, political, or scientific value? The panels in question take place in a PTSD-related dream/flashback to Prince Robot IV being injured in the war. Bryan K. Vaughn stated that “everything we put into the book is there to advance our story,” but when the story is incomplete and ongoing how should something like this be judged? Prince Robot IV’s story will develop over the next few months and years as new issues come out, so if context matters we don’t yet have the full context.

– Obscenity laws seem to be one of the few areas where the primary targets are retailers and not the creators of the obscene content. A bookstore owner was arrested in the landmark case over Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and still today many comic shop owners need the assistance of the CBLDF after being arrested for selling so-called obscene material. Just look at their case files. This extends into the realm of music as well, as in 1990 a Florida record store owner was arrested for selling 2 Live Crew’s Nasty as They Wanna Be. Now that we are in an age of digital distribution for music and comics, how might digital distributors be impacted by these laws? While Apple and ComiXology are most likely safe from Federal prosecution by Eric Holder’s Justice Department, could they still potentially face charges from an overzealous state attorney?

– Brick and mortar comic shops are given very little information about the books that they order. The solicitation for Saga #12 described the issue with the sentence “Prince Robot IV makes his move.” While it was marked as Mature (just like the previous issues), that did not fully describe what the issue contained. Instead, retailers had to wait until their shipments arrived the day before the book went on sale, which is when some realized that they now had hundreds of copies of a book they could not sell. While I understand that companies do not want to spoil books for readers before they go on sale, they hurt the people who actually sell their materials by not providing adequate information about the content of a book. Digital distributors do not have to worry about over or under-ordering a book, but that’s a significant challenge for physical retailers.

Over the last few days, other series that ComiXology assumed could not be sold on Apple devices have shown up on their iOS applications, so this case actually led to more content being available through these digital retailers. As I don’t have an iPad, I’m sticking with physical comics from a local business for the foreseeable future. And while I won’t be purchasing Saga there anymore, hopefully Secret Headquarters can still get me a Lying Cat t-shirt, assuming that there isn’t an explicit sex scene on the back that the solicitation neglected to mention. Either way, I’m pretty sure the t-shirt won’t be available on the app store.

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