Comic Injustice

A Florida obscenity trial may have wide implications for artists.

When 24-year-old artist Michael Diana sold two copies of his self-published comic book Boiled Angel to undercover deputy sheriffs in Florida's Pinellas County, he didn't exactly profit from the sale. Instead, Diana was arrested and charged with publishing, advertising, and distributing obscene materials.

At his trial last April, Diana's jury agreed with witnesses for the prosecution who testified that Boiled Angel had no literary or artistic merit and that it appealed only to "deviant groups" and "those who have a libertine bent in their thinking." Diana, who faced a possible prison stay of three years, was sentenced to three years' probation and fined $3,000.

Under the terms of his probation, he must perform eight hours of community service a week, attend and pay for a course in journalistic ethics, and submit to periodic searches to confirm he is no longer producing obscene material. And because Diana must also refrain from all contact with anyone younger than 18, he has lost his job as a clerk at his father's convenience store.

Ironically, the copies bought by undercover policemen were Diana's only local sales. Diana sent Boiled Angel, which sold about 300 copies per issue, through the mail only to subscribers in the United States, France, Australia, and Africa. The comic consists of illustrated stories and poems attacking Christianity and depicting serial murders, satanic rituals, sexual assaults, and cannibalism. Diana testified in court that he intended his work to be "a mirror to our society, to show its problems." But after his sentencing, Diana said, "I won't do anything that might be considered obscene."

Seth Friedman, the publisher of Factsheet Five, a San Francisco-based review of underground comics, says he believes Diana's conviction will "absolutely" have a chilling effect on artistic expression, even outside the comic-book community. "Especially if you live in a non-urban part of the country," says Friedman, "you realize you have to be very, very careful if your work deals with sexuality or religion." Friedman, who testified on Diana's behalf, doubts the comic-book artist would have been convicted--or even tried--in a more cosmopolitan setting.

But he notes that small-town successes will likely encourage prosecutors in bigger cities to try similar cases. "This sort of censorship will lead to larger things if it's not snuffed out at the source," says Friedman.

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