.:.THE TRIAL OF MIKE DIANA.:.
A Story of Underground Expression and Government Outrage
Listening to artist Mike Diana recount the story of his trial and subsequent conviction for obscenity, one is struck by not only the scale of governmental overreach he describes, but by his calm demeanor. The comics within the pages of his self-published zine, Boiled Angel, were at the center of a 1994 trial in Largo, Florida, which found Diana accused of three counts of obscenity. Was this soft-spoken man the same person whose outrageously violent and sexually transgressive artwork found its way onto the pages of porn paper Screw and Jim and Debbie Goad’s infamous ANSWER Me? How could someone whose artwork led to him serving jail time be so even-tempered when describing these events? Stranger still, why are so few people involved in controversial creative pursuits familiar with Diana’s story?
These are the questions that filmmaker Frank Henenlotter seeks to explore in his upcoming documentary, The Trial of Mike Diana. Produced by Anthony Sneed, Mike Hunchback, and Caitlin McGurk, the film features Diana’s artwork and archival footage, as well as new interviews with significant players in the trial, including prosecuting attorneys and protesters, providing a complete picture of how something like this could happen in the United States in such recent history.
We spoke to Diana and Henenlotter to get some insight into the project, and to see why the team behind the film believes that this case should be taught in every schoolroom in America.
Mike Diana’s Story:
“I had been interested in art from an early age, collecting monster comics and Topps Ugly Stickers. I kept on drawing monsters and when I was about seven, I asked my mom and dad to send my drawings to Topps to see if they could use them on stickers. When I was a teenager, I got interested in underground comics and more extreme things. Probably the first fanzine I found was a mini-comic with work by XNO, Jeff Gaither, and Roy Tompkins. It was inspiring to me that these people were doing it all themselves. That’s when I started drawing with a mind to self-publish, right around 1987, the year I graduated high school.
“I started doing my own zine and I was printing it at my job, which I had gotten through the school board. I was a janitor on the night shift and I got in the habit of using the copy machine that the secretaries used. I went kind of nuts making free copies and actually drawing on work time. The name for the zine came from an underground newsletter I heard about called Boiled Owl. Evidently in some religions, they believe that if you boil an owl there’s supposed to be an essence that can make you trip. I was thinking I should do my own version, Boiled Angel.
“I got up to issue number six of Boiled Angel and then a page got stuck in the copy machine. The door was locked to clear the jam; it was kind of a flimsy lock and I considered breaking it to get the page out. I looked through the desk of the woman who ran the copy room and I couldn’t find the key. What I hadn’t thought about was that I was there a week before, making copies on my off time. One night this secretary saw me—she knew I worked there because my mother helped me get the job. She said to me, ‘oh, you’re making copies for your mom!,’ and I was like, ‘oh yeah,’ but I think she got a glimpse of one of the pages. I didn’t know it at that time but she kept it in her mind. I decided to leave the jam in the machine and just hoped that someone would throw the paper away and not look at it. Sure enough, that’s not what happened. The school turned it into a big deal and campus security got involved. I was told I had to resign and they’d let me keep my vacation pay or they would fire me, so I decided to resign.
“I was trying to push boundaries, definitely. I probably didn’t realize at the time how strong my art seemed to other people. I was a fan of underground comics so I figured that since it was the 90s, things should be a step up, you know? I wanted to see the kind of comics I never got to see, or that I couldn’t find.
“The real problem is that I had issue number six—the one that basically cost me my job—printed at a print shop where I lived in Largo. When I came to pick it up, they told me not to bring them anything else. I had only sent out five copies when two detectives showed up at my house. They pulled my work out and said, ‘because of this, you’re a suspect in the Gainesville Student Murders.’ They had no suspect at the time and they were using that as an excuse to go after people to build up their DNA database. I had to give a blood sample and then they started asking me questions about Boiled Angel. I said I didn’t want to answer anything and that was that. I went ahead and printed issues seven and eight, and I didn’t hear anything else about the Gainesville stuff.
