Frank Henenlotter Is Trying To Make A Documentary About Comic Book Obscenity (...And You Can Help)

Help support a film that profiles the first American artist to ever be (wrongfully) convicted of obscenity.

Thanks to one of his comic books, Mike Diana was deemed a potential serial killer.

An underground artist since his senior year of high school in 1987 (where he would draw strips for friends depicting their most despised teachers getting brutally murdered), Diana worked to open the eyes of his meager audience by utilizing shocking imagery that often involved bodily mutilation, sodomy and various scatological themes. By 1988, he was printing and distributing two ‘zines – HVUYIM and Angelfuck – before moving on to his own “digest,” Boiled Angel. Limited to an average run of 65 (thanks to his print shop boss allowing him to manufacture issues off hours), Diana’s work still circulated across the United States, thanks to periodicals like Factsheet Five, which featured privately run publications their own readers could subscribe to. The demand led him to increase his issue size to 300, though the rape, torture and ultraviolence contained within the mag’s pages led Diana to lose one job as an elementary school janitor (where he was using the facility’s copy machine to illegally make prints). Yet it wasn’t until 1991 that Diana’s real troubles began, after a California law enforcement officer read an issue of Boiled Angel that was inspired by a series of then-unsolved student murders in Gainesville, Florida.

A few days before Christmas in 1991, two investigators arrived on the doorstep of Diana’s mother’s home, demanding to speak with her son. Allegedly a copy of Boiled Angel #6 was found in the possession of a suspect in the Gainesville murders, and the heinous details contained within the issue’s pages were hitting a bit too close to reality for their liking. The authorities requested a blood sample for DNA testing, which immediately cleared Diana of any wrong-doing. The craziest part is that the real killer – Daniel Harold Rolling (a/k/a “The Gainesville Ripper”) – was already in custody by November 1991, after he was arrested in Ocala, Florida, on a burglary charge. His break in tools were matched to marks left at the Gainesville murder scenes, and audio diaries of Rolling alluding to the crimes had been discovered in the one-man camp he had been living in not far from some of his victims’ homes. In interviews, Diana claims that the inquisition was merely a ploy to create a universal DNA bank, as thousands of suspects had been falsely named in an attempt to draw their plasma.

The notion that Diana was a murderer because of his upsetting art was absurd, and the young artist breathed a sigh of relief once the investigation into his potential involvement was closed. However, this inquiry wouldn’t be the last time Diana’s drawings landed him in hot water with Florida law enforcement. The detectives had made note of his post office box, and Diana began receiving fan mail from a man claiming to have recently moved into the area. Being gullibly excited by anyone wanting to purchase his work, Diana sent his new pen pal copies of Boiling Angel #7 and #8. Unfortunately, this admirer wasn’t actually a comic enthusiast at all. In reality, he was an undercover detective who ended up filing the books with the State’s Attorney. In 1992, Diana was charged with three counts of obscenity pursuant to Florida Statute 847.011 (1): once for publishing, once for distributing and once for advertising. With the help of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (which is a real non-profit entity, I assure you), Diana fought the charges tooth and nail, clinging to his First Amendment rights. On March 29, 1994, after a week-long trial and 90 minutes of jury deliberation, Michael Christopher Diana was found guilty, marking him as the first artist to ever be convicted of obscenity in the United States.

Now – director Frank Henenlotter (the Basket Case films, Frankenhooker) is trying to turn Diana’s story into a documentary. No stranger to non-fiction filmmaking (2013’s subgenre chronicle That’s Sexploitation! is essential viewing for sleaze hounds), Henenlotter has launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to help fund his latest venture, The Trial of Mike Diana. From the director himself:

Freedom of Speech doesn’t mean anything if your art is declared ‘obscene’, and one man’s art could be another man’s obscenity. That’s the battle we explore in this documentary: an improbable collision between comic-book art and the First Amendment.

Already in production with the full participation of Diana (not to mention comic art luminaries such as Neil Gaiman and Stephen Bissette), the majority of the funds are going toward post production and animating the artist’s uniquely grotesque drawings. The Trial of Mike Diana will also require a full legal review in order to protect those involved in its creation. This is an important story in the history of American art and free speech, and Henenlotter is the perfect director to bring it to light (thanks to his own battles over his cartoonishly repellent pictures). The rewards for the Kickstarter are pretty sweet (I’m going after that signed Brain Damage print myself), but the greatest prize will be the finished picture, which is sure to be one hell of a “truth is stranger than fiction” treat. Check out the trailer below and dig into those pockets for some dollars before November 17th, or Bilal may be beating down your door to come and swipe your wallet.

Image and reference: Art Whore