Mike Diana interview

You know what they say: one man’s obscenity is another man’s art. In the case of cartoonist Mike Diana, it’s both. If you’ve never heard of him, than a new documentary is hoping to change that.

In director Frank Henenlotter‘s Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana, Diana’s historic 1994 trial is given as much attention as the history of comic book censorship. Mike Diana is the first artist in America to have been convicted on obscenity charges. His underground comics, depicting comically gargantuan penises, beastiality, and child rape, are provocative to say the least. But they were never meant for wide distribution. Diana makes it clear that his comics were a reaction against his conservative suburban town of Largo, Florida. But when an undercover cop bought a copy of his zine, shit hit the fan. He was sentenced to three years of supervised probation, a $3,000 fine, and was forbidden from drawing comics entirely, with the threat of random police searches hanging over him.

The court case described in the documentary is almost ludicrous when viewed now, in a post-internet era in which hourly encounters with hate speech have supplanted any fear of prurient artwork. I mean, can you imagine the filmmakers of Superbad going to trial for their hilarious and skillful dick drawings in the credit sequence?

I sat down with Diana and Henenlotter at the Fantasia Film Festival yesterday to talk about their documentary. Read our Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana interview below.

Frank, how did you approach this? As a fan of comics? As a fan of obscenity?

Henenlotter: [laughs] Well, I am a fan of obscenity! I don’t know why, but once I decided that this would be a good story to tell, because obviously this could happen again. But oddly enough, I took it very personally. I was thinking, “How would I fight this?” He doesn’t have the money for a court trial. Everything about the trial seemed wrong to me. It’s not like little children were buying his comics at a store in Florida. The first person to have bought the comics in Florida was an undercover cop!

I don’t care what the picture is. You don’t go to jail for drawing! So the whole thing really offended me. I knew I wanted Mike Diana to tell his story on camera even though a lot of the time he’s very awkward on camera. But I thought it was important to hear his voice. But the other thing is, I knew that we could get plenty of artists that would back him up, but that seemed too obvious. So really what I needed to get was the judge or the prosecutor. The judge was still on the bench so we called…the prosecutor. And it’s important, because in some ways he’s the anchor of the film. This story wouldn’t make sense without the judicial side of the story being told. The moment I met him I said, “I gotta be honest: I’m a New York liberal. I wouldn’t be making this documentary if I agreed with the outcome.” And he said, “No, I understand. I figured.” Still, he gave us 90 minutes on camera. My takeaway from him is that he still thinks it’s obscene. But we needed him. It helped the audience know what [Diana] was up against.

Towards the end of the film, you make a point that this is pre-dot.com. There were no online forums or message boards.

Henenlotter: Oh, if this would’ve happened now, Mike would’ve owned Florida! On the other hand, so much of the world is going right. You just have to fight it.

But I feel like some people do hide behind the First Amendment and free speech when they’re defending hate speech, but that’s not the case with Mike Diana. Some people clearly find it offensive but I wouldn’t say it’s hateful or that it belittles victims of abuse.

Henenlotter: That’s the problem with the First Amendment. What do you allow, what do you not allow? Freedom of speech means freedom of speech. The point is, just ignore what you don’t like or fight against it.

Boiled Angels - Mike Diana

Are you planning on screening the film in Florida?

Henenlotter: Well, we only finished the film two nights ago! […] But I could care less. What would you prove?

Diana: I think it would be good though. Maybe in Miami. They would appreciate it.

Henenlotter: If we’re gonna show it in Florida, I want to show in Largo. Right where it happened. I would love to rent a room right in the courthouse.

Do you think that because comics are still not seen as a legitimate art form in many academic or artistic circles, it played against you in the case?

Henenlotter: Oh, I think they are now!

Diana: It’s kind of very limited. Like the book Maus. There are very few that people are willing to accept. Ever since comics were invented, they were more disposable. “You read it, you throw it away.” I think it just takes time. Maybe in 100 years.

If you had made a beautiful oil painting depicting the same subject matter, I imagine that it would’ve been received differently.

Diana: I think so. I was probably in the worst place that I could’ve been in. In Largo, Florida, that is. It kind of shaped my artwork and the direction it went in. Rebelling against the community. I mean, they have the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. So they have a capability of understanding this stuff.

Henenlotter: Well, up to a point. Because the head of the Salvador Dali museum wouldn’t testify in your defense.

Diana: Oh right, I forgot about that.

Henenlotter: I didn’t. But the other problem, the word “comic books” has a knee jerk reaction that they’re made for children. He wasn’t doing a comic book, he was doing a zine with comic art. That was all lost in the screams and controversy.

Diana: They thought it was for children.

Henenlotter: The first time his zine was brought into a county was when an undercover cop bought it! Which is entrapment! And yet, the prosecutor on camera explains why it isn’t entrapment.

Do you think that obscenity trials have ever benefited the community they’re trying to protect?

Henenlotter: Every time someone has tried to judiciate an obscenity case, look what’s happened! Look at the classic novels that are now taught everywhere. Ulysses, Henry Miller. I don’t know…it’s the hardest thing to debate. It’s not a crime case. It’s not, “There’s the gun, there’s the fingerprints.” That’s why I think it’s so insane, someone as young as Mike, getting sentenced for drawing a dirty picture. And yet, they cover for priests and hide that shit!

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Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana is currently playing at the Fantasia Film Festival.

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