The Continuing Saga of Censorship in Comics
Hey, folks! Today’s review is of Saga, Vol. 2. As Saga is a comic for mature readers, some of the images discussed and contained within this review are graphic in nature. So, maybe don’t read this while at work or having tea at your grandmother’s house. Unless of course your grandmother has a sock drawer full of smutty genre fiction she wrote back in the 70s and is grooming you to take over the family business, in which case be my guest. And no, you’re not hallucinating, I reviewed Saga, Vol. 1 back in March. If you’re interested, said review can be found here. It seems Saga just can’t stop courting controversy. Let’s discuss what got people hot and bothered this time, shall we?
THE DEFENDANT: Saga, Vol. 2, Brian K. Vaughan, artwork by Fiona Staples, Image Comics
THE VERDICT: This is a bit of a convoluted one. So, Saga #12 (the last issue in this trade) was originally not made available on Apple’s Comics App due to two sexually explicit images. There was a whole kerfuffle before it was revealed that, rather than Apple banning the comic, Comixology had not made it available on the app as they did not feel it was in line with Apple’s policies. This was followed by a smattering of official statements and everyone insisting the matter had nothing to do with the homosexual nature of the images in question.
Saga #12 has since been made available on Apple’s Comix App and writer Brian K. Vaughan has clarified his previous statements. However, the issue was also removed from the Android App and, while Apple’s name has been cleared in this instance, they are no strangers to banning comics due to far tamer sexual content and nudity. You can read more about the controversy and subsequent clarifications here and see Brian K. Vaughan’s original statements here.
THE CHARGES: Given Saga‘s graphic nature, it is not surprising that an issue arose. However, this whole hubbub was over two tiny images on a television screen during a battle scene. The images depict a man performing oral sex on another man (or men in the case of the second image). Comixology insists the decision to pull the comic has nothing to do with the sexual orientation of those involved, but simply because of the sexual content. However, whether the image was deemed unsuitable because it was two (or four) dudes or because it depicted ejaculation and/or oral sex, their stance is a highly inconsistent one, given the content of the previous eleven issues.
THE REVIEW: Saga, Vol. 2 is a Sci-Fi family saga that delves into combat trauma, interracial (er, interspecies) marriage, hybrid identity, and the cost of war for both societies and individuals. When we last left our heroes, Alana and Marko had deserted, forsook the war between their planets, and were on the lam with their bi-species baby, Hazel. Hazel’s birth is such a huge no-no in both societies due to their ingrained hatred of one another, that the best bounty hunter money can buy was sent to cover up the scandal.
This trade begins with the sudden appearance of Marko’s parents, who are none too pleased about the situation their son has dragged the whole family into. Meanwhile, the bounty hunter contracted to kill them has abandoned the hunt after the death of his assassin-lover-person-thing and his continued efforts to save a child forced into prostitution. With the help of Marko’s spurned fiance, he is able to rescue the girl and locate the fugitive family. Planet-sized egg babies, disemboweled ghost babysitters, bounty hunters with a heart of gold, and disapproving mother-in-laws abound in this unique and addictive comic.
I love this comic. Love it, love it, love it. It is graphic. It is disturbing. And, at times, it is just weird. However, it is an excellent story with some truly beautiful art. Gaze! Gaze at the beautiful art.
Sure, the fact that the humanoids with horns have dogs with horns is a little annoying, but so were the not-so-original animals on Krypton and Pandora. Superman got away with it by being a classic, Avatar by being pretty. Saga is at least as pretty as Avatar and has a far better story to tell, in addition to handling issues of race and occupation with a grace and complexity Avatar lacked.
This volume delves deeper into these issues by showing us Marko’s parents. Though they love him, their prejudices are not so easy to get over. Marko’s father, Barr, comes around, forming an odd bond with Alana as he seeks to make sure his family will be safe (it is bizarre that a series with two exploding heads to date can make me go “awwwwww” every other page). Marko’s mother, however, is not as quick to let ancient grudges die.
The argument between Alana and Barr in the beginning of the trade shows the complexity and seeming hopelessness of reconciliation after war. Marko’s mother’s hatred is understandable, given that her own mother died in a concentration camp. Yet that happened long before Alana was even born and she, too, lost family members to vicious bloodshed. Barr asks if she thought her people’s reaction was justified and questions what her history books taught her. Alana storms off. You can understand everyone’s anger, but what to do from here is at best a headache and at worst a nightmare, not to mention very much reminiscent of the justice/reconciliation efforts after many a genocide.
