Imprisoning the Mind --
Art Censorship in America
by Morris Sullivan
Late in the 18th Century, a self-proclaimed libertine and philosophical offspring of Voltaire began publishing books that so frightened the representatives of the status quo that he eventually became the most-censored, most-imprisoned writer in history. Not only was he imprisoned, but the Marquis de Sade was eventually declared insane, institutionalized, and forbidden to even possess pen and paper--as if his very thoughts were so threatening that society could not afford their expression, even if he only expressed them to himself.
Now, late in the 20th Century, a Florida cartoonist has, to a degree, followed in the footsteps of de Sade. Mike Diana committed the crime of publishing a comic 'zine, Boiled Angel. Like Sade's more famous works, Diana's little comics are filled with disturbing and even nauseating images.
Unlike Sade, Diana creates his works in a democracy in which freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution. That freedom is guaranteed, that is, unless someone in authority deems its expression to be "obscene." There's the rub, because, like de Sade, Diana graphically depicts images of sexual perversity. Unfortunately for Diana, he was living in Florida when he published Boiled Angel.
"The obscenity law in Florida," Diana explains, "said that if a work has no artistic value, serious literary value, political value, or scientific value, then it can be judged obscene. What was amazing to me was that they could say it was not art and had no political value; I think the jury just didn't understand the law. They didn't understand that since it was art, it should be protected by the First Amendment."
Florida is a strange state. Since the advent of Disney World in the early 1970s, Florida's leaders have been begging for urbanization, and they have gotten what they asked for. With every economic expansion, however, there has come a backlash. For example, Florida wants its entertainment industry to put it "on the map."
Over the last few years, Miami has developed a world-class ethnic music scene, and Orlando's DJs have been featured in Rolling Stone. In the meantime, the state managed to turn an obscure hip-hop duo, 2 Live Crew, into (very wealthy) martyrs to censorship; Orlando has struggled in vain to shut down the scene in which the DJs thrive.
Mike Diana is another example of Florida's Bible-Belt mentality coming into conflict with its Hollywood East aspirations. That clash is remarkably illustrated in the summation by prosecutor Stuart Baggish, when he said that Pinellas County, Florida (the Tampa/St. Petersburg area) need not accept "what is acceptable in the bath houses of San Francisco and the crack alleys of New York."
In order to convict Diana and stop his presses, however, his work had to be considered obscene. According to law, therefore, the artist must be deliberately attempting to arouse the "prurient interests" of its audience. In other words, it has to make its audience horny. Diana's drawings are not the sort of thing that would turn most people on.
However, according to Diana, "The prosecutor, Stuart Baggish, kept bringing up to the jury that my artwork was specifically made for deviant personalities--as if Boiled Angel would somehow satisfy their needs when they weren't raping or killing someone. They had a witness, a psychologist that had testified at (serial killer) Ted Bundy's trial, going through each page of the magazine saying that it would cause people to commit crimes. Of course, I had a psychologist on my side saying that it would not cause people to commit crimes.
"It seems like in the old days when I was doing Boiled Angel, one of the themes I kept hearing about was young babies being molested. I decided to go further and show penetration. It was definitely for shock value, but most of my subscribers enjoyed the comics and saw the humor--and I think they realized it was not intended to be masturbation material for child molesters."
Even if a work of art does arouse the viewer, it still cannot be deemed obscene if it has political or other socially redeeming qualities. That is where the real debate lies--in Diana's case or any other. In order to judge the artistic value of a work, the judge and/or jury must be able to understand the very nature of art itself.
In other words, they have to be critics, and Diana's subject matter would probably not please most critics, either. His work appeals to a part of us that most keep well-concealed--the part that slows down when we pass a bad auto-accident on the highway, for instance. You're repulsed and disturbed, but you can't make yourself turn away. You read a Diana comic on the same impulse that fills the shelves of the "true crime" section of Barnes & Noble.
His humor is more than a little sick, too; if you laugh at a Diana comic, it's with the kind of wicked chuckle that a teenager with a new driver's license feels when his buddy offers him ten points to run over the lady with the baby carriage.
"I used to like the old horror comics. I had a lot of the 1950s EC Comic reprints. I used to collect those when I was 14, and eventually I started getting the underground comics. I liked the ones by S. Clay Wilson and a few other underground cartoonists. I really liked Basil Wolverton, too--his twisted images.
"I found a lot of my influence came from true life cases--real horror stories of strange crimes, reports of priests molesting children, child abuse stories, and so on. Some of these things would stick in my mind, and I felt like I had to get them on paper somehow. I felt I was making a statement about what's going on in our society.
"I also wanted to make a certain dark humor. I wanted to make people laugh about these real scary situations and get them to open their eyes to what's going on around them. People seemed to me so desensitized to real life violent problems, that they just didn't want to hear about them any more.
"I felt a lot of my fans really liked Boiled Angel, but a lot of people got the wrong idea and would call me a sicko. Like there was someone who had been molested themselves, so they wouldn't like it, and I understand that. I would only print the amount of copies that were actually subscribed--about 300 of each issue--so it went to a very select crowd. I would send a sort of mini comic first, which was tamer. If I didn't hear back from someone, then I wouldn't bother them any more."
