Mike Diana is the focus of a new documentary, Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana (2018), directed by the legendary Frank Henenlotter. The film details the 1994 Florida obscenity charge that landed Mike in jail as the only visual artist in US history to be jailed for their art. Not only was Mike jailed, he was given a strict probation that prevented him from being around children and prohibited him from drawing even in his own home for pleasure. Featuring full uncensored stories like Baby Fuck Dog Food, Mike’s gory teenage home movies, interviews with prosecuting attorneys, underground comix artists, Mike’s defense lawyer, horror filmmakers that influenced Mike, anti-pornography protesters, independent comics historians, Mike’s family, journalists that covered the trial, and Mike himself, the film is a deep look at an injustice that has been ignored outside of underground art circles for over 20 years.
The comics found to be objectionable were Diana’s Boiled Angels 7 & 8, two xeroxed, hand stapled comics with miniscule circulations of only a few hundred issues. Inside these issues were illustrations and horror stories about victimization drawn in a savage style, but those that found it objectionable missed the humor and sensitivity behind them. Thanks to producer Mike Hunchback, I was able to speak with Mike Diana over the phone, finding him soft spoken and affable. The film is still playing festivals now and Mike is preparing for a solo exhibition at Superchief Gallery in New York City (located at 1628 Jefferson Ave, Ridgewood, NY 11385), opening night is April 27th from 7PM until midnight.
Diabolique: You’ve been in the comics scene a good long while now.
Mike Diana: I remember the first zine I did was in 1988. A year out of high school, it actually included some drawings I did in my senior year of high school. When I was supposed to be in typing class I was drawing comics.
Diabolique: I can relate to that. I would draw all over my notes and I realized that the little drawings helped me remember the material. So, it’s been 30 years since the first zine?
MD: I guess so. I was born in New York, but we moved to Florida. My mother had to get a part time job and she ended up at the Largo police station as a secretary at the front desk. I’d go and get to hang out with her while she was working and I’d use the copy machine there. Back then I was probably 11 or 12. I was making a zine, but didn’t realize it. I was making four or five copies of my own magazine, which was a horror-type magazine. It didn’t even have a title, but it had this monster on the cover and each time he was doing something different. Once he was eating a foot and on another cover he was pulling his eyeball out and holding it up, like it’s looking at you.
Diabolique: I was able to see the documentary and she’s in it. She seems like a pretty supportive mom.
MD: She’s always liked artwork and my art. Well, she didn’t like my art because of the content. She’d rather I was doing something that looks nice, but she always supported my right to draw. It definitely wasn’t her cup of tea. Her and my father, both, would look at the drawings and it would disturb them. I’d look at that sort of stuff and it would make me happy. Like, the thrill of the underground comix, or the 1950s horror comics. That was the whole point, to be gross.
Diabolique: Those EC horror comics and the old hippy stuff, were those main influences?
MD: Probably my first influence was Ugly Stickers. There were these things called Horror Head Tattoos, which were temporary tattoos with monster heads. I would probably get those when I was 8 years old. The Ugly Stickers, which I later found out was Basil Wolverton and these other artists just doing ugly monsters, my father would bring packs of these stickers home. (1) I always felt like I wanted to draw monsters. I’d read the Sunday comics, which was a full page color thing back then. I was always interested in drawing, so my mother put me in afterschool art class. I always did well at art in school and when I was older I discovered Heavy Metal Magazine. Through that I was able to find the underground comics. I’d order them through the mail even though I was not 18 yet. And also, just the horror comics from the 50s. I’d find some EC reprints, but I started ordering the actual pre-Code horror comics just by mail order. (2)
Diabolique: Did you have any art teachers or friends that were supportive before you started doing the zines?
MD: I think it started when I was doing my comics in high school. Instead of doing my work, I was drawing my comics. They were kind of gross or sexually funny. One day a kid grabbed it out of my hands and started reading it, a big guy from the wrestling team, and he showed it some of his friends on the wrestling team. So, I had three guys that were waiting on my comics. “When are you gonna draw any more comics?” Everyone knew I had these friends on the wrestling team, so nobody would pick on me or bully me. Most of the time the comics were about teachers we didn’t like. The librarian, we would call her “Mushroom Head,” because her hair made her head look like a mushroom. She would say “books are weapons,” so in the comic she’s actually killing people with books, throwing books at people. The math teacher used to give people dots, so if you did something wrong you’d get a dot next to your name in the roll book. Who knows what would happen if you got too many dots, because some kids had LOTS of dots. “Alright, you’re gonna get a dot next to your name.” In the comic she throws her hand towards you and you just have lots of dots on you, she’d kill people with dots.
