Censorship in a Time Even Before War

Censorship in a Time Even Before War

A real-life pornography witch-hunt inspires a gay character who tests the First Amendment


Access Theater

380 Broadway at White St., fourth fl.

Wed.-Sun. 8 p.m.

Jul. 13 through Aug. 3

$15; 212-868-4444

The score today, children, is United States Supreme Court 2, First Amendment 0.

When the Supremes take no action that is an action. Just ask Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, whose pleas for relief from a wacko investigation and jail-brandishing federal prosecutor were last week turned down, blank-faced, without comment, by the High Nine.

Or ask Mike Diana, if you can find him. The same U.S. Supreme Court, eight years ago last week, turned him down, blank-faced, without comment.

Diana, whose whereabouts are at the moment unclear, was then an 18 or 19-year-old kid in Tallahassee, Florida. His crime: drawing dirty Xeroxed comic books. The sentence: three years’ probation, during which entire period, according to the non-profit Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, he was by court order—under threat of immediate jailing—to: (a) have no contact with anyone under the age of 18 (b) undergo psychological testing (c) enroll in a “journalistic ethics” course (d) pay a $3,000 fine (e) perform 1,248 hours of community service.

And, yes––stop drawing dirty. In fact, stop drawing.

To which end, his place of residence was to be open to inspection by the police, without warning or warrant, at any time whatsoever.

All of which comprises the grist of a swift-moving Off-Broadway play called “Busted Jesus Comix” that starts previews July 13 toward a July 16 opening as a Blue Coyote production at the Access Theater on Lower Broadway. The piece is in itself a sort of written comic book, unillustrated until fleshed out by actors, and the writer is a large, soft-spoken, agreeable rebel––well, he’s from Richmond, Virginia––named David Johnston.

The basics, Johnston said, are drawn from the Mike Diana case, mostly meaning the probationary sentence as detailed above. The rest is fiction, imagination, out of David Johnston’s head. Here’s a smattering:

Prosecuting attorney: How many copies of this issue were printed?

Marco [the young defendant]: They weren’t printed. We ran ’em off at Kinko’s…

Prosecuting attorney: Why “Busted Jesus Comix,” Marco?

Marco: What do you mean?

Prosecuting attorney: The title… Why did you find it necessary to insult the faith of millions of Americans in the title of your comic book?

Marco: It’s a comic book. It’s not meant to do anything…

Prosecuting attorney: Crack. Crack cocaine. In this issue, you have drawn two teenage boys smoking crack cocaine and then proceeding to have sexual intercourse with an infant. A baby. They perform this act, which you draw in great detail, to the point that the baby––explodes. You have a picture of the baby exploding.

Marco: Yeah, it’s not realistic.

Playwright Johnston has brought Marco up to New York, looking for a job. He has given him a past as a grievously abused child, complete with a jolting denouement. He has given him a not very pleasant brother. And the Marco in this play is a casual, unemphatic homosexual.

Why so, Mr. Johnston?

“You know, I’m not really sure.” Pause. “I don’t remember making a conscious choice. It was just something I could write about.”

No, none of the events in the play are autobiographical. And no, Johnston has never met Mike Diana, never tried to, doesn’t know where he is today.

“I haven’t heard anything. He must be like 35 now.”

Is putting Diana in New York City also fiction?

“Far as I know.”

Johnston himself hits 41 this coming July 19. Born in Lexington, Kentucky, bred in Richmond, he’s the son of a retired college-professor father, a retired nurse mother.

“Everybody in my family sort of switches back and forth between Methodist and Baptist. I grew up in the South and read a lot of comic books.”

It was seven or eight years ago that he tore out of a newspaper a story about the Mike Diana trial.

“Then when I was writing another play and got blocked,” Johnston said, “I did what I usually do”––switched horses, pulled out that seven- or eight-year-old clipping and let something new grow from there.

Whatever became of the play on which he’d been blocked?

“I went back and finished it. It’s called ‘Candy & Dorothy,’ for Candy Darling,” the drag queen, Warhol superstar, “and Dorothy Day,” the lay Catholic, someday-to-be sainted, “who were both around the Lower East Side in the 1960s.”

The leading actors of “Busted Jesus Comix” are Vince Gatton as Marco, R. Jane Casserly as the Dazzle Cups coffee-chain manager where he’s seeking New York employment, Paul Caiola and Joseph C. Yeargain as a couple of young, spiked-out, comic-strip characters. In various supporting roles are Bruce Barton, Michael Bell, Brian Fuqua, Tracey Gilbert, John Koprowski and David Lapkin.

The director now––just as two years ago when Blue Coyote at the Abingdon Playhouse presented the play––is Gary Shrader. On an associated bill then was “A Bush Carol, or George Dubya and the Xmas of Evil,” words by David Johnston, music by Stephen Speights.

“It had Bush as Scrooge and Karla Faye Tucker,” the woman over whose execution the president, as Texas governor, had presided, “as Jacob Marley. We keep talking about bringing it back. The problem is,” said Johnston, “I get too depressed thinking about rewriting it. That was the winter of 2003”––more than 1,700 U.S. combat deaths ago. “It’s hard to make it funny now.”

The upshot of the Tallahassee pornographic comics scandal made Mike Diana a consequential presence on the Internet. Johnston has looked at Mike Diana’s “Boiled Angel” comic-strip pornography on the Web.

“I remember thinking these were very, very shocking things. The play doesn’t have any steam behind it otherwise––any reason for them to go after him like they did.”

Shock is in the eye and mind of the beholder. Or not.

“My boyfriend’s mother”––Johnston’s boyfriend is songwriter Tim Mathis; they live up near Columbia University––“came to see the show. She’s a little old lady from Indianapolis. I was very nervous. But she was absolutely fine. Her answer to everything was: ‘Well, it’s a comic book, that’s very clear.’”

Trouble is, the joke only goes so far. In the halls of justice, said Lenny Bruce, the only justice is in the halls. Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper would surely agree.