Tijuana Bibles

Those Dirty Little Comics: By Art Spiegelman. The introduction to 'Tijuana Bibles: Art and Wit in America's Forbidden Funnies, 1930s-1950s.'

Published August 19, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Cartoons have a way of crawling past our critical radar and getting right into the id. It may be that their reductive diagramatic qualities echo the way the brain sorts information. This subversive knack for lodging memorably in the deepest crevices of the psyche has never been more clearly demonstrated than by the genre of comic-book pamphlets sometimes known as Tijuana Bibles that first flourished in the thirties. They were cheerfully pornographic and downright illegal.

From today's perspective, part of the early Tijuana Bibles' appeal lies in their peculiar combination of debauchery and innocence. Perhaps because the blue-collar sexual environment they were hatched in was so oppressive, they didn't usually venture into the truly outri and kinky sado-masochistic domains that pervade much of today's popular culture, let alone contemporary hard-core pornography. They seem to marvel at the very idea of sex. A passage in Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" captures their adolescent tone perfectly:

Amazing! Astonishing! Still can't get over the fantastic idea that when you are looking at a girl, you are looking at somebody who is guaranteed to have on her -- a cunt! They all have cunts! Right under their dresses! Cunts -- for fucking!

It was during the Psychedelic Wonder Years of my late teens, when I began working as an underground cartoonist, that I was first exposed to the genuinely underground sex comics of the past -- but thanks to the aforementioned psychedelics I can't recall the exact circumstances. I know that some of my slightly older and wiser underground comix cohorts like Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson had been exposed to these booklets in childhood, but for most of them it wasn't a watershed moment in their development as artists -- more an outhouse moment in their development as adolescents. The Tijuana Bibles weren't a direct inspiration for most of us; they were a precondition. That is, the comics that galvanized my generation -- the early Mad, the horror and science-fiction comics of the fifties -- were mostly done by guys who had been in their turn warped by those little books.

As a matter of fact, though nobody has been eager to bring it up before, the Tijuana Bibles were the first real comic books in America to do more than merely reprint old newspaper strips, predating by five or ten years the format we've now come to think of as comics. In any case, without the Tijuana Bibles there would never have been a Mad magazine -- which brought a new ironic attitude into the world of media that has since become pervasive -- and without Mad there would never have been any iconoclastic underground comix in the sixties. Looking back from the present, a time simultaneously more liberated and more repressed than the decades that came before, it's difficult to conjure up the anarchic depth-charge of the Forbidden that those little dirty comics once carried.

Because of their genuinely underground existence there is surprisingly little -- you should pardon the expression -- hard data available about the Tijuana Bibles. Much of my information comes from talking with people who remember them from their misspent youths, from a swell master's thesis for the University of Washington written by Robert Gluckson in 1992, and from a number of more or less sleazy reprint collections from marginally reputable publishers that I found in porno shops in the early seventies. These came complete with speculative introductions by sociologists, sexologists, psychologists, or possibly podiatrists -- anyone who could master a string of letters like BA or better after his name to add "socially redeeming value" to what otherwise might appear to be mere gatherings of hot stroke books. I never dreamed that I would someday mature into being a fellow producer of that species of prefactory prose, the least-read this side of small-appliance warranty notices.

In boning up to write this essay I read about 300 of the 700 to 1,000 different Tijuana Bibles that are estimated to have been published, and I must confess that, like the clap, these comics are better in small doses. It may be due to their, let's say, undeviating devotion to one theme, but that recognized newspaper strip masterpiece, Krazy Kat, was no less single-minded in its repetitious variations on a kat getting conked with a brick. Nevertheless, be advised that this is an anthology better to dip into than swallow whole.

The Tijuana Bibles probably weren't produced in Tijuana (or Havana, Paris or London, as some of the covers imply), and they obviously weren't Bibles. They were clandestinely produced and distributed small booklets that chronicled the explicit sexual adventures of America's beloved comic-strip characters, celebrities, and folk-heroes. The standard format consisted of eight poorly-printed 4"-wide by 3"-high black (or blue) and white pages and covers of a heavier colored stock. There were occasional deviant sizes and formats, most notably a number of especially rare epic-length sixteen-page and even thirty-two page pamphlets that are among the reprints that follow.

