PROJECT: The Trial of Mike Diana
I remember being shocked when I heard that the Dead Kennedys, a San Francisco punk band, had their house raided by federal agents in April of 1986 simply because they’d included a poster from artist H.R. Giger in the album Frankenchrist. I recall thinking it was a joke or a publicity stunt. It couldn’t be real. This is America. But it was real. It did happen.
In 1985, a 14-year old girl had bought the Frankenchrist album as a birthday present for her 11-year old brother. Kind of a weird gift given the title but, hey, little dude was probably a skater already hip to the punk rock scene depicted in Flipside fanzine. Anyway, upon opening it and viewing Giger’s “Landscape XX” a.k.a. “Penis Landscape” poster, a sexually graphic image of penises inserted into vaginas, the kid’s mom flipped out and called police.
Oh, boy, did shit hit the fan…
The band and others in the chain of distribution were charged with violating the California Penal Code and the case went to trial. Then the dreaded yet universally laughed at censorship committee, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), got their panties in a bunch and faster than you can say “First Amendment rights“, punk, metal and several pop and rap artists were forced to put warning labels on the releases for lyrical content, graphic images, subject matter…or all of the above. Believe it or not, the Gov was telling the public which music was “acceptable”. Hard to imagine but it’s true. Even worse, 80s Reagan America let them do it.
In hindsight, the warning labels weren’t so bad. In fact, they backfired on the PMRC big time. For instance, if you were in a record store looking for new music and weren’t sure if an unfamiliar or new metal band or artist was any good, all you had to do was look for the warning label. If the record had one, chances are it rocked or at least wasn’t boring. For me, the PMRC never failed to lead me to greatness. In 1985 I discovered both Merciful Fate and W.A.S.P from reading the PMRC’s “Filthy 15 List” of songs that should be banned. I belatedly thank them for the introduction. This one’s for you, Tipper Gore.
All kidding aside, those were dark times for The First Amendment in America; times when heavy metal was blamed for causing teen suicide and inciting sexual debauchery of every kind from rape to necrophilia; an era when artists were blamed for perpetuating obscenity for drawing a female breast or singers were panned as “demonic” for wearing black leather; and where the simple act of kissing a black man in a Catholic church, as Madonna did in her 1989 “Like a Prayer” video, caused an absolutely ridiculous national uproar with “well meaning” white Christian bigots who labeled her video “blaspheme against God”.
By the time The 90s rolled along most of us had forgotten about The 80s weird retro-romp back into the McCarthy-ish 1950s, and for the most part didn’t care anymore because all of this knee-jerk censorship had been such a buzzkill that it inspired a greater underground movement to rise, one with its own record labels, its own bands and its very own independent presses which completely divorced itself from the mainstream.
From Maximum Rock and Roll to Fact Sheet Five, independent presses were the absolute staple of any freethinking rebel music lover in the 80s and early 90s. And one of the most delicious things to come from this era were the indie zines and comics. There were thousands of them. Maybe even millions. They came from every country, every State in America and varied in degrees by content and creative execution. They came in many flavors; i.e. punk, straight-edge, metal, feminist, anarchist, horror, etc. You could take your pick of them in any town with a cool record store as they were usually placed right inside the door and were often free or maybe just a couple of bucks depending on the artist/writer.
The reason many of us bought them was because, inside their often shocking and weird covers, were graphics and political opinions you couldn’t find elsewhere. They were essentially indie comic books and novellas created by underground artists who used this medium to exercise fully their First Amendment rights. Zines were basically the Tumblr and Reddit of a youth communication network long before the Internet came around. And with exception to a zine that got some naughty Minnesota kids kicked out of school in 1990 after depicting their school principal as a Klansman who ate his lunch out of the boy’s locker room toilet, I never heard of anyone facing any legal persecution for zine art…until now.
In 1991, underground comic artist, Mike Diana, 22, Florida, found himself in an absolute legal nightmare when his comic zine series, Boiled Angel, landed in the hands of Florida Assistant State’s Attorney, Stuart Baggish who, upon viewing the comic, believed the artist might be behind the then unsolved Gainesville Student Murders. Days before Christmas, Diana was contacted by FBI agents, told he was a suspect in The Gainesville Murders, and they requested a sample of his blood for DNA analysis. Diana complied and was ruled out. His DNA didn’t match. Of course it didn’t. But the hellride wasn’t over by a long shot.
In a scene that suspiciously smacks of entrapment, a Florida policeman posing as a fellow artist, corresponded on the sly with Mike Diana, befriended him and requested several issues of his zine comic. The undercover officer refused to meet Diana in person so Diana sent the comic zine through the mail. This unfortunately led to a 1992 charge for advertising, publishing and distributing “obscene material”. On March 29, 1994, Mike Diana became the first American artist to ever be convicted by jury for obscenity and sent to jail…over a zine. For drawing a comic zine.
There’s a documentary being made about Mike Diana and his wrongful 1994 conviction for creating his art. Although I admit I find much of his early art somewhat disturbing, I firmly believe that art, music, fashion and literature –and even video games– are mediums of self-expression that should forever remain protected by The First Amendment regardless of content, intent or graphic depiction. Due to the political climate and the rise of of both Left and Right conservatism in America today, the story of the 1994 persecution of Mike Diana could very easily repeat and become the story of one of us today.
I look forward to seeing this documentary made as I believe its message is one we need to be reminded to stay on guard for. Let the lessons of the past warn us what not to allow to happen in the future. No one has the right to tell anyone where their limitations of artistic expression lie.