Mike Diana drew insanely offensive art. That was his whole point. He wanted to be appreciated not by the masses, but by people who were on his own demented wavelength. Odds are you’ve never heard of Diana. He is the first U.S. artist convicted of obscenity. Now he’s the subject of an important documentary from director Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker) called Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana. The film had its international premiere at Fantasia 2018.
After a brief, informative history of underground comics, the documentary zeroes in on its subject. Diana was a young Florida man who published a zine (a homemade magazine sent out to subscribers by mail) called Boiled Angels. It was filled with cartoons that spoke to his personal obsessions: sexuality, religion, and violence. The sexual assault of children and infants was a common theme in his work, although it was presented in an extremely exaggerated fashion.
Through a freak confluence of events, Diana’s drawings came to the attention of the police. A traffic stop turned up a copy of one issue, and the officer noticed some similarities between the illustrations and a series of brutal murders that had taken place in Gainesville, Florida. Authorities tracked him down and immediately began investigating to see if he might be the killer. He wasn’t. That said, his work was deemed obscene, leading to an arrest and trial, at the end of which he was convicted of obscenity. No one had been hurt, and the zine only went into the hands of 200 or 300 people, all of whom voluntarily subscribed to it.
Henenlotter interviews Diana about his ordeal, but also talks to his parents, the prosecutor who won the case, a woman who followed the story in the media and showed up in court to confront him, and multiple fellow artists. Each offers a unique perspective on the trial and its long-term ramifications.
Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana uses these interviews to get at its main point, which is that it’s absolutely absurd for anyone to have been convicted for drawing provocative pictures. It’s precisely the thing the First Amendment is supposed to protect, and yet somehow, in this particular instance, justice was not served. If anything, Diana used his artwork as a means of getting rid of his demons in a productive, non-violent way. The problem is not what he drew, it’s that people couldn’t deal with those drawings once they saw them.
Narrated by punk rocker Jello Biafra and featuring a healthy swath of its subject’s work, Boiled Angels makes a strong statement about the need for art to push boundaries, to confront us, and to occasionally assault our sensibilities. Diana is clearly a shy man, so he doesn’t necessarily go deep into his feelings, but Henenlotter makes sure to fill everything out, leading to a documentary that will offend and enlighten you simultaneously.
For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.