The flashback to Marko’s childhood when his parents took him to a historic battlefield further drives this home. As the text says, “His parents didn’t say a word, but the point of their lesson was clear. Never forget. Never forget the countless heroes who sacrificed so much. And more importantly, never forget those evil fucks with the wings” (Saga #7). Is Marko’s mother really to blame for not wanting her son married to an evil fuck with wings?
If Hazel’s own grandmother can’t accept her, who can? What is she? Where does she fit in? Who are her people? Hazel is the first hybrid between these two war-torn species and even her own grandfather wants to know if she’s “normal”. What kind of life awaits her, even if her parents can stop running for their lives long enough to provide a stable home?
In addition to family drama, this volume gives us a great deal more backstory, including how Marko and Alana met and how they went from tough-as-nails soldier and prisoner of war to runaway lovers. I love Alana and Marko. I love them each on their own and I adore them together. They speak bluntly to one another and argue frequently instead of spending all their time gushing about how in love they are, for starters, which is a breath of fresh air in today’s romance-laden sci-fi/fantasy. It’s clear that they care about each other, but it is a more realistic relationship, especially given the high-pressure circumstances they are in. These two might just be the healthiest couple in comics (Although Emp and Thugboy could give them a run for their money. Interracial couples ftw.).
In addition, their sex scene makes me so happy. It is a realistic sex scene with genuine dialogue, a rare feat in either comics or sci-fi, or really the media in general for that matter. They feel like people having sex like people and talking about it like people, instead of two avatars for the artist’s teenage fantasies written by someone who failed biology and whose best reference for pillow talk comes from porn or a middle school sleepover. Alana even has anatomically plausible breasts that conform to basic physics! Somebody give Fiona Staples a medal.
Far from being just another star-crossed romance, Marko and Alana’s story is a compelling one that trades the usual convoluted drama couples are put through in fiction for a more off-beat and powerful tale. The end of the comic, in which Alana is pushed aside by a grieving Marko speaks volumes without insisting upon itself. The babysitter insists “he just needs to be with his people.” It’s intended to comfort her, but it unintentionally makes it clear that, despite saving Marko’s life, deserting her people and duty to run away with him, marrying him, and having a child with him, Alana is still not his people. Juxtaposed with Marko’s childhood memory and a grieving family, it is nothing short of heartbreaking.
This volume gives us some more world-building and biodiversity in the array of horns and wings (although the evolutionary logic behind the gossamer to peacock feather spectrum is questionable at best). It also manages to shake off any bad habits I complained about in the first volume, most notably the overly gritty dialogue. And we finally get to meet Gwendolyn, Marko’s fiance, who is no doubt royally miffed. He not only deserted and skipped out on her to marry the enemy, but he did it with her family heirloom rings. Hell hath no fury, man.
Gwendolyn proves a force to be reckoned with and an intriguing addition in a comic already solidly built on the strength of its characters. Not to mention she is further proof that Brian K. Vaughan is the chosen one, a male writer who can write strong; dynamic; realistic; and, most importantly, diverse female characters. Somebody get that man a medal too. Medals all around.
Between The Will, Gwendolyn, and their newly freed charge and our heroes, the firefights and escapes in this series have me biting my nails in worry and conflicted loyalty, much as I do when watching Game of Thrones. Despite the common tropes of forbidden love and embittered former soldiers, Saga is a riveting and original tale told in a manner more akin to an indie comedy than a sci-fi drama. The fact that it’s narrated by future Hazel lends it a nostalgic and humorous quality, especially during the racy bits.
I cannot recommend this comic enough and am in agony over how long I’ll have to wait for volume 3. Fans of sci-fi, fantasy, quirky narratives, war stories, love stories, family sagas, family dramas, dark comedies, character-driven stories, and fiction that addresses deeper issues should all rejoice. Quick, run to your local comic book shop, bookstore, Amazon, or app store. Run like The Will is contractually obligated to find you.
THE DEFENSE: Without further ado, here are the offending images for your own frame of reference. Please appreciate the gorgeous peacock wings and fiery explosions.
