Directed by low-budget horror auteur turned documentarian Frank Henenlotter (writer and director of 1988’s Brain Damage, 1990’s Frankenhooker, and the Basket Case trilogy), Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana is an irreverent and straightforward account of the 1993 obscenity trial of Mike Diana, the first (and only) American cartoonist to be convicted of the charge.
In its exploration of the boundaries of the First Amendment, Boiled Angels dips back into the history of EC Comics, publisher of classic titles such as Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Weird Tales of Terror. The comic publisher faced its own moral panic situation in the late 1940s, as comic books were increasingly seen as leading to juvenile delinquency — especially EC’s particular brand of horror, true crime, and fantasy comics. While the backlash against comics has a decades-long pedigree, the case of Mike Diana was an unprecedented one and remains remarkable today — as part of his sentence, Diana was forbidden to draw and was subject to warrantless searches and seizure in order to enforce the ban, a jaw-dropping and unconstitutional punishment by any standard.
Boiled Angels is, at times, a fascinating documentary, featuring talking heads that include the late George Romero, Neil Gaiman, the late Jay Lynch, two prosecutors from Diana’s case, a reporter that covered the case contemporaneously, and an outspoken and holier-than-thou protestor who repeatedly harassed the accused, among many others.
For better or worse, much of the narrative (factual or fanciful) is illustrated with Diana’s own art, with voiceover by Jello Biafra. The documentary addresses aspects of Diana’s past that contributed to his artistic endeavours, including his disillusionment with the Church and his distaste for the conservative town of Largo, where he published his work. However, it doesn’t ever truly explain the meaning or reason behind much of Diana’s work, or its extreme nature. The depictions of violent pedophilia may have been a reference to the abusive Catholic priests that Diana was watching on the news during the period of time in which he created the Boiled Angel series. Perhaps the cannibalistic imagery refers to the commercialization and commodification of bodies. But the political or artistic impetus behind the graphic and brutally violent depictions of bestiality, for example, remain unaddressed. And maybe that’s the point.
It can be difficult to view the segments of the film that actually show Diana’s art. The imagery can be unpleasant (to call it abnormally phallic would be an understatement) but it’s the storylines make the comics truly grotesque and disturbing. Incest and extreme abuse, both physical and sexual, dominate the screen in inked form. But does a viewer’s discomfort with, distaste for, or lack of understanding of a piece of art justify censorship? That’s the question that this documentary aims to answer.
Score: 6.5 out of 10 boiled angels.