Busted Jesus Comix
American playwright and actor David Johnston has taken the notorious Florida trial and conviction of underground comix creator Mike Diana and reimagined it into this impressive, thought-provoking and powerfully emotional play, which receives its European premiere during the Comica Festival at the Above The Stag Theatre, mere minutes from Victorian station. Diana’s crazed Boiled Angel, a photocopied handmade zine with a tiny print run and even tinier sales, becomes Busted Jesus Comix scrawled by the imaginary Marco. Like Diana, Marco is convicted for selling his zine by being put on probation for 3 years, fined $3,000, prohibited from having any contact with minors, forced to do 1,280 hours of community service, maintain full-time employment AND, absurdly, forbidden to draw, anything at all, even for his personal uses.
Drawing on this strong body of true material, Johnston develops and refashions it further into the story of his entirely fictional Marco. Centre stage, mainly on a high stool, throughout the 70 minutes, Henry Blake plays the vulnerable teen with depth and subtlety, as he is barraged by his wheeler-dealing lawyer, his brittle blonde Behaviourist shrink, two shrill fundamentalist moral guardians in drag, and the screaming male chorus from “Up from the Closet”, a “faith-based” counselling group intent on reprogramming Marco into a Jesus-loving heterosexual. Almost without notice, the action can jump from these scenes to another encounter Marco has in an awkward interview for a job in a coffee shop in New York, where he’s fled to with only $8 left in his pocket. This scene too can be interrupted by two guys in hockey-style white face-masks and red T-shirts (one of a Boiled Angel cover) as they enact some of the disturbing but ridiculous scenes drawn in the comic. We never see a single image from the comic itself, this is left to our imagination, although there are several prints of Diana’s work on the walls and stairwell as you go upstairs to the theatre to give you an idea. These fractured but intercut parallel narratives are always clear and create jarring counterpoints as secrets behind Marco’ desperately sad and troubled upbringing are gradually unpeeled.
Photos by Pete Le May
Blake and the coffee-shop manageress to whom he opens up, played by Erin Hunter, build a convincing rapport, but the whole ensemble is well-cast, acting with sharp timing and conviction. Prav Menon-Johansson keeps the set minimal and graphic, with a painting of the child-like, Pop Art-style superhero which Marco dreams of being flying across the back of the stage, while two stars-and-stripes flags serve as curtains on the left. Her direction brings out all the satirical, sometimes shocking, bite and tender sympathy of Johnston’s provocative drama. It’s not for the faint-hearted or closed-minded. I suspect that many, if not most, people in the audience had never heard before of the Mike Diana case, so I’m glad this scandal of injustice is being brought to the attention of a wider public.
Without spoiling the ending, I can say Marco’s tale ends quite hopefully. As for Mike Diana’s tale, he eventually came through this ordeal and made a new life and “career” for himself. I finally met Mike Diana at SPX Stockholm in April 2008, a quiet, thoughtful man, who he spoke well about his particular case and censorship in general. His court case has brought him global notoriety, in the comics and zine world - he was off next to Bogota, Colombia as a festival guest - but that fame came with a heavy price-tag. He’s still drawing and creating comics today and he’s produced a brand new comic in colour for Prav Menon-Johansson’s production. She will be presenting part of this latest artwork this coming Sunday afternoon, November 8th, in the ICA Theatre as part of the free Comica Comiket, the small press comics fair. It’s a fitting venue to celebrate a self-publisher who has survived this ordeal and can now draw, for himself and for all of us.
Posted: November 5, 2009
Busted Jesus Comix runs from 3 to 28 November 2009 at the Above The Stag Theatre in Victoria, London.