“Then in 1993, a few years after the last issue of Boiled Angel, I got a letter from the state attorney’s office saying I was facing three counts of obscenity. What had happened is that one of the undercover detectives who approached me about issue six had kept tabs on me and ordered issues seven and eight under a fake name. He ended up sending me ten letters under this fake name because I didn’t respond right away. I thought it was interesting that there was this person who liked my work in my hometown, but he always had some excuse why we couldn’t meet. Then he asked me to just send the books so I sent them and I never heard anything else. I only found out from my lawyer what happened after the fact. The reason it took two years is that the district attorney had been building the case for that whole time.
“I was in the worst place I could have been making that art. Largo is a very religious community. My family lived on Rosary Road and there were religious names for the other streets, too. It was like that long before I arrived there. Me being dumped down in this area and feeling that pressure constantly drove my artwork and my interest in the direction it took. When you’re a kid in this kind of place, how do you entertain yourself if you’re not into the stuff an average Floridian is into? In Largo elementary schools, the teachers had their own paddles with their names burned into the wood. They were very proud of the paddles, even if not all of the teachers actually used them. My brother saw a kid being disciplined by a guy whose job it was to spank the kids, and the guy was dressed up in leather with spikes and a cap and everything. At that time, there was still prayer in public schools.
“After my conviction, one of the conditions of my probation was to not draw anything that could be considered obscene for my own personal use or for printing. The police could come in without a warrant to check to find artwork. I actually did stop drawing at that time and I started painting instead, not that it would have made a difference legally. I kept the paintings hidden in the trunk of my car and I would sneak out at two in the morning and take them back inside to work on them.
“I was very depressed for a while, going through the whole trial and everything. I got to do a drawing for Wired Magazine where I depicted the characters in the trial as monsters. Certain things like that were good. I don’t feel like I ever really held back or changed my art as far as censoring it or toning it down. It made me want to draw even worse stuff, I guess, just to show them. I always felt like if something’s fun, someone is going to tell you not to do it. As a kid, I got stopped by the police so constantly, to the point where it became a regular thing. But I think it made me stronger in the long run because by the time I was charged, I was just like, ‘no way am I going to plead guilty to this!’ It made me even more determined to fight it. I knew I was right, but I didn’t especially expect I would win.
“Something else I thought was interesting about the trial is that I had done 300 copies of each issue of Boiled Angel, which is still a really small amount. Part of the law in Florida says that the public has the right to see the material being charged. So at the courthouse, they had copies of numbers seven and eight on display and even children could go and look at them. This is where the news cameras got their pictures of the book for the news. No one in my community even knew I was doing this until they heard about it on the news and everybody made a big deal about it. So Florida basically exposed more people to my artwork than I could ever have done without the trial.
Frank Henenlotter on the Importance of Mike Diana’s Story:
Known for his gleefully grotesque horror comedies like the Basket Case series (1982 – 1991) and Frankenhooker (1990), New York-based director Frank Henenlotter is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of expression. He describes himself as an exploitation filmmaker, describing it in his own words as “an honest label,” and goes on to state that The Trial of Mike Diana is the first non-exploitation movie he’s made. “There’s no need for me to exploit anything—it’s already got all of the elements,” he explains.
Heathen Harvest: So how did you first hear about Mike Diana’s trial?
Frank Henenlotter: I had known Mike Diana for six months before he told me the incredible story of this trial. I met him and Mike Hunchback at a screening of my movie Bad Biology in 2008 and I liked them both. I asked them to come by the following Thursday so I could show them some movies. Well, they’ve been coming by every Thursday since then. One night, Diana was over and he just casually mentioned to me something about this trial and arrest. He’s so low-key, almost hilariously so. The story was so unbelievable that it almost didn’t make sense to me. He’s not someone who exaggerates or lies—it’s one of the first things you notice about him. The moment he left I ran to the computer, googled the story, and realized it’s worse than what he told me! When I saw him next, I told him I wanted to do a documentary about this, and he said, “yes, absolutely.” The process took a while, but now we’re almost done.
