On the epic saga of 'Saga' #12

This week's new comic book releases included such noteworthy publications as  the final issue of Paul Cornell and Ryan Kelly's drama based on UFO folklore, Saucer Country, the latest installment of Marvel's line-wide crossover-event series Age of Ultron, the one-issue return of some of Marvel's fan-favorite Runaways characters in the tie-in Ultron #1, the latest issue of the best superhero comic book on the stands, Hawkeye,  and the final issue of the Mark Millar-written comic-as-movie pitch series Secret Service, maybe better known as "What Dave Gibbons has Been Up to While DC Published Before Watchmen." And those were just the serially published comic book-comics.

The comic I heard the most about this week by far, however, was Saga #12, the latest chapter in Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' deservedly popular space fantas. And the reasons this particular issue was so talked about? Early in the week it seemed as Apple had rejected it for distribution for a couple of images of gay sex (although Wednesday afternoon, comiXology CEO David Steinberger said the move was actually due to his company's mistaken interpretation of Apple policy).

I'm a somewhat-casual consumer of comics news these days, and yet I encountered iterations of this story over and over this week. And in the time between the story's initial reporting and Steinberger's clarification, I've seen stories on numerous comics news sites and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's blog. A Google News search for "Saga #12" and "Apple" brings up 9,370 results, the top two being for The Washington Post and NPR, so obviously the mainstream media bit on the story as well.

Having actually read the comic book, though, the content that earned the mistaken, temporary pre-banning was so small and inconsequential, I probably would have missed it. (Note: Some images below may be not safe for work.)

Do you guys all know who Prince Robot IV is?

If not, he's the second-coolest character Staples and Vaughan created for the series, behind Lying Cat (a huge, gray Sphynx house cat who is partner to the bounty hunter The Will and is a sort of biological lie detector; she talks, but the only word she says is "lying" whenever she hears someone lie).

Prince Robot IV is a robot from The Robot Kingdom, and appears as a human being with shiny gray skin from the neck down, while his head is a television (complete with rabbit-ear antenna). The blank screen of his face can project images, usually when he's experiencing a strong emotion, or receiving communication. He dresses like a World War I-era European aristocrat. And, in the first issue of the series, he has on-panel heterobosexual sex with his wife.

Well, the first page of Saga #12 is a splash page, showing a horribly wounded Prince Robot IV limp and collapsed in the arms of a soldier, while blue blood (get it?) pours out of a neck wound and puddles behind him. On his monitor, which is about one square inch of the page, is an image of someone performing fellatio. Looking closely for exactly these purposes, I think it's more than likely a man sucking another man, but it's so small there aren't a whole lot of visual clues there.

This far into the story, a single image, I thought maybe this was Prince Robot IV's way of calling someone, probably whoever shot him, a "cocksucker." On the next page, in the very next panel, we see the same scene from a slightly different angle, and the image on Prince Robot IV's face monitor‚ which is now slightly smaller, is a tight close-up of three penises ejaculating above the open mouth of the character.

When a medic runs up, the soldier cradling the wounded prince shouts to her, "Blueblood attached to our unit took a round in the neck! He's fritzed!"

I know little about robot royalty biology, but I guess the images are a symptom of the the Prince being "fritzed" — when fritzed, something like gay human porn can appear on their monitors. I guess.

And that's it. From the third panel on, there is no gay sex, nor any sex of any kind. There are no genitals of any kind — not human nor alien, male nor female, flaccid nor turgid.

The rest of the scene plays out like something out of a WWI story, as a gas attack — magic, not mustard — rolls in and violently, painfully kills the poor volunteer medic. It's a flashback to Prince Robot's time in the war, which he's dreaming about.

He is the focus of the entire issue, as Vaughan reminds us that Robot has a very good, very personal reason for pursuing our heroes Alana, Marko and Hazel, and Prince Robot confronts the writer of the anti-war treatise disguised as a super-weird, trashy romance novel that helped bring the star-crossed lovers together in the first place. It's a tense, dramatic scene, with a heck of a cliffhanger ending, and plenty of opportunities for Staples to design and draw cool characters, from ones with large speaking parts like the author Robot questions, to that little seal guy at the top of this post.

After I finished reading it, I had to go back and look for images of gay sex, because I thought I recalled mention of at least two instances, but I had already forgotten one of them.

In other words, and this should come as little surprise to any of you, the objectionable images in this comic book are no big deal. They might present some wider issues of some import well worth or attention and discussion, like a pop-couple double standard that still sees gay sex as somehow more shocking or daring than hetero sex (of which there has been plenty in Saga so far),  the importance of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund as reassuring security blanket nervous retailers can take comfort in knowing is there for them, the importance of buying your comics in paper form from a brick-and-mortar shop rather than relying on an electronic, third-party vendor with different standards than both the creators and the readers, or that no matter what the Supreme Court justices might be discussing at the moment, it's always 1988 somewhere.

What I found most interesting about this story is that it's at least the second time in Saga's 12-issue lifespan that someone objected to an image in the book, resulting in a great deal of online coverage and discussion of Saga. Remember when Dave Dorman got the vapors over the image of a mother breastfeeding her infant child on the cover of the first issue?

In a sense, the "There's No Such Thing As Bad Publicity" sense, such discussion couldn't happen to a better comic book — because there aren't any, or aren't that many, better comic books than Saga. Vaughan, Staples and Image Comics couldn't really ask for more coverage of the 12th issue of their book, just as all that talk of breastfeeding increased the already-impressive amount of conversation about a new project from talented creators like Staples and Vaughan all those many months ago.

And yet it's clearly not like the creators are courting controversy. In both instances, the objectionable — or is "objected to" a better way to put it? — content was clearly incidental, rather than  a point of focus.

The objections, particularly in the case of the breastfeeding, were pretty out of left field. Staples surely knows her readers by this point, and she  surely knows they are OK with an image of dudes jerking off into someone's mouth on the face-screen of a television-headed, wounded robot prince in a smart jacket, and she  likely wasn't thinking past them to say, comiXology or Apple, and what comiXology's or Apple's policies were regarding what sort of imagery can appear on the face-screens of computer-headed robot princes that appear in comics they deliver. It's hard to imagine any reasonable person second-guessing something like the breastfeeding of a baby as a source of potential controversy.

The last day or so probably included a lot of stress for a lot of folks at comiXology and Apple regarding Saga #12 and public perception, and certainly Vaughan and Staples and Image Comics had some cause for concerns, and even more certainly lots of folks who write about comics had quite a few concerns, but let's look at the bright side: Everyone was talking about a great comic that (just about) everybody should be reading.

So here's hoping we keep talking about Saga — hopefully for different, better reasons.

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