In the bulk of conservatism, the hammer of justice falls at Pinellas County Court, sentencing Mike Diana to 3 years of supervised probation, no drawings, a jolly good fine of $3000 and a total of 1248 hours of community service.
At a time when gun ownership in Florida is as likely as owning a nose and anti-abortion fad, Diana gets the feathers and tar becoming Florida’s most wanted artist. “It was very strange that you could take drawings to court and be told that this not Art. Even a stick figure can be considered Art. I knew that the whole court trial was all bullshit anyway; it’s a way of them getting around the laws and cause people problem with it.”
It is 1994 and Diana, long blond hair tied in a neat pony tail is 24 year-old and a comic artist: your least usual suspect. Yet, the mastermind behind the self-published fanzine Boiled Angel (1988) holds quite an opinionated view on society: Priests molesting children, drug violence meets domestic violence, scatology and other mutilations – but all for the sake of art. Diana smiles as the court prohibits him from publishing, distributing and advertising material judged “lewd and obscene”.
Barred from drawing, the author of Sourball Prodigy (1992), Superfly (1993) and CherryBomb Revolution (1995), Diana’s comics go through the roof of fandom and becomes the most unholy artifact known to American puritans. 18 years since censorship, Mike Diana comes to London for the release of America (2012) – a double book box set filled with most his work. Or in fact, what survived.
Victor Delvecchio meets the man as he stands in Enclave Gallery’s doorframe, a glass of red wine in his hand and a childlike expression beaming off his face.
VD: Mike Diana, hi. How do you feel about the election’s outcome?
Mike Diana: I am happy. I got out of the country in time. Just in case it went the wrong way. I watched it throughout the night. I was getting worried because you know Obama lost Texas and some of the States he lost were kind of close at one point. Yeah, it turned out okay. I can go back.
VD: How does it feel to be a banned artist?
MD: It feels good but the tough part was when it was happening, when I was going to court. I think it was because I had so much hatred against Florida, I had been harassed by the police from the time I was a teenager. It’s kind of a normal thing in Florida to go after teenagers with long hair, they thought I was a Death Metal person; I used to go to concerts and hang out with some of the guys from Deicide and Morbid Angel.
VD: What brought you to what you draw now?
MD: I was a fan of underground comics, in the 60s and 70s so I felt like my own drawings should be more extreme than that. Now we were into the early 90s; it shouldn’t be going backwards it should be going forwards which means more gross more strange. And then it got me into trouble…I had started doing artwork on my car; out of the back window I had a plastic realistic looking skull and I had some blue light in the eyes for the break lights. I also wanted to put on a priest collar. My father said that I was gonna get arrested for impersonating a priest. He had many reasons for me not to do things and it also kind of fuelled my artwork, kept me going wanting to do it.
VD: Ok, haha.
MD: I had to go to court and found guilty and I was ordered not to draw anything. I was charged in 1993 and then in 1994 I was found guilty and given probation so they said no drawings. I started doing paintings and kept them hidden in the trunk of my car because the police could come into my house and look for artwork. I would do some painting and I would bring it to my car and hide it there. I guess I thought it would be easier since the court they were against the comics so much and just in case I was caught I could say this is just painting.
I drew comics but I wasn’t doing them at first to show, but to print – to reproduce them as books.
VD: How did that feel?
MD: It was horrible. I was born in New York state and moved to Florida. Sister and brother and my mother and father coz my mother is from Florida. I never quite adjusted there, never really liked it there. So a lot of my anger and entire religion feelings came up from living in Florida in that kind of oppressive society there. So in a way I felt that they were responsible for my artwork going to the direction that it did.
VD: Did you ever doubt for one second that what you were doing was wrong?
MD: I think at one point when I was a kid I thought about being a priest but I think that’s part of the brainwashing of the church. I thought I wasn’t doing the right thing. My father use to see my drawings and he would tell me that I would get in trouble some day. But I didn’t believe him. Most of my fans and people I would send my Boiled Angel books to lived outside of Florida. Florida is a very conservative state and it wasn’t distributed there because I knew there wasn’t a crowd so I didn’t want to force on these kinds of people that didn’t understand. They don’t see comics as an art form. I always kept away from those that I knew wouldn’t like it. Once I was charged in court for it then they had it on the news and they showed pictures of my artwork; so Florida was the one that exposed me everyone to my artwork, and let all the people know about it; there was kind of an interesting thing about it. It wasn’t even me. And then of course everyone was angry about it, and I had protests groups of woman holding signs “we don’t want this in our community.” That’s the main problem it’s the religious part.
VD: I have heard the case had been reopened? Am I right?
MD : I had moved to New York again when my case was unappealed in 1996. I had a strong feeling. I always wanted to leave Florida but I had a strong feeling that I would lose so that I should leave Florida before I lost my appeal; I move to New York and the next day my father called and said that the police was looking for me and my conviction was upheld. The wanted to bring me back to jail. On probation.
MD: Since I was in New York, they couldn’t bring me back forcefully. My lawyer set it up to my probation through the mail for a couple years. I was behind in the fine and my probation officer was this women and she violated my probation coz she was quitting her job there at the office and violated my probation so since that point it was 1998, I have been wanted in Florida all this time. I have been back a few times but if I happen to be caught there I would have to go back to jail for hopefully not long.
VD: Why wouldn’t you stop?
MD: I never really stopped. I always didn’t like those authorities and court and they think they have the right to even tell me. The way the Obscenity law works is that if something lacks artistic value then it’s obscene; if it has artistic value then it is not obscene and is protected by the first amendment.
VD: Is this why you choose to release your book America here in London?
MD: Yeah. I tried to put my book on Amazon but when you type the words they cut it out for censorship reasons. I’ll try EBay to.
VD: Your paintings have really varied colour patterns and shapes yet no words. Have you become apolitical?
MD: I just want have more fun with the paintings to make them colourful and also to take a break from drawing. Painting was a lot more relaxing, I did a lot between 2000 and 2003 and that was a time when I living in a loft in New Jersey so I had a lot of space to do the big things. For now, I leave in a small space in New York and I have been thinking a lot about comics again, also I want to do this graphic novel and colour it on a computer.
VD: Doesn’t it frighten you sometimes when you see the kind of things you come up with?
MD: My mother use to say “why can’t you draw nice things” and I said that this was what’s nice to me. I once had a dream that I was reading a comic that I made and I remember it disturbed me. I was reading it and I was thinking “oh I can’t believe I do this”. Then I woke up and had thoughts about it for maybe two minutes. Then of course later on and by afternoon it was all gone.
VD: There is a story on that wall in which you are the protagonist. The one where you get shot.
MD: It was at a time when I wasn’t supposed to be drawing. When I was going through the trial I did a rough draft and sent it to World War III there was three pages and an alternative ending. My father had gone to a yard sale and he saw someone who was selling a bullet proof vest. He told me he was going to buy it for me; I thought it was fun just to have a bulletproof vest. My father knew that an abortion doctor had got shot and thought about the Larry Flint movie Hustler, he thought I was going to be assassinated by religious.
Mike Diana retrospective runs until December 8th at Divus gallery, Enclave 1 and 5, 50 Resolution Way, SE8 4AL, Deptford. Mike Diana’s book America is available on site.