This month for What I’m Reading, I abandoned my reading chair to sit in front of the TV. I watched two documentaries — Boiled Angels (2018) and Feels Good Man (2020). The common thread linking the films was the focus on comics creators in court. One artist was defending themself against obscenity charges, and the other is trying to regain control of their creation. One was persecuted by his community, and the other witnessed their creation distorted and turned into a global meme.
Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana (2018)
Boiled Angels is the story of Mike Diana, the only American artist to be convicted of obscenity in the United States. The 1994 court case, Florida v. Mike Diana, was instigated when Diana was charged with obscenity after selling his ‘zine Boiled Angels to an undercover cop.
The documentary details Diana’s background, which includes his forays into writing and directing horror films as a child. It discusses the influential link between his work and earlier underground comix and his drive to push things to the next level. Then, due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time and in the wrong social climate, Diana found himself the target of obscenity charges. CBLDF became involved in the case providing a lawyer for Diana and covering his legal bills. After the trial featured in the film, CBLDF and ACLU followed up with appeals that were all turned down, cementing the final decision in his case.
Fittingly, cult horror director Frank Henenlotter (Brain Damage, Basket Case, Frankenhooker) directed the film, who is himself no stranger to “bad taste.” Henelotter includes many of the images in question as well as a selection of Diana’s other work throughout the film — be warned, it is not for the faint of heart.
One issue raised in the documentary is how the media and Diana’s community helped stack the cards against him. Throughout the case, the lines are blurred between the artist and his art. At one point, it’s insinuated that Diana is the Gainsville Ripper. His political commentary didn’t pass the Miller obscenity test because it was critical of religion, which didn’t fly with the conservative community he was in. It’s hard not to view this as a miscarriage of justice.
What blows my mind is the sentence Diana was issued. Three years probation, a $3,000 fine, over a thousand hours of community service, no contact with minors, and he was forbidden to draw. During his probation, he was subject to unannounced searches of his home. Any evidence of drawing was considered a breach of probation. It’s hard to believe that something like this can happen to an artist in America. It shows the dangers of allowing moral outrage to outweigh the law; bad taste does not equal breaking the law.
Feels Good Man (2020)
Directed by Arthur Jones, Feels Good Man examines the bizarre journey of the character Pepe the Frog. Pepe was created by Matt Furie for his comic book Boy’s Club, about a group of slacker roommates. We watch as Pepe turns from a lovable slacker into a meme sensation and journeys through meme land to become a character the Anti-Defamation League recognizes as a hate symbol. By the end of the film, Furie is doing everything in his power to regain control of his character.
From a legal standpoint, it is rewarding to see Furie fight back as he takes various people to court, including InfoWars, for capitalizing on his creation. The film also highlights the psychological toll on an artist who sees their creation taken away from them and the exhaustion that affects both their creativity and spirit.
The documentary is a cautionary tale of what can happen to your creations if you don’t legally protect them. Sometimes, you need to protect yourself whether you want to get involved or not. However, the journey of Pepe is so bizarre, I don’t think anyone could have predicted where it would, or will, end. At the close of the film, we get a glimpse of a new, positive cause that has taken up Pepe. It certainly has me rooting for Furie.
What I’m Reading is part of an opinion series written by editor Jordan Smith. The goal of the series is to highlight media related to the comics community that resonates with the mission of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.