These books might have been called Tijuana Bibles as gleefully sacrilegious pre-NAFTA slurs against Mexicans, to throw G-men off the trail, or because the West Coast border towns were an important supplier of all sorts of sin. In other regions of America they were also known as Eight-Pagers, Two-by-Fours, Gray-Backs, Bluesies, Jo-Jo Books, Tillie-and-Mac Books, Jiggs-and-Maggie Books, or simply as Fuck Books. They began appearing in the late twenties, flourished throughout the Depression years, and began to (I can't resist) peter out after World War II.

The books were apparently ubiquitous in their heyday, a true mass medium, passed from hairy-palmed hand to hairy-palmed hand. According to one of Al Capp's assistants, when Capp had first created "Li'l Abner" and was fretting about whether or not it was destined for success, he breathed an enormous sigh of relief on hearing that his characters had been pirated into a Tijuana Bible -- he'd arrived!

Distribution was strictly under the counter, out of the backs of station wagons, or from outsized overcoat pockets, and they were sold in schoolyards, garages, and barber shops. A new Bluesie would reportedly set you back between a hefty two bits (enough for a shave and a haircut or five loaves of bread) to as much as five bucks -- whatever the local traffic might bear. No one, of course, can say with certitude what the print runs were, but estimates range into the millions, since these illicit items could be bootlegged by anyone with access to a small printing press (or even, for some editions, mimeograph or rubber-stamp equipment). There don't seem to be records of publishers or artists being prosecuted, though shipments and salesmen were occasionally seized. It's not clear whether these publications were Mom-and-Pop operations or actually controlled by organized crime.

When Will Eisner, the doyen of American comic-book artists, was still an innocent young teen working in a New York City printing shop, he recalls being solicited to draw Tijiuana Bibles at $3.00 a page by "a Mob type straight out of Damon Runyon, complete with pinkie ring, broken nose, black shirt, and white tie, who claimed to have 'exclusive distribution rights for all Brooklyn.'" The cartoonists were anonymous, and their ranks did not include Will Eisner (who described turning down the lucrative job offer as "one of the most difficult moral decisions of my life") or any of the actual creators of the original newspaper strips.

The artist who single-handedly set the standard for all the rest, generating many more works than the dozen or so other practitioners in the field, was known until recently as "Mr. Prolific" (so tagged in the four volume Sex In Comics by Donald H. Gilmore, Ph.D.) or to some aficionados as "Square Knob." He has recently been identified as "Doc" Rankin by sexologist Gershon Legman, who claims to have met him in a cheap Scranton bookstore in the mid-thirties. Rankin, a World War I veteran, drew girlie cartoons for magazines aimed at cheering up ex-soldiers back from the liberated shores of Europe. His publisher, Larch Publications, produced off-color joke books for novelty and magic shops and might conceivably have branched out into producing hard-core under-the-counter material for this class of trade; certainly the aesthetic of the whoopee cushion and the ceramic dog turd permeates the Tijuana Bibles.

"Doc" Rankin's manic classic, "The Love Guide," with Mae West and an all-star cartoon cast, appears on the following pages, as do several of his "Adventures of a Fuller Brush Man" and many others. He was not only the seminal influence on the genre, he was by far its most competent draftsman, drawing credible likenesses in complex entangled poses with graceful steel-pen strokes. This guy was good enough to earn an honest living had he so desired. Visibly enjoying his work, he offered good value, often adding extra gags and caricatures in frames inside frames.

The only other creator of Eight-Pagers I can put a name to is the one who produced a series of booklets immortalizing the 1939 World's Fair. (See for example "She Saw the World's Fair -- and How," on page 68.) Although dubiously identified by Donald H. Gilmore, Ph.D., as the work of three lesbian friends from Chicago, I clearly recognize the hand of Wesley Morse, an artist I briefly met years ago when I first began working for the Topps Chewing Gum Company. Though his Eight-Pagers are often hurried and perfunctory, drawn by someone more interested in making the rent than making whoopee, they have a calligraphic, free-flowing charm. Early in his career, Morse had drawn cartoon features for the New York Graphic, and achieved some success as a gag cartoonist, but apparently had fallen on hard times by the thirties. In the fifties he reached the zenith of his career, drawing the "Bazooka Joe" comics that came wrapped around Bazooka bubble gum.

The names of the rest of the artists involved have slipped into the forgotten cracks of history; they are known now only by their stylistic quirks and idiosyncrasies. I've dubbed one of the post-World War II artists (from the decadent later period of the genre) "Mister Dyslexic." He has no sense of left-to-right narrative progression and is constantly placing his figures or his balloons (and sometimes both) out of sequence. By negative example he teaches the hidden difficulties of the cartoonist's craft. He can't draw rudimentarily well, certainly can't spell, and holds for me as a working cartoonist the same fascination a really nasty car accident might hold for a bus driver. (Actually, Mr. Dyslexic's indifference to craft strikes me as typical of a general decline in craftsmanship that has marked this century's progress, but I'll shelve that discussion for some other occasion.)

