Charles D.J. Deppner
In recent history, when one thinks of the championing of the first amendment, one may think of millionaire pornographer Larry Flynt and his winning of a Supreme Court appeal. One may also think that such a highly publicized case that so brilliantly and expensively defended First Amendment rights would leave little doubt such freedoms could be called into question. Think again.
In 1990, desperate Florida law enforcement agents added Largo, Florida comic book artist Mike Diana to their list of possible suspects in the Gainesville student murders of that same year. Their suspicions of Diana were aroused when attention was brought to Diana’s self-published comic book Boiled Angel , which featured artwork which depicted such subjects such as mutilation, rape, torture, child molestation, addiction, murder, and a host of other anti-Christian activities and societal ills that already permeate the media in the guise of valid news and info-tainment.
Eventually, after the capture and prosecution of Danny Rolling, Mike’s indirect involvement with the Florida justice system seemed to fade, until 1993, when Assistant State Attorney Stuart Baggish came across issues #7 and Ate, still on file with law enforcement officials. To call what happened after that Kafka-esque would be optimistic, at best. Diana was ordered to pay a $3000 fine, do 1300 hours of community service, submit to mandatory psychiatric evaluation, enroll in a journalism ethics class; he was banned from having any contact with minors, and, lastly, the most surreal of the court-ordered penalties, he was ordered not to draw for a three-year probationary period. The justification? Diana’s work, despite its childlike quality and extremely weak distribution, would be enough to drive the fragile minds of Pinellas County over the edge and into a state of anarchy and chaos. The “Moral Guardians” faith in yours capacities as competent individuals is so weak, they feel people need to fear ideas via inanimate objects, even ink on paper. Meanwhile they profit more, politically and professionally, from Diana’s artwork than Diana himself.
And what did the bastion of American Justice, the Supreme Court have to say with regards to Mike Diana’s case? Well, obviously, nothing. The Supreme Court refused to even listen to Diana’s appeal. One could cynically chalk up Diana’s failure in the wake of Flynt’s success as further proof of the monetary stipulations of American justice. Whether you subscribe to Diana’s brand of artwork (which isn’t and could never be as mind-blowingly evil and deviant as the State or press has made it out to be) or not, these facts and this case should be enough to make any freedom-loving American cringe and worry.
What do you think motivates your accusers?
Mike Diana : I think Stuart Baggish — who was the prosecutor — I think he was personally offended by the material. ‘Cause Boiled Angel had been on file at the State Attorney’s office for two years, and then Stuart Baggish, I think, accidentally came across them, and decided to go after me for it. I also think he was trying to get some sort of political gain, get some notoriety for “stomping out obscenity” or something. So I think he was doing it for himself, a lot. And also, he was sick enough where I think he actually thought he was doing good for the community and everything by having me charged.
Do they ever actually make you feel guilty for some of the artwork you’ve done?
No, not really. Just because I had been in Florida. I moved there from New York state when I was nine — that was back in 1979. And ever since I was twelve or thirteen years old, I had been harassed by the police for not really for doing anything wrong, just like non-stop harassment for being a teenager, or driving the wrong type of car, having long hair. I already had a lot of hatred and anger towards Florida and the authorities in that way. So I never really felt guilty about it, because I felt like that was the reason — part of the reason for why I was drawing what I was. I mean, I think I was probably in the worst spot I could’ve been. Just about any other state I was in, or city, I think I wouldn’t have been charged, and there wouldn’t have been a big deal out of it, but Pinellas County was pretty bad.
As of this instant, what is the legal status of your case?
Well, I have to pay the rest of the fine off — which is at least two thousand dollars — and I have to do more community service hours — probably five hundred hours so far. But there were a couple of hundred hours I did when I was originally on probation in Florida, and then I stopped doing community service ’til after the appeal. But then when they started me on probation again, of course they didn’t give me credit for the original hours and stuff…
On what grounds?
Well, I had a different probation officer, and I kept telling her that I did these hours before. I sent the paperwork to my old probation officer, then they were saying they couldn’t find the paperwork and I couldn’t find my copies. So they screwed me out of them. But I’ve been doing community service here in New York for God’s Love We Deliver, chopping up vegetables and things. Florida gave me permission to do probation through the mail.
With regards to creating obscene material, what determines whether you’re breaking this stipulation or not?
