Film

This Cartoonist was the First American Criminally Convicted of Obscenity

'The Trial of Mike Diana' is a documentary that will absolutely not be safe for work.

Giaco Furino

Giaco Furino

Promotional material for The Trial of Mike Diana. Photo courtesy of Kickstarter/85 North Productions

During a routine traffic stop near Gainesville, Florida in 1993, a patrolman came across something he found truly disturbing in the back seat of a car. It was a rough-drawn, xeroxed copy of Boiled Angel, a comic by zine artist Mike Diana. Full of shocking, graphic, and obscene illustrations of mutilation, abuse, dismemberment, and sexual assault, it immediately triggered several red flags for the police officer. Who would draw this? What’s wrong with the person who drew this? And could this person be the serial killer the cops were looking for? The one still on the loose and responsible for the Gainesville student murders?

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Illustrations by Mike Diana (censored for Kickstarter). Promotional material for The Trial of Mike Diana. Photo courtesy of Kickstarter/85 NorthProductions

Diana spent most of his adolescence in the small town of Largo, Florida. A small city with a tight knit, religious community, Diana always chafed against the hypocrisy he saw in the quiet, religious little town. “I [was] very influenced by the newspapers and the news at the time,” Diana explains to The Creators Project. “Reports about murders and children being killed, and all these priests molesting children, priests stealing money from families. All these crazy stories. And meanwhile I was forced to go to church which was very traumatizing in its own way because it was very radical, hardcore Roman Catholic. And it was all about fire, hell, and brimstone. Trying to scare you.”

And so he took to illustration, developing a comic style so anarchistic and intentionally revolting that no one would want to read it. And while his comics, as mentioned above, resulted in his being suspected as a serial killer (he was exonerated through blood tests), that was only the start of his troubles. After Diana received a strange request for some of his comics, a chain of events transpired that would change his life and begin a media circus.

“One day I got a letter in the mail from the State Attorney’s office,” he explains, “open up the letter, and it says I’m facing three counts of obscenity.” Add to that a media explosion in his hometown, heavy sentencing, and groundbreaking results, and this turns into a trial unlike any other. The story, as dramatic and swirling as it is, hasn’t been told in its entirety.

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Illustration by Mike Diana. Photo courtesy of Kickstarter/85 North Productions

That’s where famed cult director Frank Henenlotter, helmer of Frankenhooker and the Basket Case films, comes in. “I just think this is a crazy story of a young kid, who was like 24 years old, who lost his first amendment right because somebody called his work obscene,” Henenlotter tells The Creators Project. “It’s just such a shock, I didn’t know about it when it was happening. And I just thought people should be reminded of how fast you could lose your first amendment rights.” So Henenlotter is working with Mike Diana to Kickstart the first real documentary on the story.

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Mike Diana. Photo courtesy of Kickstarter/85 North Productions

“I had met Mike Diana for the first time in 2008,” says Henenlotter. “And we became good friends. He was coming over here just about once a week to watch some crazy-ass movie that I have. And I never knew anything about Diana’s past, he never talked much about it.” Henenlotter describes Diana as an incredibly quiet, low-key person. He talks softly and takes his time with his words, chewing on each thought before he speaks.

Henenlotter says, “There was one quiet evening when it was just he and I and he mentioned something about his arrest and I thought ‘what!?’ I couldn’t picture this guy getting arrested, he barely speaks above a whisper. And he starts telling me the damndest story I’ve ever heard.” After hearing Diana’s story, Henenlotter knew he had to turn it into a documentary. He explains that the film is mostly shot, “but you need a lot of money for post-production.”

Henenlotter’s no stranger to making art that shocks and offends, he’s been doing that since the 1982, but he’s never experienced blowback like Mike Diana, who was the first American artist to be criminally charged with obscenity. “No one ever said to me, ‘Frank you’ve killed so many people on camera, are you a killer yourself?’ And that’s why it’s so shocking that these charges against Mike Diana were done that way.” And this documentary, which features interviews with lawyers involved in the case, art community luminaries like Neil Gaiman, and Diana himself, hopes to shed light on the case and finally set the record straight.

To donate to the cause and help this story come to life, head over to The Trial of Mike Diana’s Kickstarter page.

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