That ol' double standard

At the Prism Comics website, Charles "Zan" Christensen takes a look at the maybe-we-will-maybe-we-won't world of the Apple app store.

The iPad has been getting plenty of raves as a comics reader, and yet, as Jason Snell points out in his recent exhaustive look at the device's comics capabilities, the technology may be great but the content is spotty, with some comics available for in-app purchases, others available only as single apps, and quite a few unavailable altogether.

Christensen's story explores why that is, and it's an important question. Remember, print comic distribution is already a near-monopoly, at least when it comes to comics stores, and with Diamond refusing to carry books that don't reach a minimum number of orders, the market has become bleak indeed for new and niche publishers. Webcomics seemed like the logical alternative, but no one wants to pay for webcomics. But iPod/iPhone/iPad users have been trained from the beginning to pay for their content, so these are logical outlets, and Apple's terms are actually quite good for publishers.

Except that Apple is being very selective about which comics it will carry, and that selectiveness seems to go not only to content but also to how large and established the publisher is. As Christensen points out, Apple shut down a swimsuit catalog app because it had pictures of women clad only in bathing suits but left Sports Illustrated alone.

When asked about the Sports Illustrated decision, Apple Senior Vice-President Phil Schiller explained.

“The difference is this is a well-known company with previously published material available broadly in a well-accepted format,” Schiller said.

This double standard is quite evident in the comics selections; Marvel's Kick-Ass was allowed, while Jesus Hates Zombies, which the creator mantains is less gory, was not. (Full disclosure: I haven't read either one.) And Michael Murphey of iVerse, one of the first comics apps and a well-established fixture in the app store, says that Apple allows violence, brief nudity, and swears at about the level of an R-rated movie:

"Apple has those exact things that you mentioned listed as part of their guidelines—you can check those things off, and the book will be rated appropriately. The only area that Apple is really saying 'no' to, from our experience at least, is pornography, or things that come very close to being pornography."

Yet Tom Bouden's adaptaton of The Importance of Being Earnest was rejected from the app store on the basis of half a dozen images, all showing two men kissing or embracing but not having sex, and none depicting full frontal nudity. Apple finally allowed the comic with big black rectangles over the "offending" images.

And the Yaoi Press YA title Zesty, which is the mildest gay-friendly comic in the world, was also rejected, even after bowdlerizations like changing "I'm strictly dickly" to "Don't get burnt, girls. I'm flaming!"

The question I am left with, after reading Christensen's comprehensive article, is whether Apple is homophobic or small-press-phobic. My guess is the latter; if Sports Illustrated had a special gay-themed issue, or Marvel did a superhero version of Fake, they would probably be allowed in. And in fact you can get plenty of gay-themed comics via the Kindle app—they just don't look very good, as Kindle is a terrible comics reader, and creators get a much smaller cut of the profits.

But that's the peril of monopoly: Apple's choices probably make good business sense for them, at least according to some sort of logic, but they also squeeze out a lot of new creators for whom the iPad is the most promising platform. As Peter Bonte, the publisher of Bouden's comic, said: "The big problem for now is the random nature; I can see the problem with 'boob-apps' on the iphone but genuine literature and art is the victim of this."

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