Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Provocative Art Panel II
Stayed in last night during the rain -- skipping the Spitzz show at Charlie's -- to work out what my 10 minutes at Harvard tonight would cover. Here's what I came up with. Comments? Email me.

"Hi. My name is Heath. I work as a community organizer for a business magazine called Fast Company. On the side, since 1988, I've tracked developments in grassroots media by reviewing undrground newspapers, zines, minicomics, homemade cassettes -- even pornography.

"In the zine world, reviewers play a dual role: that of traditional critics, a la the folks who write for the New York Times Book Review, and that of documentarians, perhaps the only people to catalog and comment on some of the most esoteric ephemera ever published.

"In 1994, when I was 20 and living in Chicago, I found myself just off center of one of the most storied obscenity cases involving grassroots media since the '60s.

"After receiving an order in the mail, a long-haired kid named Mike Diana sold a copy of his photocopied comic Boiled Angel to a cop in Pinellas County, Florida, one of the most conservative counties in the sunshine state.

"Boiled Angel -- and the issue Diana mailed to the cop, #ATE, the only copy sent to someone in Florida -- wasn't pretty. Diana's comics depicted flying skulls, amputated infants, priests raping children, blood, feces, and other bodily fluids.

"The cop and Pinellas County took offense. And their response wasn't pretty either. Because of that slim, hand-drawn pamphlet probably with a print run in the double digits, Diana was charged with obscenity. And I found myself publishing daily courtroom reports on the Web.

"Obscenity is a funny law. Sure, there's the bit about prurient interest: Will this turn you on? You'd have to be pretty creepy legally to get off on Boiled Angel. But there's also the bit on local standards, and Pinellas County's standards were pretty local.

"Diana was found guilty. He was charged with thousands of dollars in fines. He was required to perform almost 1,300 hours of community service. And he was ordered to not draw. He appealed with the help of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and failed in 1997, three long years later. Then he moved to New York City to become an exotic dancer.

"Earlier this year, Diana was part of the Angry White Male tour, a Jim Rose Circus Sideshow-like extravaganza featuring artists, musicians, and writers such as Jim Goad, who edited the controversial zine Answer Me! Diana's resting on his artistic laurels -- by law -- and reveling in the controversy surrounding him.

"Diana's response is not unlike that of another New York City-based cartoonist, Danny Hellman. Sued in 1999 for libel by editorial cartoonist Ted Rall, whose work appears in daily newspapers as well as the punk fanzine Maximum Rocknroll, Hellman has been targeted because of a series of parody emails sent to 30 people. The emails aped Rall and poked fun at an article he wrote about Art Spiegelman for the Village Voice. Hellman's not hiding either.

"Instead, Hellman has surrounded himself with comics celebrities such as Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Gary Panter -- as well as Diana himself and notable self-publishers like James Kochalka, Ron Rege Jr., and P. Shaw! -- to publish this book: Legal Action Comics.

"These two cases raise some interesting questions:
  • As shocking and parodic as Diana and Hellman's work might be, did they intend to provoke the paper tigers they were poking? Why did Diana produce and distribute work that was so clearly disturbing? Does his commentary on the state of religion or childcare outweigh the shocking nature of his work? And in Hellman’s case, why assume Rall’s persona and run a fake mailing list to poke fun of Rall’s attack on Spiegelman?
  • Would anybody really know -- or care -- about them if they hadn't been sued for obscenity and libel? Has the value and importance of their artwork been elevated because of its attachment to the legal proceedings? Does art challenged legally somehow become better art? Think Banned Book Week: Are all these books good books?
  • What do relatively high-profile cases like these mean for the rest of the zine, comics, and arts worlds? Is Mike Hunt, the Malcolm McLaren of mail order, merely profiting off of Diana’s notoriety? Or is he a viable patron? Are the artists supporting Hellman doing so to defend freedom of speech or to draw political lines of support in the comics community? What side are you on: Rall or Hellman? What does that say about your work?
  • If all the mainstream public knows about grassroots media is undead sex, cannibalism, and bloody stools, how can it be taken seriously as an alternative to the mainstream? Why defend and support questionable work like this when it might only denigrate the state of the artform and media? What role does the comics community play in casting a more accurate picture of the state of the medium?

  • "I don't know. But I do know this: Just as I covered Diana's '94 trial online, I'm going to keep an eye on the $1.5 million Hellman/Rall libel case. And I'm going to continue reviewing zines and minicomics -- not just to capture potentially lost media history, but to encourage zinemakers to pursue quality work in order to rise up as a viable challenge to what we find on the newsstands at CVS. That might mean eschewing flying skulls and semen.

    "My name is Heath. Thanks."

  • Mike Diana Says Good Morning America!
  • The Mike Diana Censorship Debacle
  • Roc Talks with Mike Diana
  • Mike Diana
  • I Was a Teenage Boiled Angel
  • Portrait of the Artist as a Wanted Man
  • A True Tale of Internet Terror

  • Special thanks to Paul Hanna and Sarah Pikcilingis for their help.

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