HH: I was a teenager at the time and word of the trial reached me here in the New York City area when I was gearing up to go into art school. I remember following this and thinking, “oh my god, this could be any of us!” Here was someone who looked like people I knew, who was making comics like the stuff I was looking at, and he was facing criminal charges.
FH: Yeah, a 23-year-old kid they’re going after for this nonsense. And the crime was what—of being offensive? I’m still baffled by it all. It’s one of the things we were trying to understand with this documentary—what the hell happened? A big part of that answer is “Florida,” but this was crazy.
HH: So why is Mike’s story so important to tell right now?
FH: I think it’s important any time it’s told. I don’t think it matters if it’s today or tomorrow, or two years from now. History repeats itself, constantly. Neil Gaiman says it nicely. He says, “the most upsetting part of the Diana story today is that no one remembers it.” Gaiman even says this is the type of story that should be told in every school in America, and he’s right. The word “Mike Diana” should be a buzzword for what can go wrong with censorship, with how your First Amendment rights are negated the moment an authority looks at something and says “this is obscene.” They can decide that you’re not an artist, that your work has no value because it’s obscenity. You can go to jail! It’s not common but it happens. The whole history of art in America has been censorship! One of the greatest works of literature is James Joyce’s Ulysses. What happened? It was branded obscene. You can make a list of hundreds of literary masterpieces that were once branded obscene.
HH: The type of evidence that was allowed into the courtroom is really crazy.
FH: There’s an expert that said there’s no literary value to Mike’s work, that “it’s not the Grapes of Wrath,” but come on—what is? You can’t hold everything to that standard. The more we delved into it, the crazier it became.
But that’s part of the fun of doing this kind of project: digging the stuff up. We got some surprising help. Stuart Baggish, the prosecuting attorney, actually sat down for a ninety-minute interview and he was wonderful. I began by telling him, “look, Stuart, I’m a New York liberal and I wouldn’t be making this film if I agreed with you.” But I wanted to know where he was coming from with this, and he answered every one of our questions. I told him I wasn’t going to debate anything. I wasn’t going to pull a Michael Moore on him and edit him to make him look stupid. I want his side of the story because I have to understand. I felt he did have an honest revulsion to the material.
Another wonderful person we dealt with is one of the protesters. Our producer, Anthony Sneed, actually found her all these years later. She didn’t take us seriously until we sent her old news footage and explained why we wanted to talk to her. You have that cliché of the crazy-ass church lady with a lot of the right-wing protesters. You think of Dana Carvey and the Church Lady sketch. She was anything but that—she was a very kind woman who beautifully explained what her opposition was. You can be on opposite sides and still respect everybody.
I think the documentary is going to turn people’s heads. The trial actually happened in 1994 and sure, the internet existed but there were no real “dot-coms” yet. It was in its infancy. It should have created a national outrage. In fact, the same events today would create such outrage that it would’ve ended up with Mike Diana owning Florida! As the prosecutor himself said, Boiled Angel probably wouldn’t even be considered obscene today because of the internet. This was a moment in time and in a certain place, but that’s no excuse. Mike’s art hit so many taboo subjects. He was dealing with victimization, a lot of child abuse, but it’s not presented as a sexual thing. It’s presented as something quite horrible. Most people, especially the adults, didn’t understand that these were never intended to be the comics they grew up with. These were comics zines, made for an adult audience, sold only by mail. These were never sold in stores and certainly never appeared next to Archie on the comic book rack.
HH: I’ve been shocked at the number of people who don’t know the story. This hit so close to home for me when it happened!
FH: I really hope this puts Mike on the map with everybody, and I hope it completely vindicates him because he is still a convicted criminal. The case was thrown out of appeals court twice! Once they got a guilty verdict, I think this was a very unpopular trial and everyone involved just wanted it to go away. Still, who’s going to champion Mike? What judge in appeals court is going to say they want to take another look at this?
I don’t think Mike is bothered so much by the conviction as he’s bothered by the fact that they negated his art by saying it wasn’t art because it was obscene. They legally “proved” it was not art because they brought in experts who said it can’t be art. I think that hurts Mike most of all, and this is the kind of vindication that he needs.