Interview: Catching Up With Mike Diana
Mike Diana is a unique figure in the underground comics world. Not only is his work unlike anything else, he is also the first person in United States history to be found guilty on an obscenity charge for his own art. As a teenager, a Florida court ruled that his ‘zine and mini-comic, Boiled Angel, was legally obscene and that it “lacked serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” He was, in fact, ordered by law to NOT draw. And although the ruling was a long time ago, it is a case that is only getting resolved now.
As you can see, none of that stopped the young artist from continuing his work. Today Mike lives in New York, works as an artist and continues his career in the underground, a career that has taken him all over the globe and given him a legion of fans (some who are certified superstars in the comic book world). Now there is even an upcoming documentary about his legal battles and career. Mike was able to sit with TuffGnarl.com and answer some candid questions. Mike’s personality and sense of humor are present as he discusses his life, his art, his past and where his future is headed.
TuffGnarl.com: What are you currently working on these days?
Mike Diana: Right now I am currently working on a number of things. I have finally reprinted the Boiled Angel ‘zines, all issues #1 thru #8. Originally issue #1 had only 65 copies printed and I did more of a print run with each issue as my readership grew. So issue #7 and #8 had 300 copies of each printed. Now I have reprinted all eight issues in the original format in a box with an image in front; Boiled Angel lives. 1,500 box sets will be available signed and numbered. It will pretty much be sold just on my website.
Also a project me and friends have been working on is a documentary about my obscenity case. The director of Frankenhooker and the Basket Case series, Frank Henenloter is directing. We have done some amazing interviews so far and have more planned. The project makes me feel like some good has come out of that whole ordeal I went through. I have been working on new comics too. Some graphic novels. I have been into doing longer comic stories lately. I am hoping my next comic to be an autobiographical story about my art, my case and conviction in the sunshine state.
How do you think the explosion of webcomics has affected the indie world? Do you think they have the same power as old-school ‘zines and mini-comics?
It’s hard to say how the webzine world has affected the real ‘zine world. When I was doing my ‘zines and mini-comics in 1988, and until 1992, it was all done by mail. Mailing a copy to Factsheet Five’s contact ‘zine reviewer. Then I would have to wait until Factsheet Five got into the hands of ‘zine fans and then they would pick what ‘zines they would order and send me money and I would send it out to them. So I worked up to a print run of 300 copies. That is an amount that kids these days would probably laugh at, not even worth them messing with. Some of my readers I am still in contact with today via the internet. There is such potential now to reach so many readers with the internet, but then at the same time there is much more out there to be seen, so really it’s hard to say what is better or worse. I like to have the actual book or ‘zine or comic in my hands, but in digital format, you can view endless issues, where would someone keep all those books in real life?!
When I first moved to New York in 1996, I took a bunch of my ‘zines to See Hear, a special shop for just fanzines. I watched it slowly die over the next few years and now, of course, all Tower Records and video shops are long closed. As well as most small bookshops and [even] big bookshops. Coliseum Books was a giant place that smelled like old books and that was the kind of place that was just there forever and you figure it will always be there, but no, not in today’s NYC. The Strand bookstore is hanging on, but who knows how much longer that will be around. When I moved to the city there was a place, giant place that had been an NYC establishment and the elderly husband and wife still owned it, a place that sold magic tricks, gag gifts, old Halloween costumes. I went in few times and there was never any customers in there. And you would see the old couple sitting there like they have been doing it for so many decades they don’t know what else to do. Well, in a blink of an eye, that place was just gone one day and I don’t even remember where exactly it was!
So the best thing us comic artists can do I suppose is try to change with the times, work with whatever the format happens to be.
You’ve indicated before you don’t really vote. This was an insane election year. As a New Yorker did you see it up front? Any thoughts or opinions on the current President Elect?
