Christopher Owens 🔖 Being the first American artist to be convicted of obscenity is quite a claim.
A notorious figure in the underground comix scene (which had already given us Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Aline Kominsky-Crumb and An Phoblacht’s own Cormac), Diana took the underground’s obsession with taboo breaking and pushed the comix medium into areas that were utterly unhinged, and gloriously so. A cursory glance at Diana’s artwork shows there is no attempt at depicting realistic imagery, instead going for a kind of ‘Tex Avery on LSD from the Manson Family’ feel that some will find disgusting, but virtually everyone can see is over the top and grotesque, and is therefore difficult to take seriously. Unfortunately, not everyone saw it like that. According to the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund:
Diana was first charged with obscenity after an undercover Florida detective posed as an artist to obtain copies of Boiled Angel. In a week-long case in March of 1994, a Florida jury found Diana guilty of publishing, distributing, and advertising obscene material. They agreed that his work ‘lacked serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value’ because it did not compare to such works as The Grapes of Wrath or Picasso’s ‘Guernica.’ Diana was sentenced to a three-year probation, during which time his residence was subject to inspection, without warning or warrant, to determine if he was in possession of, or was creating obscene material. He was to have no contact with children under 18, undergo psychological testing, enrol in a journalistic ethics course, pay a $3,000 fine, and perform 1,248 hours of community service.
Two appeals to the State Appellate Court failed to have the case reversed or reheard in Florida. During the first appeal process, the prosecution used evidence gathered after the original trial, a move usually considered unethical. The courts refused to accept an amicus brief submitted by the ACLU and responded ‘without comment’ to the second and final appeal. Two of the three counts under which Diana was convicted were endorsed by the Appellate Court. The only count that was judged incorrect was the conviction for advertising obscene material.’ The Court agreed with Diana’s attorney that it was improper to convict someone for advertising material that had not been created yet, since the artist could not, at the time, know the nature or character of the work.
Very public spirited of the courts!
Published in 2017, RIP is a collection of new work and archival material from Diana. Age, nor wisdom, have hindered his vision as there are plenty of mutilated corpses, humongous schlongs and rotting flesh for the reader to absorb at their leisure. Everything that he was vilified for is amped up for maximum effect and, for fans, it is great to revel in such sordidness, even if such art is no longer considered “transgressive”
What is evident is that, for all of the outrageous cartoon sex and violence on display, there are telling social commentaries in here as well: ‘Coconut Head Horror’ pokes fun at family values (where an argument over a gift ends up with decapitation and necrophilia). ‘Shark Bait’ not only refers to the polluted ocean, but also the notion that nature will outlive us all, while ‘The Unholy Rape Slaughter’ attacks organised religion and has God disguising himself as the Devil. Of course, anyone looking for deep comments will be disappointed, but it’s interesting how someone whose work was regarded as having no redeeming value actually does if you pay attention.
For those of you new to Diana’s work, this is an excellent starting off point.
Mike Diana, 2017, RIP. Divus Books. ISBN-13: 978-8086450926
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.