What is the function of art? Should it always be soothing and tender-hearted, with puppies frolicking in meadows with lambs and butterflies? Welcome to America, home of the “free,” the sick and depraved. Here, on March 22, 1994, in Pinellas County, Florida, the trial of comic book creator Mike Diana took place. To date, Diana is the sole American artist to be found guilty on obscenity charges. Twenty-four years later, a new Documentary, Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana, sheds eerie light on the case and makes its world premiere at WHAT THE FEST!? on Saturday, March 31, 2018, at 4 PM thanks to 85 North Productions.
Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana is fairly self-explanatory, as far as titles go. This documentary focuses on American comic book artist Mike Diana, a quiet, unassuming man who, in 1994, went on trial in Largo, Florida, on obscenity charges stemming from his zine, Boiled Angel. Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the self-published zine world was at its height: these self-made publications covered an endless variety of topics, with Diana’s Boiled Angel being a collection of comics created by a varying roster of artists, all with subversive, intentionally shocking themes and blatantly offensive imagery. This, as the documentary notes, is decidedly non-PC material, folks.
At this time, historically speaking, Florida was besieged by a set of killings in Gainesville, along with a growing trend toward censorship of anything and everything in the name of Christian family ideals. Consider that this was the time when members of the Rap group 2 Live Crew were arrested for performing their music, making singing a song a jail-able offense. With the public outcry running high, Boiled Angel came to the Pinellas County sheriff’s attention thanks to a slew of random and unrelated coincidences. With its hardcore, subversive depictions of graphic content such as mutilations, satanic sex, bastardized religious iconography, child abuse, and penises galore, Boiled Angel was a quick and easy target for the puritan agenda in Florida.
This documentary details the history of legislature against comic books, going back to the 1950s to set the scene and then discussing the growing trends in comics and subversive art in the early ‘90s, and, more specifically, the cases for and against Mr. Diana and the challenges he faced in his time in the South. The intriguing and enraging tale is fleshed out in full technicolor, but underneath it all sits the pertinent question: What constitutes art and what constitutes obscenity? Where do these two meet, and what exactly is protected by the First Amendment?
Clocking in at 106 minutes in-length, Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana was Directed by Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case 1982, Bad Biology 2008) and is narrated by the inimitable Jello Biafra.
Supporting the story of Mike Diana and his trial are a plethora of personalities from all sides of the tale, including Diana, himself; Mike C. Diana, Mike’s father; Michelle McCall, Mike’s mother; EC comics collector John Witek; Director George Romero; Matthew Diana, Mike’s brother; Tamara Diyakaya Diana, Mike’s sister; comics historian Robyn Chapman; Artist Jay Lynch; Artist Scott Cunningham; Prosecutor Stuart Baggish; Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Marone; Stephen Bissette of the Center for Cartoon Studies; Artist Mark Laliberte; TV Journalist Evan Bacon; Artist Peter Bagge; Defense Attorney Luke Lirot, who represented Diana; Protester Heather Redden; Author Neil Gaiman; Artist Peter Kuper, who was asked to testify at the trial; and Suzy Solar, Mike’s then-girlfriend.
Despite the polarizing nature of the issue, this documentary does a solid job of presenting both the case in favor of Diana and the case against him, going so far as to interview the two men that lead the court case again him – Stuart Baggish and Christopher Marone – and one of the women that protested against him (Heather Redden). The fact remains that, without any biased reporting, all three still come across as entirely insincere, with Redden an outright cringe-worthy phony, and Baggish and Marone merely smarmy, unapologetic sheep. In one scene, Marone even quips that he was just doing his job!
It is a sad blight, one of many, on the history of the United States that a man was jailed for several days, found guilty of obscenity, and then placed on probation and fined for authoring comics. There is an important lesson to be learned from the Mike Diana case, and not the least of it is to avoid Florida at all costs. Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana succeeds in its retelling of the story of the only artist in U.S. history to be convicted on obscenity charges, a truly shameful piece of American history, while maintaining a darkly twisted sense of humor throughout and always upholding a Punk Rock/DIY ethos.
If you are an artist, a punk, a free speech enthusiast, this is a story that you need to witness to believe. For these reasons, CrypticRock give Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana 4.5 of 5 stars.