The controversy surrounding issue 12 of Saga, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ space opera/ fantasy mash up, has over shadowed its content, and I don’t think rightly so. We should be discussing the sex scenes themselves, on their own merit, more than the controversy surrounding them.
If you don’t already know, there has been a lot of kerfuffle and confusion over comiXology’s decision not to sell Saga #12 in the in-app store on Apple devices. They apologized on their blog, saying:
In the last 24 hours there has been a lot of chatter about Apple banning Saga #12 from our Comics App on the Apple App Store due to depictions of gay sex. This is simply not true, and we’d like to clarify.
As a partner of Apple, we have an obligation to respect its policies for apps and the books offered in apps. Based on our understanding of those policies, we believed that Saga #12 could not be made available in our app, and so we did not release it today.
We did not interpret the content in question as involving any particular sexual orientation, and frankly that would have been a completely irrelevant consideration under any circumstance.
Given this, it should be clear that Apple did not reject Saga #12.
After hearing from Apple this morning, we can say that our interpretation of its policies was mistaken. You’ll be glad to know that Saga #12 will be available on our App Store app soon.
Whether or not you accept this apology is irrelevant. Whether or not you think comiXology is bigoted is irrelevant too. The comic was not in fact banned—you could buy it anywhere else—and it was not censored. The big question left open is: what about the depictions of gay sex in Saga #12 “based on [comiXology’s] understanding of [Apple’s] policies,” lead them to not make it available to in-app purchasing. They didn’t seem super concerned about the homosexual sex acts of lesbian angel creatures earlier in Saga.
I would speculate that these particular images—one of a presumably male figure performing fellatio on another presumably male figure, and another image of three presumably male figures ejaculating on the first’s face—were deemed potentially inappropriate to Apple’s in-app selling policy because they are graphic in a way we haven’t seen thus far in Saga. (I should note here that I say ‘presumably male’ in these cases, because so far in the Saga universe, gender, sex, and sexuality all seem to be pretty fluid, barely contained in the modern heteronormative boundaries we see in comics: forget not that one of the main romance arcs is between a humanoid male and an arachnoid female.) So far, all the sex has been implied; we haven’t seen any penetration or ejaculation. The sex of Saga has been R-rated, but these two images are definitely X-rated. I am not defending comiXology’s actions or making any ethical judgments about the images themselves. I think, given Saga’s mature themes, graphic violence, and graphic sex, comiXology should have stayed the course and simply sold it. No muss, no fuss. The end.
Having dispensed with this controversy, we are left with bigger and better questions. Why include the images of sex in this particular way in the first place? The images are given to us on Prince IV’s face-screen as he is dying on the battlefield. Why then?
To think about why Saga would display something—anything really—on IV’s face-screen, we have to discuss what it, the face-screen, is and what it represents. IV’s face-screen is an interesting mini-comic panel and lens into his unconscious mind; therefore, we should read it like we would any other panel: the images on his face are part of the syntax of the page. When we see IV or any of the Blue Bloods, their screens are generally blank and grey. Nevertheless, at times, we are given brief glimpses of images on these screens. These images, I believe are representational of IV’s interiority. There are 13 total images on IV’s face throughout the twelve issues thus far and most are quite significant.
The first image we see on IV’s face is a broken, bloody horn on a green pastoral background just as he prematurely climaxes in issue #1. This image, comes to represent the jouissance of the moment; his la petite mort “his little death”, while trying to impregnate his wife, is represented by the agonizing pain of a broken phallic object. His little death, reminds him of his inevitable death and his need to create an heir.
The next significant image we see on IV’s face is that of a baby rattle just before he kills The Stalk in issue #5. The baby rattle here, for me, is less clear than the horn. Perhaps, just before he commits a heinous act of aggression, entirely bent towards his death drive, his unconscious screams out: life! Perhaps, before killing a woman (he secretly is curious if she is pregnant; concerned with his own child and heir) he wonders if this woman is carrying one too.
Either way, these images all come to represent the interior state of IV. It would follow then, that the presumably homosexual sex acts displayed on his screen at the beginning of issue #12, follow the same logic.
I would argue that these erotic images, displayed on the unconscious screen of IV come to represent a desperate libidinal cathexis in response to death. In his apparently final moments, Prince IV’s unconscious mind craves life, craves sex, and craves the ability to survive. The mechanized body of IV, screams out: life! It doesn’t matter that these particular sex are non-reproductive in a biological way, because they are reproductive in a psychic, Saussurean way. The syntax of these images on IV’s face-screen all have an inherent slippage. One signified image signifies a host of needs and emotions: fellatio and bukkake (I’m not sure what else to call it) come to represent a desire to survive the pain of death and reveal in erotic life. The la petite mort horn, the baby rattle, fellatio and bukkake images on IV’s face-screen reveal a character’s unconsciousness that is complex and pulled between poles of eros and thanatos.