Diabolique: It sounds like you were on a pretty normal path, nothing you should get arrested for. Maybe the teachers thought so.
MD: (laughs) It was never a big deal, luckily.
Diabolique: I wonder if any of them saw you on the news and thought “there’s the kid that drew me?”
MD: I’m sure some of them did. I know some of the students had seen me. Even running into students from before, they’re really not supportive. Most people, I wouldn’t say most, a lot of people are conservative. In Florida even the kids can be conservative to some degree. I remember the time I brought my underground comics to school, I figured I’d show them to some of the cool kids and maybe they’d be thrilled, or whatever. Maybe I’d be a big shot, having these comics that no one else had. One of the comics was Cocaine Comix, they did a number of issues. I remember the one kid I showed it to said “Cocaine Comix?! That’s not cool!” That was the last time I showed anyone anything at school. It was probably me that was weird, but I thought it was everyone else.
Diabolique: You were pretty alone with your interests. It reminds me of my friend that would mail away for heavy metal tapes. They seemed extreme to me at the time. A lot of them were from Florida.
MD: The death metal stuff. There wasn’t much I could do until I turned 18 and got my car. My father, I would beg him to take me to the drive-in theater to see horror movies. I saw Friday the 13 Part 4 (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)) and three other cheaper slasher movies. I didn’t have a lot friends my own age at that time. Then I turned 18, graduated, got my first car and was able to drive myself to concerts. I was able to see Morbid Angel and Deicide and all these different Florida bands. Sometimes you’d go to a house party and the members of Morbid Angel would just be hanging out there getting drunk. At one point in the night, they’d pick up their guitars and put on a drunken show for everyone. Then some fights would break out and the police would come and shut the party down. It was kind of a regular Florida lifestyle, in a way. A place in Tampa called The Brass Mug would have death metal night, then on other nights it would be skinhead night. The place would be totally filled with skinheads, it was crazy. Some of the bands would draw that crowd. Like, there was that one that would play with G.G. called Antiseen. That was back when I was seeing a lot of bands, back when I thought it was part of my culture to see punk bands, death metal bands, draw weird stuff.
Diabolique: Were the people in that scene supportive of your art?
MD: In as much as they would see the work and like it. I felt like a lot of people were not into comics necessarily. The death metal art has its own look to it. I was doing a more cartoony style.
Diabolique: Yours is a different style then they were used to.
MD: These days there are bands that I would consider death metal that use my artwork. Part of it is because I was fine tuning my art in different directions.
Diabolique: So this is an interview for DIABOLIQUE which is a cult horror magazine and website. In the documentary they mention that you were influenced by horror films as a kid, what were you into?
MD: Certainly the horror movies, when I was young I used to see the Creature Feature movies on television. In Florida they had Dr. Paul Bearer and he was this guy with scars on his face and everything. He was based in St. Petersburg, Florida. On YouTube there’s a lot of stuff, some of the actual old clips that I would have seen. One of the famous ones, he sits at a piano and sings (Mike sings) “Poisoning pigeons in the park.” He always had the packages, a box of Rice Krispies would say Lice Krispies, these Wacky Packages jokes. I always looked forward to seeing him. That was a tradition, every Halloween they would promote that people not go trick or treating because it’s dangerous or something. They’d say “go to the mall” and Dr. Paul Bearer would be there, you could go and get his autograph and go from store to store getting his candy. (3)
Diabolique: There’s a lot of news footage in the documentary, was that from your personal collection?
MD: I recorded it from the news with a VCR. Unfortunately I couldn’t get every report, because I couldn’t get anyone to help me record it. My mother and father didn’t want to see the news. One of the first news reports I saw was at my lawyer’s office. After the court hearing we went back to his office, turned on the TV to check it out and I just remember that after the report about me, the next was of Waco, Texas. You know, the compound burning. We were just thinking “isn’t that pleasant.” It was a sick feeling. I started to get very stressed out about everything. People recognizing me, religious weirdos would see me on the news and try to save my soul. We had a crazy family that lived across the street with a newborn baby, very religious. They saw me on the news. My brother had really long hair, like mine, and he’d have parties, he and his friends painting upside down crosses and pentagrams on the side of our house. They saw this and thought it was me. They thought we were the same person, some kind of supervillain. They were always calling the police. It was a hassle.
Diabolique: Was the documentary different in any way than other kind of media attention you’ve received?
MD: I suppose it was, since I was working with them. We’d talk about what kind of things we wanted to cover. It just became a discussion about what should make it in the doc and what shouldn’t. Frank (Henenlotter) kept saying we could have made a three hour film if we wanted. There were some interviews that got cut that may wind up as blu-ray extras. I feel like they covered a lot of stuff that I wasn’t asked normally. I definitely wanted my parents to be in it. Of course Frank was like “we don’t need them in there,” but I wanted to have them in it.
