Mike Diana may not be the only comic book artist to have been jailed for his work, but he's the only one I know of who drew his criminal cartoons in the police station where his mum worked. His violent and pornographic themes first turned him into a suspect in the sensational Gainesville Ripper case and then landed him a conviction for obscenity. All because, it turns out, a young prosecutor was looking to make a name for himself. It's all good now, though – apparently the case kind of helped kickstart Diana's career.
Mike currently has a show on in London, so I thought it'd be nice to have a chat with him about how growing up in conservative Florida didn’t do much for his desire to produce pretty drawings of horses eating daisies.
VICE: So, I’m assuming it’s quite nice for you to be in the UK? I'd imagine people here might be a little less conservative than in Florida, where you come from?
Mike Diana: Yeah, definitely. Europe is freer – more so than ‘the land of the free’. I moved to Florida from New York when I was eight years old and I noticed a big difference. For example, I had to go to church in New York, too, but in New York it was kind of fun, because I could just sit there and look at the stained glass windows. In Florida, the priest would be screaming about how we would burn in hell and the teachers carried around paddles that they'd hit the kids with.
How young were you when you got into art?
I started when I was still in New York. My father would buy me these stickers with ugly faces drawn on them called Ugly Stickers and I would draw my own monster faces on them. I also remember when I had to draw a family portrait as a school assignment once, and I drew my whole family naked. When my teacher called me out, I quickly drew clothes on.
Then, when I was about 15, I got into underground comics by mail order. To get them, I would have to claim that I was 18 years old. I began drawing imitations of those comics, in which I'd combine my monsters with sex. That's about the time I started to feel like I wanted to publish my own comics, too. My mother worked as a secretary at the local police station and I would go there and print copies of my comics on the Xerox machine.
In the police station?
Yeah, kind of a strange twist. I'd then pass my comics around the classroom. I was a nerd and that helped in that I was never picked on by the other kids. The stories in the comics would be mostly centred around teachers we didn’t like, with some sex jokes in there and some nudity. Once I graduated high school in 1987, I printed my first real printed fanzine, aided by a friend who worked at the print shop. I was glad to get out of high school, but I was stuck in that area, so it felt good to be doing something I wasn’t supposed to.
How did your parents feel about it? Did you keep your drawings a secret?
I kept it from my parents for as long as I could. I continued to live with my father – even after I graduated high school – so he would sometimes come in my room, look over my shoulder, see what I was drawing and say, “Why don’t you draw something nice?” He'd say that some day I would get arrested for pornography, but I didn’t pay him any notice.
The rest of the ‘art scene’ in Florida consisted of paintings of sunsets and pink flamingos. It was depressing. As a teenager, I used to watch the nightly news and there would be countless reports of rapes and murders. I think that's what got me into drawing people in bad situations.
And all this led toward your famous court case. What was the actual charge?
I was charged with six counts of obscenity: distributing, advertising for sale and publishing obscene material.
And how did that happen?
Well, I was printing the Boiled Angel series at the time, which I wasn’t distributing in my own area because I knew no one would want to see it. The cover for "Boiled Angel #6" was this drawing of a guy spreading a girl's legs and pulling a foetus out of her. The guy kind of looked like me – almost like a self-portrait. I'd been influenced by a set of killings that had happened in Gainesville, Florida, where five students were killed and no one knew who the killer was. I sent out maybe five copies when one day, as I was returning home from Christmas shopping with my mother, we found two detectives waiting for me on our doorstep. They had a briefcase and pulled out "Boiled Angel #6".
That sounds pretty awkward.
Yeah – the detectives said that because of this comic I’d become a suspect in the Gainesville murders and they wanted me to give a couple of samples of DNA for testing to clear my name. I don’t think they really believed that I did it. Later on it transpired that they had thousands of suspects, so they were basically using this as an excuse to steal people’s DNA to start up a DNA database. That was in 1991. I gave a blood sample because my mother insisted. I never heard anything else about it.
So when did the obscenity charges come in?
I later found out that the detectives that approached me had made a note of my post office box address. I had gotten a letter in the mail from this guy saying that he had just moved to the area and he had heard about my comics. He sent me some money and I sent him "Boiled Angel #7" and 8. Turns out it was it was a detective who bought them, and he put them on file in the state attorney’s office.
The prosecutor, I think, took the case mainly so he could make a name for himself. He wasn’t an old conservative guy, he was young. So I was sent a letter from the state attorney’s office accusing me of three charges of obscenity and I had to go to court to plea. The morning I was going to court, I saw the newspaper and it said I was facing a possible three years in jail, so I started to realise it was a bigger deal than I'd thought.
I showed up at the courthouse and there were two groups of protesters. One was called 'Women Opposing Pornography', then there was a group of older church women who were crying on the news about how I was making a bad name for their town. I pled not guilty and I eventually contacted the Comic Brook Legal Defence Fund. I was the first case that they’d had of an artist that had been charged. Usually it was comic book store owners being charged for selling comics to underage kids.
Presumably the trial also, ironically, brought you a new level of appreciation?
Definitely. It exposed my work to a lot of people. One of my first paid jobs was this illustration for Wired magazine. They ran an article on my case and they commissioned me to paint my trial – with the judge and the prosecutor depicted as monsters – to accompany it. There was also this reporter, Chuck Shepherd, who did a column called News of the Weird, who would say I was really lucky this was happening to me because of the publicity it would generate, but it was hard for me to see it at the time.
One of the best things about the trial, though, is that Florida law states that the public have the right to see any material being. So anyone who visits the courthouse – even kids and teenagers – can see and flip through "Boiled Angel".
That is cool. Thanks, Mike!
Mike Diana - AMERICA is on show at DIVUS London, Enclaves 1 & 5, 50 Resolution Way, SE8 4AL, until December 8th, 2012. You can find more information about the exhibition here. The book of the same title is also published by DIVUS.