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The First Artist of Obscenity

Words:

Edd Norval
February 15, 2018

When your career as a cartoonist begins by using the printer at the police station that your mum works in to reproduce sexually explicit drawings of your teachers - things can only go up (or down), depending on how you see it.

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Mike Diana, in 1994, was the first person in the U.S. to be charged with artistic obscenity for the contents of his underground cartoon series 'Boiled Angel' that touches on fringe sexuality, gratuitous violence and religion.


During his time in high school he would imagine the violent death of his teachers and project those ideas into comic drawings, distributing them to classmates - much to the amusement of his readership. These funny drawings would quickly escalate over the years, and through his many all-night drawing sessions at his dad's house, he would start depicting torture, rape and bestiality. He pushed the boundaries of taste and tapped into a primordial desire to depict twisted displays of power - and he done it all for a reason.


Sometimes Diana would catch the news on his television, and in 1990 was drawn to the story of the Gainesville Murders, where five students were killed in Diana's home state of Florida. This case intrigued him and began to influence his artwork, which got into the Law Enforcement's hands and led to Diana being help as the suspected murderer in 1991 - the exact case he had been watching unfold on the news only months before.

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Blood tests ruled him out as a suspect, but he remained under close watch from the police on account of the artwork he was creating. Eventually he was pulled in for obscenity charges the following year. It took until 1994 to go to trial and after losing a defence claim of entrapment, he was sentenced to 3 years of supervised probation, 2,000 hours of community service and around $3,000 in fines - not to mention being held in jail from trial to sentencing. It was heavy handed and unprecedented for an artistic, non-violent and victimless act-deemed-crime. He was being treated more like a domestic terrorist than a creator of morally questionable comics.


To everyone who followed Diana's story, it looked extreme. So what was it really about?


The trial played on Diana's role as a suspect in the Gainesville Murders as a way to invoke a degree of hysteria in the jury, despite him not having anything to do with them. The prosecution elaborated that Diana's drawings were the first sign of what could be the mark of a future killer, or even turn those that view them into killers.


After the trial - it didn't stop there for him. For the 3 year probationary period he was subject to random searches, rendering him unable to resume any similar type of artistic work without fear of breaching his conditions and resulting in further jail time. For any artist, this level of overbearing state control can only result in stifled creativity, slowing his output down dramatically in in a forceful display of censorship that was described as "legalized lobotomy" by a Civil Rights group.


Sometimes it takes something to be so unimaginably far-reaching and grotesque to draw our mind to the things that really are happening around us. That was Diana's aim - to show the world what was going on around them, in the only way he knew to make people pay attention. And for that, he paid dearly.

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