Mr. Prolific probably never won any spelling bees and occasionally stumbled over difficult words like feud and their, but only the loutish Mr. Dyslexic could write, when Rita Hayworth first meets Prince Aly Khan (in "We Could Make a Million," page 107): "Rita come appon this seene and deciedes she must have some of this lovely prick." In the same short narrative he has Aly admire Rita's "loushes cunt," saying "It feel like I could get my hole hand in." Miraculously the artist spells the word weight with absolute precision in panel 1, but reverts to the more creative wieght in the last panel. His virulent, know-nothing anti-Communism, and his visualization about Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss's homosexual affair are significant primary sources for understanding America's Zeitgeist at mid-century; but I sheepishly admit that his work makes me want to reach for a red pencil rather than a Kleenex.

There's a mean-spirited malignance to Mr. Dyslexic's misogyny, xenophobia, and racism that compares unfavorably to the rather sweet misogyny, xenophobia, and racism in many of the earlier Tijuana Bibles. I use the word "sweet" advisedly, since most of the Eight-Pagers exude the wide-eyed innocence of, say, Guy Lombardo's hot and sweet college jazz band of the twenties or the bawdy thirties lyrics of "Ukelele Ike," who ended his career as the voice of Jiminy Cricket crooning "When You Wish Upon a Star."

Though the Eight-Pagers did traffic heavily in nasty stereotypes, they were primarily carriers of a virus that infected all strata of our popular culture, certainly including the movies, radio shows, and comic strips they parodied. In fact, since cartoons are a visual sign language, the stereotype is the basic building block of all cartoon art.

Cartoonists can overcome this apparent limitation and often achieve complexity of thought, but it's useful to look at the Tijuana Bibles as laboratory models of the comic-strip format at its most basic. There's a good marriage of form and content in these books: pornography and cartoons are both about the stripping-away of dignity; both depend on exaggeration; and both deploy what Susan Sontag, in "The Pornographic Imagination," calls "a theater of types, never of individuals."

Granted, due to the monomaniacal focus of the scenarios, there is an even more limited palette of types in the Tijuana Bibles than in the actual newspaper comics. The women may be bright or dumb, innocent or seasoned, but all are horny to the point of insatiability. The main issue is whether they play "hide the weenie" solely for pleasure or for fun and profit. The men, handsome or (more often) not, are limited to old-and-horny or young-and-horny. Yet, at their most effective, the characters in the Eight-Pagers remain true to their legit media counterparts. Harpo Marx is as blithely unaware of appropriate behavior in these comics as he is in the movies; it's just that here Groucho scolds him for somehow using "a ladies ass for a harp. It's for jazzing only." Major Hoople was always a blowhard in the funny papers, it's more literal in these books. The colonialist wish-fulfillment implicit in Tarzan is only made more clear by having him KO a minstrel-lipped savage about to rape a white goddess who then admires and uses "the most stupendous [white!] joy prong in all Africa."

The Fuck Books were not overtly political but were by their nature anti-authoritarian, a protest against what Freud called Civilization and Its Discontents. Here was a populist way to rebel against the mass media and advertising designed to titillate and manipulate, but never satisfy. Betty Boop, Greta Garbo, and Clara Bow all radiated sex appeal on screen, but they were cock-teasers, never quite delivering what they promised -- especially after 1934, when the Hollywood Hays office went into high gear.

A related impulse expresses itself on the Internet today, with newsgroups posting digitized JPEG images of Walt Disney's Beauty and the Beast making what Shakespeare called "the beast with two backs," trading extended and explicit chain stories of the sex lives of the "Star Trek" crew, and -- thanks to the wizardry of Photoshop -- swapping naked pictures of the cast of "Gilligan's Island." The frisson in this high-tech version of Tijuana Bibles seems to have at least as much to do with the thrill of violating copyright and licensing law as with sexual need. In the thirties it was simply a tremendous relief to find out exactly what Blondie and Dagwood did between their daily stints in the newspaper that led to the birth of their Baby Dumpling.