Diabolique: I was glad they were in it. I think when an artist has extreme content, people WANT to think you’re a serial killer. They don’t want to humanize you. It’s important to say “I had a normal childhood, too. I wasn’t hatched.” Did the process of making the film bring up any bad memories?
MD: No, not really. There wasn’t anything I’d forgotten. It was a little nerve wracking in Florida, Frank and the rest of us went and we were filming a clip that didn’t make it into the finished doc. One of the houses that me, and my brother, and my father were living in- I’d mentioned before about the religious family, they were still there. They called the police on us all the time and eventually the police came out and the fire department and they condemned the house we were living in. They said it didn’t have a proper foundation. They gave us a week to move out and after we moved out, they bulldozed it. In the documentary, we had a clip of me standing in the place where the house used to be. Frank, Mike Hunchback and another camera guy had all these cameras set up. This guy comes out of the liquor store saying “what are you doing filming on my property?” But, I knew it wasn’t his property. He called the police, that’s when I got nervous, being wanted in Florida for not finishing my probation. That was a little hectic. So, we got in the cars and drove off. Usually when you call the police in Florida, they show up in a second.
Diabolique: You were in It Came From Kuchar (2009). That didn’t even mention your comics, some of the underground cinema folks I know ONLY knew you through that world. They might not even know about your comics. Frank said he’d known you for six months before he’d heard about your court case. I think it really blew his mind.
MD: Frank had invited us to movie nights at his place, because he has a big collection of stuff. One day I just mentioned it and he said, “what do you mean? What court case?” I told him the story. He had recently done a documentary on Herschell Gordon Lewis, the filmmaker, but he didn’t say he wanted to make a documentary right away. Mike Hunchback had also wanted to work with me on a documentary, telling the story. So we just all decided to do a project together. (4)
Diabolique: Were you pleased with the way it came out?
MD: Oh, yeah. I think so.
Diabolique: I was glad the protesters and prosecutors were included.
MD: We were trying to get the undercover officer that ordered the books from me. He was also one of the officers that approached me about the serial killings. He told me then to stop publishing and I went ahead and published two more issues, numbers 7 & 8. I got a letter in the mail from someone named Mike, I sent out the books, didn’t hear anything for two years while the case was being made by the state attorney’s office.
Diabolique: It blows my mind that so much effort went into prosecuting someone just for publishing comics. It’s incredible.
MD: It was a weird thing.
Diabolique: I would say so! The film hasn’t played too many times, but have audiences responded positively so far?
MD: Yeah. We had one screening in Toulouse, France that was not planned. Frank was there for a film festival and they invited me to go. We figured, let’s show it here, we won’t even tell people what it is, because we want reactions from the crowd. To see if they laugh or clap, just to see how it plays. After that screening, people liked it, but we switched a few little things here and there. It was helpful.
Diabolique: Frank says he keeps wanting to tweak it and tweak it.
MD: That’s his nature as a filmmaker. He could release a new director’s cut every year.
Diabolique: By the way, I loved seeing the Blood Brothers (1989) clips slipped in. I’ve never seen so much blood in a kids home movie!
MD: (laughs) The undercover officer, when he ordered the Boiled Angels – I had advertised Blood Brothers and Baked Baby Jesus (1990) videos in Boiled Angel #6. He ordered the videos and he ordered the Boiled Angels. Eventually, when I got my lawyer, I saw the paperwork and it said something along the lines of “even though Blood Brothers and Baked Baby Jesus are in bad taste, there’s nothing that breaks the obscenity law within the videos.” I always wondered what kind of screening room did they have? Did they watch the whole thing, beginning to end?
Diabolique: It seems like the content is similar between your comics and movies. Certainly you’re able to explore ideas a little more in your comics, but I can’t believe they saw the videos and comics differently. That the artistic impulse wasn’t the same. Do you feel like your style would have changed if these legal troubles hadn’t happened?
MD: I’ve thought about that before. When I was doing Boiled Angel #8, that was my last issue. I wanted to concentrate on doing my own comics. I was still doing single page drawings, but I wanted to do stories or maybe even a graphic novel. It changed a little once I was being published. I was in Zero Zero, a Fantagraphics anthology with different artists. I thought if I take it down a notch, I can make it for a more mainstream crowd.
Diabolique: I have Superfly. There’s a story in there where a girl gets a needle through her tongue while drinking a Pepsi.
