Apple Bans 59 Comic Books — What Does It Mean for the Future?

Oh boy. Is Apple getting into the book-banning business? They haven’t started pulling novels like Huckleberry Finn or Neverwhere yet, but they have banned 59 comics from their iOS apps. I don’t think I’m overly sensitive by saying that 59 is a lot.

Worst of all, of course, is the fact that Apple doesn’t seem to be providing any reasons for why certain comics are getting pulled. Creators of one comic, Sex Criminals, a story about a husband and wife who discover they can stop time with orgasms and use this… skill… to rob banks, say they received a notice that the second issue wouldn’t be published because it “contains content that many audiences would find objectionable, and is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.” What does that even mean?

The whole process is very murky, especially since, in the case of Sex Criminals, the first issue was published without a hitch, despite strong sexual content. It has since been pulled retroactively, however, and the third issue has been banned with no explanation at all.

So what’s going on? Are people (presumably parents) objecting? Or does Apple have some sort of review board that looks for objectionable content (á la Iran)? Who ultimately decides which comics should or should not be made available? And what exactly counts as objectionable when you consider that comics are read by people of all ages?

The weirdest part is that the same comics getting banned are still available through other platforms, such as the iBooks store. So it’s willing to sell it through some venues, but not others? Why?

In the meantime, not being available on comic apps is bound to hurt sales for any comics unlucky enough to run afoul of Apple’s unclear review process. And before you know it, that loss of sales will begin to influence comic publishers’ decisions about which comics to develop and the creative direction those comics take. And since no one knows what the actual reasoning behind these bans might be, that can create a big problem.

The whole thing raises interesting questions about the role of digital bookstores and apps in society. After all, brick-and-mortar bookstores rarely if ever pull titles because customers object or because the titles violate “terms of use” guidelines. And even parents who target books in classrooms or school libraries don’t tend to go after bookstores. Then again, bookstores also decide which titles to order for their store; they can’t possibly stock every book or comic ever published the way Apple theoretically can.

So what will the future look like when it comes to books distribution? Will Apple comic apps be like the comic book stores of yore or will they be restrictive and ban titles they deem objectionable? Will digital bookstores become platforms to host all books in an open market where everything is available, or will ebooks become banned even more easily than the paper versions?

It’s a scary world we might be headed to. But in the meantime there’s a comic book series about bank robbers who stop time using sex. So head over to iBooks and show them some love?