After all, comics are a gutter medium; that is, it's what takes place in the gutters between the panels that activates the medium. Of course comics have been seen as a gutter medium in the more obvious sense of the term ever since the Yellow Kid ushered in the first Sunday comics supplements at the turn of the century. The genteel classes have long expressed outrage at their vulgarity and tried to have them squelched as a threat to literacy and a corrupting influence on children. The funnies were certainly read by kids, but a 1938 Gallup poll showed that about 70 percent of all American adults followed them faithfully too. It's difficult to over-estimate how central comics were to our mass culture in the days before cathode rays beamed images into every home.

Perhaps it's their primal and direct visual appeal that has given them a bum rap as a kid's medium and made them so very vulnerable to the censor's wrath. In 1994, Michael Diana, a Florida cartoonist whose self-published small-press comic book, "Boiled Owl," is clearly aimed at adults, became the first cartoonist in America to be convicted of obscenity. One of the draconian terms of his probation actually enjoined him from having any contact with minors! It's a dangerous business, cartooning.

The essential magic of comics is that a few simple words and marks can conjure up an entire world for a reader to enter and believe in. Presumably, this is true of erotic comics as well; how else can one explain the willingness to spend hard Depression-era currency to be aroused by a very primitively drawn Donald Duck schtupping an ineptly drawn Minnie Mouse? It's precisely this miraculous ability to suspend disbelief and temporarily blur Image and Reality that arouses the ire of those puritanical censors of the Left and Right who can confuse depictions of rape with actual rape. It's a profound confusion of categories as well as a scrambling of symptom and cause.

Though there are bound to be those who will loudly declaim that the Tijuana Blues demean women, I think it important to note that they demean everyone, regardless of gender, ethnic origin, or even species. It's what cartoons do best, in fact. It's also crucial to point out that there actually are no women in these books. This is a genre drawn primarily, if not entirely, by men for an audience of men, depicting women with omnivorous male libidos. In "Dear Elsie," a Sixteen-Pager by O. Whattacan, Tillie writes, "I couldn't hold my wad any longer so I let it fly -- did I flood him. It gushed out like a volcano eruption," and goes on to call the mustachioed guy who tickled her "pussey" with his tongue a "cocksucker." In "When Mother Was a Girl," a Rannkin production on page 59, women are described as having "overheated nuts." Yes, I've heard of female ejaculation and I know that slang words often shift in meaning through time, but I'm sure it's actually a clue: these are all guys with cunts, ready and eager to physically glom onto any creature or object anywhere near their reproductive organs.

Depression-Era Man had a hard time adjusting to the threat of the newly liberated and recently enfranchised Modern Woman, who had just entered the work force, and these comics all show signs of this stress. There's a big wad of anxiety squirting through these slimy little books. It's rarely displayed as overtly as in the atypically vicious Bonnie Parker booklet on page 115, Amputated, where our cigar-chomping heroine severs an enormous (even by a Tijuana Bible's generous standards) penis and preserves it in alcohol as a souvenir of some really hot bellywhacking. The malaise in the Eight-Pagers is more often expressed in the form of the totally drained male (drained of come or money, depending on which of the two basic humor templates is being applied).

This sort of psycho-sociological analysis is important, but inevitably sounds like a defensive ploy to inject some Socially Redeeming Value into the concupiscent stew. Paul Krassner, editor of "The Realist" and, briefly, "Hustler," aptly insisted that "appealing to the prurient interest is a socially redeeming value." The Tijuana Bibles were the sex-education manuals of their time. In entertaining and easy-to-read cartoon diagrams, the Beavises and Buttheads of an earlier age could painlessly learn what to put where, and how to move it once they put it there. Significantly, these books spread the hot news that women actually enjoyed sex and that even fat people like Oliver Hardy and Kate Smith could be sexy. They taught that, despite the mortifying shame of it all, cunnilingus (in these books called "pearl fishing," "whistling in the whiskers," or "yodeling in the canyon") was fun. To understand how shameful oral sex was believed to be, class, you need only to turn to "Mussolini in Ethiopia" on page 124, a giddily primitive Eight-Pager drawn by Mr. Dyslexic's dad, with its memorable punch line: "You-like-to-have-your-pussy-sucked-I-get-Hitler-for-you."

These old Jo-Jo Books do have a liberating "any-port-in-a-storm" polymorphous perversity, but most of them seem far more wholesome than your typical Calvin Klein billboard. They portray a buoyant, priapic world in which lust overcomes everything, even bad drawing, bad grammar, bad jokes and bad printing. So, to quote from one Sixteen-Pager: "Now for some exciting moments -- all set -- keep your hands still."

By Art Spiegelman

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