The Trial of Mike Diana, a documentary currently in production from cult filmmaker Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker), is set to chronicle the 1994 case of the first and only artist in U.S. history to be successfully convicted for obscenity — so far.
The story certainly has the makings of a compelling nonfiction movie.
In 1991, a police officer in California happened upon copies of self-published comic books by underground Florida artist Mike Diana. The officer’s discovery and subsequent alerting of Florida authorities to the notion that the comics could be connected to recent murders (they weren’t) set off a chain of events that would test the outer boundaries of the First Amendment in court.
At the time, pro-censorship forces in the Sunshine State had recently suffered a major defeat: In October 1990, a court acquitted members of the rap group 2 Live Crew of obscenity charges following a performance in Fort Lauderdale.
Florida prosecutors would be more relentless with their next target — Mike Diana.
Make no mistake: Diana’s comic books are alarming. Virtually every page revels in rape, murder, torture, child abuse, mutilation, bestiality, and necrophilia in brazen, graphic, and even celebratory fashion. The drawings alone quickly led to Diana being named as a suspect in a terrifying rash of gruesome Gainseville-area slayings of college students.
Although DNA evidence cleared Diana of the killings, authorities nailed the artist with a 1992 “sting” that involved an undercover officer requesting Diana’s Boiled Angel comics through the mail.
After the books were delivered, Florida charged Diana with three counts of obscenity — one each for publishing, distributing, and advertising.
From there, Diana went to trial in 1994. First Amendment advocates rallied to the cause, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund raised money to pay for Diana’s court expenses. It didn’t help.
Assistant State’s Attorney Stuart Baggish cited Danny Rolling, the “Gainseville Ripper,” who confessed to the aforementioned student killings, stating: “This is how Danny Rolling got started. Step one, you start with the drawings. Step two, you go on to the pictures. Step three is the movies. And step number four, you’re into reality. You’re creating these scenes in reality.”
After a 90-minute deliberation, the jury convicted Mike Diana of artistic obscenity. The judge sentenced Diana to three years supervised probation, a $3,000 fine, and 1,248 hours of community service. Stunningly, the court even prohibited Diana from drawing images for personal use in his own home during the probation period.
All attempts to appeal the conviction have failed.
The makers of The Trial of Mike Diana have set up a Kickstarter page to help fund the production. Diana is fully participating in the production, as are noteworthy comic-book icons on the order of Neil Gaiman, Peter Bagge, and Stephen Bissette.
In our present age of social-media “calling out” culture and public shaming online over “hate speech,” tasteless jokes, and other unsavory language, it will be particularly interesting to see where internet sympathies lie regarding the Diana case once the movie is completed.
Our First Amendment’s work, it seems, is never done ….
Main photo: screenshot from Kickstarter video