New from Robert Daniels on 812 Film Reviews: ‘Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana’ [Fantasia 2018]

An official selection of Fantasia 2018 (Montreal), and Cinedelphia Film Festival 2018 WINNER: Prix du Public, What the Fest. 

Rating: 3.5/4

Mike Diana is the only American artist in history to be prosecuted for obscenity. Going into director Frank Henenlotter‘s documentary, Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana, I knew nothing of Diana, his trial, or the underground comic book world he came from.

Currently playing, as part of Fantasia 2018, the documentary is an examination of art, comics, and the limits of the First Amendment.

Its subject, Diana, by all accounts is vanilla. Currently, he’s a bald white guy living in New York. He’s monotone, lanky, and quiet. He’s the last person you’d ever expect with a criminal record. However, back in 1994 he was charged and prosecuted for breaking obscenity laws in Florida.

The film begins with those early scenes of the trial, as the once blonde haired 25-year old—who’d named his first zine Angel Fuck after a Misfits song—awaits his sentencing.

Diana’s newest zine at the time, Boiled Angels (for which he was on trial for), was lewd, graphic, and disturbing.

Nevertheless, the documentary acutely grounds us within the underground comic world. Back in the 50’s, horror comics, like the ones from EC Comics, were all the rage. They scared the shit out of kids, and the kids loved them for it. But 50’s American prudes, hating everything from Rock n’ Roll, to sex, to bread, claimed that those comics made children into juvenile delinquents. These charges ushered in the Comic Code era. Overnight, these horror publications vanished.

Much of this for any comic fan worth their glossy panel, is common knowledge. What may not be common knowledge is the genre known as Underground Comics. Publishers of underground comics operated on the fringes, dealing with nudity and extreme violence. These audacious publications later led to zines, whose sole purpose was to push the envelop, to push it just to and past the point of acceptability. The ethos was a punk ethos, thumbing its nose to authority and censorship.

I found much of the above information, which the documentary goes into greater detail with through the use of talking heads, such as John Witek, Peter Bagge, George Romero, and Jay Lynch, than I do, to be fascinating.

Henenlotter uses this genre background to create a defense for Diana’s controversial zine. He also uses Diana’s childhood and his parents to do the same. Diana’s father and mother both appeared to encourage their son’s artistic ambitions, going so far as to act in his homemade horror films. Diana, contrary to popular belief, also seemed to have a normal childhood. The things that weren’t normal were the images and stories on the news (I’ll get back to that in a bit), which he witnessed.

The second half of the documentary, mostly replays his trial as Henenlotter was able to get both the prosecutor (Stuart Baggish) and Diana’s defense attorney (Luke Ilrot) to speak on camera. Step-by-step the documentary recounts and examines the merits of the case in relation to Miller v. California, as ruled on by the United States Supreme Court.

The Miller Test, in terms of what constitutes obscenity, asks: whether the work or words are appropriate under the ‘community’s standards’ and whether it depicts sexual conduct, and if it has artistic merit. The film depicts the Florida case as a moment of small-town “justice.” Neil Gaiman, who was also interviewed for the documentary, does as well. Throughout the documentary, he shares his initial feelings of moving to America. That is, the unbridled belief that America promoted and coveted artistic freedom.

Interspersed between the history/genre lessons and flashbacks to the courtroom (through use of found footage), are the panels to Diana’s zine. These panels are narrated— and if you’re squeamish are most likely not for you—by former-Dead Kennedy’s frontman Jello Biafra, who actually captures the slight bits of morbid and disgusting humor in Diana’s work.  

However, the obvious purpose of Henenlotter’s documentary is to question the legal implications of Diana’s case. The very idea that someone, no matter how disturbing their pictures may be, could be prosecuted for drawing images in America is horrific. In fact, it’s more disturbing than the images Diana ever produced himself.

And the film awakens us as well, making the case that Diana was only depicting the world around him. Much like “violent” hip-hop artists use rap to illustrate their world, as did Diana, giving form to images and stories that we receive everyday on the news, whether that’s priests raping little boys or serial killers on the loose. If an alien came down to earth and watched our news, they’d think us barbarians. We live with and ignore those images and bits of information everyday, Diana is the alien looking at us and reporting it back to his people. He’s also the imp pushing the envelop, as well. 

And while few would find pleasure in seeing Diana’s art, though some of it is catchy, few would see it as any more than drawings. Henenlotter, takes that simple observation to bring to light what was a miscarriage of justice. And in this process, through a prosecution of art in America, he recounts a horror story more terrifying than anything made by Diana. 

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