In 1994, Mike Diana became the first U.S. artist to be jailed for his artwork, when he was convicted of publishing and distributing obscenity in his darkly satirical zine Boiled Angel. On Saturday, he will release a full reprint of the comic zine for the first time since the series’ original printing in 1989-91, in conjunction with a monthlong exhibition of paintings and prints at Superchief Gallery.
Given the violent and pornographic nature of the content in Boiled Angel, then–18-year-old Diana became a suspect in the Gainesville Ripper case, a series of student murders, near his conservative hometown in Largo, Florida. Though he was cleared of all connection to the murders, the artist was brought up on charges of obscenity after an undercover officer requested copies of his zine by mail. Despite aid from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Diana lost the case and was subjected to jail time, three years' probation (during which he was forbidden to draw or be near children), community service, a $3,000 fine and a psychiatric evaluation; he also was required to take a journalism ethics course.
Though it was a stressful and emotional time for him, the trial catapulted Diana into the limelight, bringing him coverage that he might have never seen from publications including Playboy and Wired.
“We’ve always had an interest in Boiled Angel since it was the thing that got Mike in trouble,” the show’s curator, Bill Dunleavy, says. “Even though it’s kind of fucking gross and not PC, Boiled Angel is of landmark importance to the United States for being allowed to do what you want in your art,” he explains, calling Diana “the godfather of American underground comics.”
Pop culture is rife with perverse or off-color cartoons, from Mad Magazine and Ren & Stimpy to Charlie Hebdo and Japanese manga. Even All-American Marvel heroes have toed deviant storylines. But in Pinellas County, Florida, Diana’s penchant for the extreme made him a fish out of water.
Born in New York City, Diana moved to Largo, a notch on the Bible Belt, when he was 8 years old. He tells me he lived near a thoroughfare called Rosary Road and was forced to attend Sunday school. There he resented the fire-and-brimstone approach of the preachers well into his teens, when he says he was routinely harassed by the police for being different in his small town. “People were very religious and didn’t like outsiders,” he says of Largo, adding, “It felt very heavy.”
The overwhelming fundamentalism of his immediate surroundings stoked Diana’s rebelliousness. He grew his hair long; drove his baby blue Mercury Zephyr station wagon to Tampa, a cradle of hardcore music, for death metal and punk shows; and spent hours in his room drawing darkly humorous comic strips that satirized and reflected the world around him. After he graduated high school, the artist began compiling Boiled Angel for mail-order issues reaching 300 subscribers at the peak of its circulation.
Elaborating on a tradition of horror, gore and gross-out aesthetics, Diana reveled in the taboo, leaving no inky line uncrossed. “I always gravitated toward the more gross stories and underground comics. I liked The Twilight Zone. I liked short horror stories and short horror comics that were just as bad as they could be.” With his own work, Diana was set on turning heads. “I wanted to have my art top the other stuff I’d seen,” he says.
Predominantly filled with Diana’s own drawings, collages and comic strips, Boiled Angel also featured guest contributors, such as comic artists Kit Lively and Scott Cunningham, who went on to prolific cartooning careers, as well as several amateur artists and horror writers, a Satan worshiper from Alabama, and serial-killer fangirls. True to Diana's word, the black-and-white zine offered spectacular depictions of violence and sadism, rape, child rape, bestiality, necrophilia, cannibalism, female degradation and religious lampooning at every turn.
For instance, there’s an illustration of two eggs frying on the cover of a Bible, underscored with a description, “This is your brain on religion.” Crosses are inserted just about everywhere you can imagine. In one issue, demons eat Jerry Falwell.
There’s a comic that depicts a religious school teacher performing a show-and-tell of slurping up a child’s brain after scrambling it with an electric mixer. He cuts out the child’s heart and eats it with peanut butter before zealously raping her, at which point police burst into the classroom and shoot everyone. There’s a sequence in which a child is adopted into sex slavery by a man who makes dog food out of smashed babies. The child unleashes the bloodthirsty household pet upon its master, doing away with the rapist. But before he can escape, the dog rapes the kid too.
Boiled Angel lacks any disclaimer that it is not an endorsement of the behavior depicted therein, to say nothing of the trigger warnings one might expect today. But, Diana insists that the shock and awe was meant to spur reflection. "How to Be a Successful Serial Killer," which appears in Boiled Angel #6, is no more a literal how-to guide than Kit Lively’s comic entitled "What to Do If You Accidentally Kill Your Little Sister," featured in issue 1 (it suggests making tinsel out of her skin).
“I was using my art to say, ‘Look at this world around you. Be aware of the society we live in,’” Diana explains. As the violent crime of the early ’80s and ’90s was recapped and heightened on the nightly news, Diana felt an incongruence to the placating attitude that prevailed in his immediate community: “Just behave and mow your lawn and don’t litter, you’ll be fine,” he mimics.
He sought to perforate the complacency around serious recurring issues like child abuse, violence and abuse of religion, which he describes as affecting. “I felt like I was trying to do something, or at least, get it out of myself in the art,” he says.
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In order for material to be considered legally obscene, it must first appeal to the "average" prurient interest in sex; second, portray sex in a patently offensive manner; and third, have no serious artistic, literary, political or scientific value. (Interestingly, obscenity laws in the United States does not preclude violence — only sexuality.) This is sticky stuff, as each of these conditions is highly subjective — whether something is sexy is debatable, as is whether something is offensive. Finally, the simple question “Is it art?” has loomed large in the annals of art history and philosophy, where everything from urinals to feces has been displayed in esteemed galleries.
During the trial, Diana wanted to present his personal comic collection, to prove that there was a bearing for his perspective. The judge refused. Instead, his writing was measured against John Steinbeck and his drawings against those of Picasso. To that end, Diana got a raw deal back in 1994 when Florida’s “experts” demonstrated to a small-town jury that his comics were of no artistic, literary or political value. Without adequate context, the jury was ill-equipped to evaluate the work.
In today’s world, where the overwhelming rule is if you can think it, it exists (and if you wouldn’t dare, it’s on 4chan), Diana’s cartoons are proxies for the very real grotesqueness of humanity. Today, the proof is in the dark corners of the unbridled web frontier, where the ante has been upped in every regard, subversively and otherwise. Every time you ask yourself, “Who are these people?” in disbelief at a headline or watching Law & Order SVU reruns: It’s us.
Mike Diana, Superchief Gallery, 739 Kohler St., downtown; opens Saturday, March 4, 7-10 p.m.; runs through March 25. superchiefgallery.bigcartel.com.