'Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana': Film Review

Courtesy of 85 North Productions
A microbudget account of an essential battle over free speech.

Frank Henenlotter's doc introduces Mike Diana, the only cartoonist in America to have been convicted of obscenity.

Five years ago, indie exploitation-flick auteur Frank Henenlotter (Frankenhooker, the Basket Case trilogy) released a two-plus-hour ode to code-taunting cinematic naughtiness, a low-rent documentary called That's Sexploitation! His follow-up is more serious about the legal implications of flouting standards of decency: Boiled Angels, about the Florida prosecution of cartoonist Mike Diana, tells the story of the only comic-book artist ever convicted of obscenity in America. Though its production is humble and its account full of images many won't want to see, the case represents crucial knowledge for Americans concerned with the boundaries of the First Amendment. Honored with the audience award at the inaugural What the Fest!? event, the doc will have lasting value on video, even if it's seen mostly by alternative-comics fans.

Diana was a teenager when he started making a zine called Boiled Angel to showcase his and others' work. What he drew for the micro-circulation magazine was the kind of stuff that would shock most viewers, or at least gross them out: outlandish black-and-white visions in which sex and violence were the same thing, and where taboos involving religion, pedophilia, etc. were freely mined for the blackest of comedy. If a parent found this in a teenage boy's room today, he'd likely start looking for hidden firearms and worrying he had a school shooter on his hands.

But Diana was, to hear him and others tell it, a gentle kid who recoiled at real-world violence. Henenlotter offers a bit of biography to suggest what might fuel Diana's ugly imagination — a fire-and-brimstone Catholic church; witnessing racism for the first time after moving from the north to Florida — but finds little to explain the art's extremes. Diana is extremely shy, and in interviews here he seems to be reading prepared statements. Our best glimpse into his psyche comes in an account of his childhood filmmaking hobby: Having discovered slasher flicks on video, he made his own brutally violent movies; but with siblings and even his mother as castmembers, there's something weirdly endearing about the gory fantasies.

After providing some useful context about comics history — from the grisly horror tales of EC Comics, which provoked a moral panic in the 1950s, to the hypersexual Underground Comix that gave us Robert Crumb and company — the movie talks to comics artists like Peter Bagge, Jay Lynch and Peter Kuper. Bagge describes the difficulty of making people understand that comics of this sort are not targeting children, a misperception behind many of the hassles creators have faced. (Author Neil Gaiman recalls his own brush with censorship attempts in Florida.)

The doc is most successful in following the narrative of Diana's legal woes, even if it doesn't answer every question we may have. When Diana's comics wound up in the possession of detectives investigating some horrific murders in Gainesville, cops thought the two might be connected. It didn't take much to establish that link in the public's mind, and though Diana was found to have nothing to do with the serial killings (Danny Rolling was convicted and executed for them), prosecutorial momentum had built up. The state of Florida was bent on putting this sicko out of business.

While Henenlotter's sympathies are never in doubt (and his use of Jello Biafra's grating narration limits appeal among law-and-order types), he goes out of his way to hear the prosecution's side. Assistant State's Attorney Stuart Baggish gets plenty of time onscreen, recounting his fascination (as a recent law-school grad at the time) with establishing that Boiled Angel was not Constitution-protected speech, but in fact met the three-point legal definition of obscenity. With the help of a seemingly biased judge, a jury wound up agreeing, leading to a fairly shocking sentence. (Among other things, Diana was prohibited from coming within 10 feet of minors.)

It's tempting to think of this as a one-off miscarriage of justice, but every week brings some new hint of rogue government officials who itch to punish those who say what they don't want to hear. Complacent artists might be smart to pay attention to episodes like this one; Gaiman, for one, thinks it "should be taught in every school."

Production company: 85 North Productions
Director-editor: Frank Henenlotter
Producers: Mike Hunchback, Anthony Sneed
Director of photography: Anthony Sneed
Composer: Scooter McCrae
Venue: What the Fest!?

106 minutes