Eight years ago, I voted for President Obama and that was a big celebration in New York. I wasn’t going to vote for McCain. But this time we didn’t have much of a choice. I don’t think a president should be chosen because they are the first Hispanic president or the first female president or the first down syndrome president. It should be the best person to perform the job. I don’t hear presidential candidates speaking on what to do about child abuse, environmental problems; the issues I care about or think should be included. It’s more and more of a tabloid style event and how can one candidate make the other candidate look bad and point out what they did wrong. So this time I don’t know if I could vote and feel responsible for helping get either one of the jokers in the White House. You have to expect some kind of payback for having Obama, who seems like an intelligent man. I mean you see Trump on TV just screaming and carrying on. They tell us in school anyone can become president like it’s a good thing. [laughs]
You’re mostly doing prints/poster art today. Any intentions of doing a comic again?
Yes, I have been doing a lot of prints lately. Last year I was invited to take part in a two-week long printmaking residency called the Sweet Boys. It was in Utrecht, Holland at a place called Kapitaal. A great experience and some other great artists to work with. They had all kinds of professional silk screening equipment. I did some big poster prints and some smaller prints. Even a Utrecht haunted house poster with glow in the dark features.
But over the past few years, I have been getting back into comics again. Now I’m wanting to do longer comic strips, graphic novels. I wrote one that is 160 pages. Another that is 64 pages. Now I have to ink all those. I plan to do a comic based on my true life experience of being convicted of obscenity. I did a 30 page Satan comic this year called The Night Sugarpop Fucked the Devil’s Old Lady. It’s part of a comic ‘zine called 3. Each issue has three different artists and they each do a 30-page comic on the same theme. This issue’s theme was Satan. I did a new comic last year, in 2015 called Firebrat. It’s a 23-page story about a kid and his elf-like pet that starts fires. It’s in a new collection, hardcover book, called Firebrat, published and printed in Macedonia. Sometimes it feels like there are too many stories and not enough time.
I have been doing a lot of comic projects that I hope to have done in future. As I said, one is making a graphic novel about my case. I have always thought about doing it but never dived into it, so now I feel is the time. I wrote a rough draft for a graphic novel called Death Lives. Kind of a cross between a summer camp slasher story and a zombie story, 169 pages. It’s the longest comic I have done if I get it all inked someday. Another 64-page comic I did a rough draft for is called Teeterbabe. Set in the future, it is about a teenage girl and her mother who is a robot and the search for her lost brother and they battle against a giant tapeworm. Then I also am working on a collection of one-page comics in color that are kind of very sick humor. It’s called Boiled Boners. I have a lot of inking to do.
Do you follow any comics yourself today?
Not any specific titles. I go the big comic book shops every now and then to see what’s out there. I am more into the reprints of old classics like Nancy and Krazy Kat. But I do get good ‘zines sent to me in the mail. I also see a lot of nice work out there by new artists by way of Facebook. It’s amazing these days how we have access to so many artists and their work.
It’s been over twenty years since your infamous case. Is it something you still think about? How does it affect you now after two decades?
Well the main way the case still affects me is that I am still wanted in Florida for not paying all of my fines. My mother, brother, and the rest of my family still lives there so I would like to be able to go back without fear of being put in jail. As far as my art goes I feel like I draw what I want just like I was before the obscenity charges. But I do think about it one way or another. I am writing a comic about the ordeal, a true-life comic about myself. So I will be thinking about it in the future a lot as I do the comic.
What’s your personal favorite work of yours?
A personal favorite drawing of mine I did is the jump rope drawing from Boiled Angel #7, I think. It is a boy or it could be a girl, a child, and they are jumping a rope that has razor blades on it. Lots of cuts and scars on the figure. Lots of little blood drops spraying in all directions. I have been told that it is a powerful drawing. Also, I like that it feels extreme but without having big cut dicks or penetration. The point is to reflect child abuse and its endless cycle. Something like that. Child abuse has bothered me since I was a young teen.
The line between Pop-Culture and “high art'” is increasingly blurred every day. How do you view that relationship today as opposed to when you first started creating?
