MIKE DIANA has become the stuff of lore: on March 29, 1994, a jury in Pinellas County, Florida, found the comics creator guilty of three counts of obscenity. He was sentenced to undergo several punishments: three years of probation, 1,248 hours of community service, a fine of $3,000, no contact with minors, forced enrollment in a journalism ethics class, and mandatory psychiatric counseling. What made the headlines, however, is that Diana was sentenced to random search and seizure of his personal property to ensure he had stopped making art in the state of Florida.
His offenses were the result of his self-published zine Boiled Angel — resulting in one count each for drawing, advertising, and distributing. The zine is a typical style from the time, made with a copy machine and composed of a mixture of Diana’s comics juxtaposed with cutouts from other magazines and books. One comic, “Fur Exult” from 1990’s Boiled Angel #7, tells the story of a dog fed up with canned food who attacks his owners. He stabs the man and cuts off the woman’s breasts before raping her with a knife. He then invites over his girlfriend, a poodle, to eat the children over a candlelit dinner. At the bottom of the page is a cutout from a bible study discussing the offertory of the host and Holy Communion. This was the issue of Boiled Angel that eventually found its way into the hands of the California detective who brought charges against Diana under Florida’s obscenity statute.
Building an art career from the publicity of his trial, Diana moved to New York after a second failed appeal to serve his sentence by proxy. During this time, he began painting and now regularly shows in galleries — most recently in a career retrospective hosted by Divus, a European art house/publisher — and is periodically interviewed by magazines and comics podcasts. It’s nothing huge, but his stock has certainly gone up in recent years. Enough for Divus to publish a substantial box set of his comics and artwork. The set, titled America, contains two volumes: Live and Die. The first consists of over 400 pages of Diana’s comics. The second, much smaller, is a collection of his gallery paintings. In its entirety, the set covers 22 years (1989 to 2011), a respectful consideration that few other artists will ever receive.
Diana’s style is one part underground comix, two parts Chick tract, and three parts Mike Judge. His lines are simple and messy, his details sometimes lacking, and his forms basic. The dialogue and narrative are naive and deficient in structure, flow, and purpose. In a word, it’s childlike. This style, when given form in images of nudity, sexual violence, and grotesque torture, is the heart of both the work’s appeal and why it’s disgusting. There’s no way to speak of Diana’s work without addressing the fact that it is both loved and reviled: In the 20 years since his conviction, Diana has become a cult celebrity. Despised by a few, beloved by just as many, and wavering between fascinating and offensive to the rest of us.
The box set’s cover, which depicts an erect penis with an American-themed banner protruding from its urethra, promises shock, and neither volume disappoints. The cover of Die shows an impaled head, while Live has a man cutting out his own eye using a pair of scissors. Each book is filled with the images of violence and horror for which Diana is known. If you are unfamiliar with his work, a warning: it is disturbing, more so than I can relay to you here. The first comic in the set, “Head Stomper,” from 1988, is about a man who is sexually aroused by stomping the heads of infants. In another, a woman impales her husband with cypress knees — the spiky protrusions that stick up from cypress tree roots — when he fails to take her to nearby Disney World. Live anthologizes comic after comic in which characters are raped, beaten, slashed, and killed. The unending parade of pain and torture is rarely given purpose, and it’s admittedly difficult to gain much insight into anything from pure hyper-violence.
Some do, however, looking beyond the bloodshed and coercion to cast the work as a political critique of conservative America. A foreword to the box set by Marisol Rodriguez even draws ties between Diana’s narratives and the nihilistic alienation found in Franz Kafka’s unfinished first novel, Amerika, which tells the story of an emigrant’s attempts to make a life in the United States. Kafka’s main character, Karl, is repeatedly taken advantage of, experiencing defeat after defeat, and left finding the promise of freedom and success wholly illusory in his new home country.
The comparison falls flat, despite Diana’s similar brand of false hope. While Kafka, one of the most acclaimed writers of the 20th century, had a certain mastery over the pain and nihilism of his narratives and thus turned simple stories into smartly pointed cultural critiques, Diana is never able to achieve this mastery. His narratives are too simple and his anger too undirected — a rage on the page. There is what is perhaps a fine line between purely sensationalist depictions of rape and senseless murder and the use of such images to critique the society that condones them, and Diana’s work moves back and forth over that line too frequently for comfort.
Some critics step away from the work itself and find value in its context, using Diana and his obscenity conviction as fodder for free-speech battles. In a preface for the box set, comics darling Neil Gaiman — an advocate for creators’ rights — writes: “Art should afflict the comfortable and disturb the complacent, and Mike Diana’s work does that in spades.”
Gaiman’s statement is meant as a direct challenge to Diana’s conviction. In the United States, obscenity is determined by a three-step process called the Miller Test, in which all the following conditions must be met in order for the work to be legally declared obscene:
(a) whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
(b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and
(c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
Under these guidelines, Gaiman is right to challenge the obscenity conviction. The internet has effectively nullified any concept of community-based standards of taste, at least in fictional genres, and our postmodern machine of cultural critique ruled by “clicks” and “likes” gives any potentially obscene work instant political and artistic value. Diana’s hyper-violence, in other words, is the very thing that stops it from being legally obscene. This is the paradox of obscenity laws today — what the court case succeeded in doing, the converse of its intention, was to substantiate a career for Diana (who has said as much himself on several occasions). It made him, in other words, a force in art to be reckoned with.
While Rodriguez and Gaiman get their say right up front, readers will have to come to their own conclusions about Diana’s work. Truthfully, few will purchase this set without already knowing the lore. I read the work cleanly, without knowing much about him in advance, and only later I found that what intrigued me most was the context under which the work exists: the mythos, the love, the hate, the politics. Focusing on context, though, inevitably pushes content to a secondary position. Gaiman and Rodriguez may rush to Diana’s continued defense, but they are not looking at the work, only his career. It’s an easy way to not grapple with content that raises many ethical questions.
Diana’s content is depraved, childlike, and haunting — all valid and intriguing avenues for expression. Most of all, though, Diana’s work is filled with a sadness that seeps through every crack (and there are many cracks), not from a place of critique, but as a form of self-expression. Diana himself seems sad, and his comics will always be more about him than the society that has both criminalized and defended him. That sadness — the desperate attempt of someone to jettison everything they hate but find it impossible, no matter how many times they try — stays with the reader long after putting the tome back on the shelf. Obscene is not the right word — it is upsetting, certainly, but the word I would choose is dangerous. Dangerous because people are raped, people are abducted, and people are abused. There are any number of ways to use depictions of these acts as cultural criticism, but Diana seems to lack both the moral core and writing skills needed to rein in and direct his own volatile representations toward any end whatsoever.
And yet the work does beg to be defended, in part simply because it caused an artist to be convicted! On obscenity charges! In America! In the 1990s! It is easier to defend its implied politics than the work itself, but we must defend it in order to protect ourselves. Comics have a long, intimate relationship with censorship, the field having undergone its own McCarthyism 60 years ago during the adoption of the Comics Code Authority. Defending Diana (the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund covered the legal bills) was and remains inextricable from protecting all American comics as they forge their way into the modern age.
With a 20-year retrospective and this weighty box set under his belt, Diana might not require much of a defense. The mythos, the politics, the celebrity all justified Diana’s work, but now that the persecution has ended, is the work worthy of its acclaim? When the dust settles, the real quality and purpose of Mike Diana’s work becomes apparent, and I don’t think I’m the only one who will be disappointed by it.