To start, these images are tiny. I was specifically looking for them and I still missed them completely. I even had to call up my friendly neighborhood comic book expert over at Reviews By Lantern’s Light to ask where the objectionable man-on-man action was. Now that I’ve found the images, they are definitely explicit, but if one is going to object to graphic depictions of sex, why on Marko’s green moon were the first eleven issues not a problem? Saga is distinctly for a “Mature” audience and even Brian K. Vaughan says Saga has featured “much more graphic imagery in the past” (“Apple Bans Saga On iPads And iPhones Over Gay Sex“).
And for that matter, why does no one bat an eye at the exploding head on the next page? Once again, society has shown that it has a way higher threshold for violence (and even sexual violence) than it does for sex. This is sadly apropos, given the message of this story. All of the soldiers and assassins and politicians running around in a moral panic have no qualms about killing anyone, but Alana giving birth is just too much for them to handle. Hazel’s existence and her parents’ marriage (thus, proving Hazel’s making was consensual, rather than some wartime enhanced interrogation methods, which would have been more understandable to them) is an outrage so unspeakable that they will go to any expense and any length to kill them.
Much like the breast-feeding controversy surrounding the first volume, I find the censorship of these two panels to be weirdly selective and inconsistent. Violence and just plain strangeness aside, Saga has tons of sexual content. There are space brothels, child prostitution, robot on robot hanky panky, and forbidden interspecies rooftop sex, not to mention whatever was going on with that cyclops. I just… No. No amount of therapy or alcohol can exorcise that image from my mind. It is seared in there.
So what exactly is the deal? What, is child rape acceptable but consensual jizzing is not okay? What exactly are Apple’s policies and, more importantly, WTF kind of weird, conflicted sensibilities do we have that breastfeeding and stamp sized images of oral sex are where we draw the line?
If this is because said oral sex is homosexual, I call shenanigans. In Saga, Vol. 1 there is a full-page spread of a space brothel orgy, featuring more than one instance of homosexual oral sex. Of course, that was lady on lady action, whereas this is dude on dude, bringing up all kinds of issues. It’s like in video games, how women can have all manner of sexually explicit fun, but god forbid a female character take the initiative in any kind of romantic situation. That would make gamers feel gay.
This, of course, ignores the fact that 45% of gamers are women, gamers run the gamut of sexual orientations, and women have long read/played/watched things where they are told to identify with the male main character during his amorous pursuits. Women manage to get through Looking for Alaska or Mario without getting red in the face every time Peach or Alaska are mentioned. This kind of weird double standard also implies that lesbians (and women in general) are there for men. They are okay because they exist to titillate the male readers or gamers who view them as a male fantasy, not as people with any kind of agency or depth.
Also, are guys that insecure in their sexual orientation? Really? Because I can watch The Kids Are Alright without running off to make-out with the first hunky slab of manmeat I can find just to reassure myself that I’m straight, even if I maybe have the teensiest girlcrush on Angie Harmon.
If the issue here is not homosexuality, then what is it? Is it oral sex? Because, again, there’s been plenty of that. Is it male genitals? First off, I refer you to the cyclops. I would so much rather look at a normal humanoid penis than whatever was going on there.
Secondly, we’ve seen lady bits left and right in both volumes. I know television will accept female nudity as a lesser offense than male nudity, but that’s problematic in and of itself, further implying that women are just pretty objects to look at, something that is distinctly not the case in this comic. I’m pretty sure Alana does what Alana wants rather than sitting around batting her eyes or doing a striptease to get Marko’s attention or approval.
So, is it that the male genitals in question are ejaculating? There is ejaculation in issue #11, though it is not seen (and by not seen, I mean it’s the good, old-fashioned babymakin’ kind that is censored by a naked woman). We do, however, see Marko’s face in this scene and numerous references are made to Marko ejaculating, as well as Alana’s orgasm. Is this acceptable when those tiny images aren’t solely because we don’t have to see any ejaculatory fluid? Is it because in this scene we get to look at a sexy lady with breasts instead of some manbits? Is it because it resulted in pregnancy? Because they were married?
Whatever the issue may be, it is wholly inconsistent and gives us an unflattering look at just how neurotic, hypocritical, and confused a culture we are when it comes to sex.
“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.”
– Brian K. Vaughan, “Apple Didn’t Ban Saga #12, It Was Comixology“