MD: That’s Tiki Gardens. Another influence of mine was, in Florida, all the tourists traps. We used to visit Florida when I was a kid, even before we lived there, because my mother was from there. I’d been to Disney World several times, but one of my favorite places was Tiki Gardens at Indian Rocks Beach. Everything was Hawaiian, tiki, everything. You know the 50s fad about tiki torches? This place had survived into the 70s, they had monkeys in cages, they had a little jungle and these giant tiki heads. I thought it was the most amazing place. Of course, when we moved to Florida we only went once and never again. When I got my car, I was like “I’ll go to Tiki Gardens!” But, I couldn’t find it because it had been torn down. That’s where that story came from, where she’s living in the old abandoned tiki theme park.
Diabolique: Were you a fan of Frank’s before you met him?
MD: Oh, yeah. I had started skipping school at one point. I felt I’d learned everything I need to know from this place. I would ride my bike to the mom and pop video store. It was called USA Video. 99 cent rentals. I’d get, like, 4 horror movies, ride home and watch them. Copy them from my own VCR so I’d have copies of my own. Basket Case (1982) was one of the ones I’d rent. I remember when Brain Damage (1988) came out, I might have been out of high school at that point, but we, my friend and I, were waiting for it at the video store and when it didn’t arrive we asked “when are you going to get Brain Damage?” The lady said “Oh, we’re not going to get that one.” They had all kinds of horror movies, but for some reason they were thinking “that one is a little too scary, or too gross and we want to have some kind of family values.” Of course, they have every other crappy horror film out there in the horror section. So me and my friend thought we could get a petition together so that the video store would get Brain Damage. We didn’t know anyone, though, so we just went through the phone book and copied a bunch of names down. We gave it to the people at the video store and they actually ordered a copy. I was able to finally see it. That was at a time when videos were eighty bucks, ninety bucks. Way overpriced. That was how it was at the time. We got it. We did it.
Diabolique: Y’all were like the Parkland kids.
MD: Anything is possible.
Diabolique: How did you meet Mike Kuchar?
MD: I moved to New York in 1996. I might have been visiting the year before. Al Goldstein had brought me up to be on his Midnight Blue show. People in the Screw offices were impressed- “Wow, he flew you in? He never does that for anyone. He must like you.” While I was there on the trip I met Kembra who was in the band Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, a famous lower east side band that had been around since the 80s. She was a friend of Mike Kuchar’s. Millennium Film Workshop was where he was working at the time. He was showing us Super 8 filmstrips, stuff he had done in the 60s, and I said “if you need someone to be in your films, I’d be into it.” Not long after that he jumped at the opportunity. The first film was Blue Banshee (1994) with Kembra and I in it.
Diabolique: Did you ever read his comics?
MD: Yeah. Back then I didn’t make the connection. Mike and George, both of them had underground comics. I had some of the issues they were in, but I guess I didn’t think about it. (5)
Diabolique: Some of those old underground comic anthologies, I don’t want to say that the authors were faceless, but sometimes an artist would only draw three pages and that would be all that they ever had published. And they might use a pseudonym to boot.
MD: Back then I didn’t have any internet, how would you look something up? In a library? There were a few books about underground comics. I’d read all those, anything I could find. I was interested to see anything that I could, to find out about all those different artists.
Diabolique: How often do you draw these days?
MD: I try everyday to do some drawing, some sketching; I take some sketch books on the subway so I have something to do. Trying to get closer to getting stuff done. The way I’ve been working for the past several years, I have several projects going at the same time. Several drawings and paintings, comics I’m writing, so that if I don’t feel like doing comics I can work on a painting or something else. Do penciling, do the ink part. There’s always a lot to do, I just try to keep going.
[The conversation meandered towards the topic of a UFO cult local to Georgia and ends in pleasantries like “Thanks for your time, Mike.”]
- Ugly Stickers were a set of cards released by Topps in 1965 with art from Basil Wolverton, Norman Saunders, and Wally Wood. Mike, most likely, found the 1970s Ugly Stickers reissues.
- Entertaining Comics (EC) and Mad Magazine publisher William Gaines came under fire from parents groups after Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent claimed that comic books were to blame for juvenile delinquency. Gaines testified before the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954 and the unfavorable press led to EC’s end and the beginning of a self-regulated comic book industry decency code, the Comics Code Authority.
- Dr. Paul Bearer (played by Dick Bennick) hosted the Creature Features movies shown on WTOG in St. Petersburg, Florida, from 1973 until Bennick’s death in 1995. The character returned in 2015, this time with Richard Koon in the role.
- Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010) Directed by Frank Henenlotter and Jimmy Maslon.
- The Kuchar brothers both studied illustration at Manhattan’s School of Art and Design. George appeared in mid-70s underground comics like Arcade and Short Order alongside Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Bill Griffith. Mike illustrated one of the first gay comics, Gay Heart Throbs.