Florida's authorities didn't think Diana's comics were very funny--and they got, as he called it, the wrong idea. "I found out that it was someone in California (who brought me to the attention of the authorities) in 1991. He had Boiled Angel #6. On the cover, I'd drawn a naked man with an erection cutting open a girl and pulling out the fetus. This was right after the Gainesville murders, when five university coeds were killed. Something about that issue made the person in California think I might be the murderer, so he forwarded a copy to the police in Florida.
"It was around December in 1990. Me and my mother were out Christmas shopping, and when we got home, two undercover agents--one male and one female--were parked in front of our house. They opened this briefcase and took out a copy of Boiled Angel, which they showed to my mother. I had told her I'd stopped publishing it, because she didn't like it. Then they told me and mom I was a suspect in a murder and that I was ordered to take a DNA test to clear my name.
"That got my mom all upset. They said I should immediately stop publishing, or they'd take it to judge and have me charged with obscenity. I said, 'Wait a minute. What about freedom of the press?' They told me that talk like that is what can get you into trouble. I thought they couldn't stop me, anyway, because of freedom of the press, so I went ahead and did (Boiled Angel) # 8, and I decided that would be the last issue. I wanted to do comics for other publications instead. Two years later, I was charged. I got a certified letter with a summons in it.
"One of those police officers took a personal interest in keeping tabs on me. In court, he said that one day he was in the post office, and just by coincidence, he was behind me in line. He wrote down my name and address, and then he started writing to me asking for copies of Boiled Angel. I'm not sure how true that is. In court, he didn't mention that he was one of the officers who had approached me about Number 6."
After Diana's conviction, Baggish recommended that the judge sentence Diana to two years in prison. Instead, the judge sentenced him to three years probation and $3,000 in fines. "Lately, I've been going through the conditions of my probation," Diana says. "I've been living in New York for about three years--the state of Florida gave me permission to move to New York, and to do my probation through the mail. I still owe about $1,300 towards the fine."
Like so many others convicted of victimless crimes, he was ordered to do community service. "I'm doing my community service hours for a group called God's Love We Deliver. They deliver meals to people with HIV who, for whatever reason, can't cook for themselves. I work in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, mainly."
The court considered Diana's work so threatening that it even forbade him to be in contact with any minor, a condition which he says is "still going on." "I think they felt I was dangerous somehow. Because I drew images of child abuse and priests molesting children, they assumed I was a pedophile or something.
"When I was first put on probation, I was still working at my father's convenience store. There was a little girl about 6 years old that lived across the street, and her mother would send her in to buy things with food stamps. The girl would come in, and she'd want some candy, but never had any money, so I'd give her a free plastic toy. After I was sentenced I did the same thing. The probation officer said, 'What's this about you giving toys to children? Are you trying to lure them into the back room or something?'"
As part of Diana's probation requirements he was required to take a "Journalism Ethics" class. I took it at New York University and passed it. I was also ordered to see a psychiatrist for an evaluation, to see if I needed psychiatric help. The psychiatrist didn't think I needed any help, but I still go to a psychiatrist once a month, just to keep the authorities happy.
"They also told me that I wasn't allowed to draw anything that obscene, even for my own use."
That rule, to civil liberties watchdogs, is the most shocking of all the court's orders. While comics dealers have been busted for obscenity, fined, and shut down, no one has ever been ordered to stop drawing. Not only that, Diana became subject to random searches, to make sure that he wasn't off in his room, amusing himself by continuing to draw "obscene" and disturbing cartoons.
"Police could do surprise searches without a warrant. They wanted to keep me from drawing stuff. Part of the reason, I think, was that they wanted to feel like they were really punishing me. In the court system, they get mad if you don't plea bargain. The judge wanted the people in town to feel like something was being done--to make an example of me--so other people wouldn't do what I'd done."
While Diana feels almost endlessly burdened by the terms of his probation, he's happier now that he's in New York. "I constantly felt nervous--under a lot of stress--so I finally got out of Florida. At first, the state tried to have my probation transferred to New York." The New York probation office didn't approve that, he says. "I guess here they thought Florida was crazy for having me on probation anyway."
As usually happens in such cases, Diana's career probably got a boost by his notoriety. "There have been magazines who have shown an interest in me and my drawings that would probably never be writing or caring about me otherwise--like Playboy and Wired. They ran articles and asked me to do illustrations to go with the stories."
Diana's career is still moving forward in New York, too. "I've done color acrylic paintings in the past few years. They're still extreme, but more subtle than the things I've done in the past. I'm drawing for the New York press, but nothing too graphic. I don't think I'm really censoring them, but they are more tame in a way.
"I still hope to get the same response from my fans that I would feel when I was looking at the underground comics. It was a sort of excitement--not a sexual excitement, but from seeing something totally different, something you can't see anywhere else. I enjoyed that extreme stuff, knowing that I lived in a free country and felt happy that I could enjoy that."
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