Well, they pretty much told me that I wasn’t allowed to draw anything that might be considered obscene, which is probably just about anything, to them. I’ve been doing drawings anyway, for New York Press magazine. But as far as publishing my own comic, I’ve been holding off until after I successfully complete my probation and I know I’m completely done with everything, just to avoid any problems, because when I had my probation officer, she would always call me up and remind me I wasn’t supposed to be drawing. And I know there’s been stuff since then, like put on the Internet and whatever, so I’m just hoping [the] wrong people won’t see that and try and make problems.
I don’t see how they could regulate something like that.
Yeah. It seems like it would be difficult, and I don’t think they’ve been keeping too close a watch, because I haven’t heard anything. I’ve pretty much been keeping a lot of drawings put away, and comics that I’ve did that I’ve wanted to publish, but I’m just still worried. It’s just part of it’s just being paranoid from the whole trial and problems, y’know. As soon as I get off of probation, I’ll probably be a little nervous about things. Just because it’s been so long, I guess. 1993 was when I was first charged.
How long is your probation?
It was three years. Finally, one of the charges was dropped — the charge of “advertising of obscene material.” Because in issue #7, I said, “Make sure to look out for issue #Ate coming soon,” and basically they said that was an advertisement. So finally, they got rid of that charge, which brought it back down to two years probation, but mostly, I just gotta pay off the fine. Once I get that paid off, they might just let me go early. That’s what I’m hoping anyway.
Do you mind being like the “poster boy” for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund?
No. It seems like fun. I guess someone has to do it. So I feel like it might as well be me. Y’know, just try to make the best of it. Hope I can kinda inspire anyone else, if anyone else is charged with such a thing, that they’ll stick through it and fight, and try and win, like I did. It’s disappointing to actually lose, since the Supreme Court didn’t want to hear the case. So it’s very disappointing in that way, and I think it’s gonna make it more difficult for other people to get away with drawing what they want to.
So how’s this affected your overall perception of America, Florida, and the legal system, in general?
I think it just supports the feelings I’ve had in the past, that the legal system’s a buncha shit and Florida’s like a close-minded, conservative police state. It makes me feel like there really isn’t any Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press. And it seems, if you have a lot of money, you can get out of certain situations, y’know, like with lawyers and stuff. Like the public defenders don’t seem to do much. But, yeah, it just made me even more angry with Florida, I guess.
Prior to your ordeal, would you have considered yourself “civil rights conscious?”
Well, I think I was a little bit, but it wasn’t something I’d really talk about. I didn’t really feel like I wanted to do political type of comics or artwork, even though I feel like there’s a certain political side to my drawings, because they’re about things that happen in real life — rapes and murders, priests molesting children, and all these things I would read about in the paper, and see on the news. But it was definitely an eye-opening experience going through the whole court system, and seeing how those things work more, like the jury selection, and seeing how people are railroaded in court. A lot of criminals who don’t have money for lawyers, and they just get screwed over by the court system.
Are you more sensitive to those kinda issues now? When you see things like this happening, are you “numb,” or are you more sensitive?
I think somewhere in between. [laughs] I try not to let it bug me too much, I guess, because it’s just going to be something that’s going to happen anyway. I think it’s just going to keep getting worse too. I don’t see how things could get better.
What were some of the positive things which came out of this?
Well, I guess the fact [that] I could show people how Florida is, where I was living. A lot of people realize how ridiculous it is, and they say, “Boy, I guess they don’t have anything better to do in your town,” and stuff like that. So it kind of opened up some people’s eyes to the way they really are there. Also it got me some publicity. Articles were written about the whole case in different magazines that I probably never would’ve been involved in if it wasn’t for the case — widespread magazines and things. But then at the same time, me not being able to draw kind of hurt things.
I don’t give Florida and what happened that much credit for helping me, really. I guess now, if I didn’t have to worry about money, I’d be a lot happier about it. Because, at the court, the prosecutor — it was during my sentencing — I had no prior record and the prosecutor was pushing for me to be in jail for three years. He was telling the judge that in order for it to be a punishment, that I would have to do time in jail, because, after this case, Florida has made me famous to the point where I’m rich and I’m gonna make money off this case. He was trying convince the judge I needed to be put in jail, and he said that my posters of my work were selling in New York City for over one thousand dollars each. I don’t know where he got that from, because it was not true. It was very scary at some points — just being in jail. I remember actually thinking to myself, they were actually gonna keep me in there for a long time. And just being in there for that particular reason made it even worse.
Does your notoriety, based on the controversy, tend to overshadow the work itself?
