R. Jane Casserly, Paul Caiola, Joseph Yeargain, and Vince Gatton in Busted Jesus Comix

(Photo © Kyle Ancowitz)
R. Jane Casserly, Paul Caiola, Joseph Yeargain,
and Vince Gatton in Busted Jesus Comix
(Photo © Kyle Ancowitz)
Can a comic book be obscene? The state of Florida believes so. In David Johnston's hilarious and disturbing Busted Jesus Comix, a 19-year-old artist named Marco is convicted of a felony for the creation and distribution of a comic book that is slapped with that label. The play was inspired by an actual Florida legal case involving underground comic artist Mike Diana, whose self-published Boiled Angel landed him in jail for four days in 1994. The terms of his three-year probation sentence were the same as the character Marco's in the play: a hefty fine, hours of community service, no contact with children under 18, psychiatric treatment (at his own expense), and enrollment in a journalistic ethics course (also at his own expense). In addition, Diana was forbidden to draw, and his home was subject to unannounced searches to make certain that he was in compliance with the court order.

But Johnston's play is not a documentary treatment of the Diana affair; the playwright uses the facts as a jumping-off point. Busted Jesus Comix begins as Marco (Vince Gatton) is interviewing for a job at a New York City coffee shop called Dazzle Cups. As he speaks with the manager (R. Jane Casserly), different scenes from his past play out. We witness portions of the trial, Marco's interactions with a psychiatrist (John Koprowski), his meetings with an ex-gay group as recommended by the psychiatrist, and more. We even get to see the contents of the controversial comic book performed live by actors Paul Caiola and Joseph C. Yeargain. It should be stated that the allegations of obscenity are not entirely groundless: Marco's comics push boundaries as they deal with such things as drug use, violence, and sexual intercourse with an infant.

In sharp contrast to the tastelessness of the comic book, Gatton plays Marco with a sweet-natured naiveté that is humorous but emotionally grounded. Marco has no social filter, so when he interviews with the Dazzle Cups manager, he gabs about his comics, his past drug use, his homosexual behavior, and other topics that most prospective employers would consider unsuitable for discussion in such a situation. Yet Gatton is consistently believable in the role, never overdoing his character's simple-mindedness.

Marco's fascination with comic books is also nicely handled. "The superheroes always said they were hiding their secret origins and secret identities because they didn't want to harm their loved ones, didn't want to expose 'em to danger," he says. "But what if that wasn't it? [...] What if it was actually to protect them from their families?" Once we meet Marco's creep of a brother, Jeffrey (Michael Bell), the meaning and depth of feeling behind this statement becomes clear. Gatton's body language during the brothers' interaction conveys everything we need to know about their troubled relationship.

Casserly is absolutely terrific as the Dazzle Cups manager, her initial severity giving way to empathy for Marco in an amusing and touching manner. The character is an out lesbian, and her own inappropriate outbursts during the job interview -- including the hilariously over-the-top admission that "I like boobs!" -- helps to forge a connection between the two.

Gary Shrader directs the action smoothly; scenes switch from present-day action to memory and back again in a way that is never confusing. Shrader is aided in this by a brilliant, oddly uncredited set that resembles a Starbucks. (Kyle Ancowitz is listed as technical director and master carpenter, but no designer is acknowledged.) Customers played by supporting cast members sit at counters or in sofa chairs, sipping their coffee until they're called upon to fill roles in Marco's flashbacks; but this device is not overused, and the entrances and exits of other characters are handled differently. Jonna McElrath's costumes are spot-on, with the outfits for the cartoon characters played by Caiola and Yeargain particularly memorable.

Johnston's writing mixes humor and pathos. The subject matter is often deadly serious, yet the playwright's touch is light enough that it never becomes maudlin. Busted Jesus Comix is intelligent and heartfelt, and this Blue Coyote Theater Group production reveals the complexities inherent in the script.