BANNED MEDIA MONTH #10: Boiled Angel #1-8, by Mike Diana (1991)

Artwork from the upcoming documentary The Trial of Mike Diana.

Artwork from the upcoming documentary The Trial of Mike Diana.

Type of Media: Comic Book

(Unlike most of these posts, I can't actually recommend that you check this out. Boiled Angel is incredibly graphic, gruesome, and disgusting, and you should only look it up if you have a strong stomach for sex and violence.

However, even if I don't think you should read it, I still think you should know that Boiled Angel exists as it is a fascinating piece of American art history.)

America is supposed to be a country where everyone has a voice, no matter how many people disagree with what you say. Free speech protection is extended to Klansmen, xenophobes, and, unlike many other countries, Holocaust deniers, and many Americans are proud of this freedom. However, it's a freedom that isn't absolute. It's possible to express yourself in ways that are deemed criminal. There are different categories of illegal speech that are pretty well-defined, such as slander or child pornography, but there is one murky outlier: obscenity.

Boiled Angel is rather infamous in the world of underground comics. Its eight issues feature short comics depicting murder, rape, cannibalism, and drug use, sometimes all at once. Combined with an art style that takes cues from the ugly "spaghetti and meatballs" monsters of Basil Wolverton (a style that was later cribbed by the show Superjail), it's a series that looks specifically designed to shock and distress readers. However, its content is only half the source of its infamy. The other half comes from making its creator, Mike Diana, the first American ever to be convicted of artistic obscenity.

It's an understatement to say that Boiled Angel didn't fit into the culture of 90s Tampa Bay. It depicts the kinds of heinous acts you see on gritty true crime shows or trashy tabloid covers, focusing on the terrible things people do to each other. The art uses tons of lines to make skin look wrinkled, scarred, and covered in fluids, trying to elicit maximum disgust, and the occasional monsters that crop up in stories are hyperviolent and often hypersexualized. The series is also incredibly blasphemous, with defaced Christian iconography and corrupt clergymen as common fixtures.

Don't write the series off as one-note, though. Boiled Angel's choice of topics and presentation shows that there's more to it than just shock value. The comic doesn't really revel in the crimes its characters commit, even if most of the characters do. By presenting the acts as disturbingly as possible, it makes you contemplate how horrific they actually are. Diana said his primary inspiration for his stories was watching the nightly news, and some parts of Boiled Angel are basically depictions of news stories he saw. He wanted people to really think about all the horrible things that go on around them, the things that happen behind closed doors in their wholesome, family-friendly communities.

Unfortunately, Pinelles County, Florida didn't agree with that analysis. After acquiring copies of Boiled Angel in a police sting operation, a state attorney charged Diana with publishing, distributing, and advertising obscenity. He spent four days in jail. During the trial a prosecutor suggested that drawing Boiled Angel could eventually lead to Diana becoming a serial killer. It took just 40 minutes for the jury to decide that Boiled Angel wasn't art and render a guilty verdict, and Diana was sentenced to three years of probation, a $3,000 fine, 1,248 hours of community service, a mandatory journalistic ethics course, a psych evaluation paid at his own expense, and ordered to avoid contact with children. Most distressingly, though, was that he was also banned from drawing, and told that police could come raid his house looking for art at any time. Diana eventually fled the state of Florida to live in New York after the fines became too much to handle. He still can't return without fear of being arrested. 

Ironically, the attention gained from the trial contributed quite a bit to Mike Diana's success, and he's still drawing comics today, still in the same vein as Boiled Angel. He isn't worried about being arrested for his art again. He can't be. The strange thing with obscenity, according to first amendment lawyer Bob Corn Revere, is that it's the only crime you can't know you've committed until a jury tells you you have.