The line between pop culture and high art is increasingly blurred each day. When I started the boiled angel zines it was a different world. It was before the Internet. Now there are new platforms for the art to be seen. This new way of getting the art to so many helps create more art I think .The line between pop culture and high art in more blurred each day. When I started it was not so blurred. “Bad taste” was not yet part of the mainstream culture. For me in a small Florida town, in 1983, I was happy that a comic shop even opened up. I was able to see what comics were available and then had access to the EC Comics reprints and new underground titles that I didn’t have access to before. There was no internet then.
When I would rent movies on VHS tape at the local video store, called USA 99 Cent Video, I would rent the old John Waters films. They were in such bad taste. I found them to be so extreme. It was actually hard to find those in the Florida video shops because of the extreme nature of them. Well since then, since the end of the 1980s, the bad taste of those kinds of films have become normal as comedy. TV programs want to push the envelope more and more. Now there are the television ratings and that allows the networks to put even racier shows on because they figure you are warned with the rating. Remember where they would eat gross stuff? That is where we are headed more and more. Let’s watch gross stuff on a big flat screen! Personally, I like the shows I watched when I was a kid, old reruns that were on because they were dirt cheap or free for the television station to air.
Do you work digitally now? Or are you a paper purist?
I like doing my art on paper with ink or pencil. For me, that is the act of drawing. Not with a computer mouse or digital pen. I do touch up the drawings. I can add halftones that before I added by using a razor blade to cut out transparency dot patterns, sticky plastic sheets. There is a name for them but I forget. I don’t think they make them anymore. I color on a computer because it’s an easy option and I can make uniform colors that are hard for me to get with watercolor or color pencils. I [do] like the look of watercolor, the imperfections in it. But I scan all the drawings these days to keep a nice clean copy. However, I will most likely always draw on paper rather than all in digital format.
Neil Gaiman famously protected you in the press and through the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. What’s your relationship to them today?
In 1998 I was invited to by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to speak about my case. Neil Gaiman was also volunteering his time to speak at the same comic convention in Charlotte. So my mother came to visit, and my sister at that time, she was living in a teepee she built in the woods while going to school there. It was nice to meet Neil and talk with him. He was very troubled about what happened to me in Florida. My mom got a signed poster from him and was joking with me, like, “Oh he is good looking, you should hook us up.” My mom has a great sense of humor. The original idea was that I would do my community service hours doing these talks for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, but the Florida court decided that it was a conflict of interest. They would not honor the hours I did. But it was still a good time. I am not personally in contact with Neil these days, but he did give us a great, incredible interview on camera for the documentary. We also interviewed Stephen Bissette, he did the art in Saga of the Swamp Thing.
Do you think there is still an audience for physical ‘zines and mini comics?
I think to some degree there will always be a market for the physical zines. It is nice to hold it, maybe the smell or texture of the paper. Flipping through the pages. When I go to ‘zine fairs I see the actual ‘zines are definitely still alive. Not like they were in the heyday but it’s like that with many things.
What’s a typical day for you like now? Do you work on a set schedule?
Well, [first] I will crawl out of bed. I don’t like getting up early if I don’t have to. I work better in the evening and at night. But I can certainly draw early if I have to. I also like to do sketches in my sketch book when on the subway. That passes the time, drawing. Sometimes I can write out a story I have in my head. Just put it in panels to get it from my head to the paper. Then I will make a more polished rough story draft [later]. It’s a whole process and I normally have a few or more comic strips I am slowly working on a bit at a time; inching along. Sometimes I put my own comics on hold to do other projects that come up. But that’s the way it goes. I have a lot of comics in my head. The best ones will be made! I do have a drawing table, I sit and draw and finish on it, scan on it. It’s fun to see it come to life.
An important step is to finish what you start. How many projects or works of art have been started and not finished? So as far as a set schedule, I don’t have one. I make a list of drawings I have to do. But deadlines do help keep things moving in the order that they should.
All images courtesy of the artist’s website.
All images copyright Mike Diana.
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