I don’t think so… Yeah, it’s possible. Some people read about the whole case. They maybe read the writings about how graphic the comics are. It actually scares them away. Because I’ve had some people tell me that they support me in my fight, the First Amendment, and everything, but they probably would not be into the drawings, or they don’t have any desire to see them. And, I think if they did see them, they wouldn’t think it was as bad as it was made out to be or just their imaginations, like what they were thinking, y’know.
Do people’s attempt to pigeonhole or the taking out of context with regards to your artwork ever frustrate you?
Well, I guess sometimes it gets on my nerves and makes me want to try and do more writing, like love stories. Over the years, I haven’t actually done, it seems, the more detailed stories. I’m trying to do stuff that more of a broader audience will enjoy, even the people who aren’t into hardcore comics or real extreme stuff. Those people will enjoy it too, in a way. I think that’s what I was trying to do with the “Florida Man-Fish” story [ Zero Zero #8 (Fantagraphics Books)] because Zero Zero also told me they wanted me to cut back on the graphic-ness of my comics — like no penetration. No children being molested. Stuff like that — even though the first comic I did for Zero Zero was called “Woody,” and that one I think was a lot more graphic than anything else that Zero Zero has printed of mine. After that one came out, I think it was in the first or second issue, some of the readers or other artists, I heard, felt I did not belong in that book, because I was too graphic or something.
What are some of the positive things that your particular brand of artwork has to offer? Why should anybody pick up your comics?
Well, I think it’s entertaining. I think the stories are interesting, and that if people just wanna see something that’s different, maybe a type of story they wouldn’t normally see, that people should get it and look into it — kind of a eye-opening experience, in a way. That’s kinda how I felt when I first got like the Answer Me! [Jim Goad] magazines — back when I was younger reading the underground comics and stuff like that. Those were my influences, so…
I mean, would you consider your artwork as cathartic? Do you approach this stuff as alleviating your frustrations or inhibitions, or were you simply approaching it as defying a taboo?
It was probably in between those two. I started reading the reprints of the EC line of horror magazines — y’know, the comics from the fifties — when I was around eleven or twelve. After that, I just wanted something more extreme, and that’s when I started getting the seventies’ underground comics, and I felt like I had found what I was looking for, in a way.
Yeah, I did feel like I was reading something that I wasn’t supposed to be, partly because I was signing my name as being eighteen or older when I was only fifteen or sixteen. And also just the way society treats those things. I mean, it’s like they always feel that when children are younger they can’t [see] certain things, or they’re innocent. When I was looking at those images, y’know, I felt I already had a lot of these things already in my head, or in my brain, in a way. And that’s when I really started drawing like pornography.
And whenever I do my drawings, I do feel like I’m letting something out, like frustrations and anger and stuff. Often I would draw while in high school class — just to pass by the time and stuff. I’d pass these drawings about the class and everybody seemed to enjoy them. Never got into any kind of trouble really.
So, for you personally, your artwork is healthy.
Yeah. I think so. Well, I don’t think that I would be a serial killer or I don’t really believe that if I didn’t draw what I did that I would be trying to act these things out for real, or be any more of a deviant. I mean, I’m sure it doesn’t hurt to get those things on paper from out of my thoughts. Sometimes I’d have weird or violent dreams, and I’d just draw comics based on the dreams.
My father, I remember one time, looked over my shoulder and saw my drawings, and told me how depressed it made him to see them. I guess a few months earlier, I told my father that I was depressed, and he said, “Well, no wonder you’re depressed, drawing those things.” And I tried to explain to him that I felt that it wasn’t like I’d draw those images and look at them and get depressed. I mean, it was kinda the other way around — just like being depressed or not liking how certain things were. It’s just felt like what I wanted to draw. I didn’t have much of a desire, at the time, to draw a beautiful still life of a fruit basket or something. I wanted to draw things that I thought were fun and publish my own magazine to show people what I was doing at the time.
To some, describing your work as being “disturbing” or “frightening” would be putting it mildly. What disturbs or frightens you?
Well, I found it disturbing that I could be charged with such a thing. I never actually thought they could actually come after me for that. I felt like it was just drawings and that I was definitely, without any kind of a doubt, protected by the Constitution. Of course, now I know differently after being convicted and not having any kind of — the conviction not being overturned, and the Supreme Court not wanting to hear about it and all that. And that disturbs me. Also the fact that there are so many more problems going on that they should be worrying about, and they’re putting so much time and energy into going after me. So that’s kind of scary also.