Tijuana Bibles

The 'Tijuana Bibles,' America's original X-rated underground comics, evoke a time when sex was dirty, innocent, and handmade.

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

Your Momma don't dance,

and your Daddy don't rock 'n' roll,

but your grandparents sure knew how to make pornography!

Ha! I know I'm being terribly naughty to say such a thing, but you see, I just finished turning every big prurient page of "Tijuana Bibles: Art and Wit in America's Forbidden Funnies, 1930s-1950s." And even though the book is filled with top-quality scholarly research and analysis from the finest minds in funnies, with beautiful reproductions on smooth creamy paper, the end result of perusing this bodacious collection of old-timer erotica is that I feel horny, mischievous and irrepressibly rude.

What are Tijuana Bibles? They have nothing to do with Mexico, and they're certainly not godly -- although the people who collect the 700 or so TBs that remain in existence might be called fanatics. They're little underground comic books that were illegally published during the '30s, '40s and '50s, filled with cartoons of famous characters of the day -- from Cary Grant to Rita Hayworth, from Gandhi to Betty Boop -- fucking their bloomers off. They were the original "dirty comic books," sold in barber shops and schoolyards, passed from one sweaty hand to the next.

Nowadays, when I ask people born in the 1950s or later to tell me the story of their "first dirty picture," they inevitably tell me about Playboy magazine or one of its imitators. What they remember was a photograph, a color photograph of a "great big beautiful doll," not having sex of course, just looking like she might be up for it, especially if you had an expensive car and a movie contract to offer her. It's a fantasy photo suggesting what MIGHT happen with a beautiful girl; it's her luscious body as a promise of something to come.

But if you grew up before the men's magazine era, your first glimpse of something really filthy is likely to have been one of these Tijuana funnies -- aka "fuck books." In these books, of course, everything is hand-drawn. In quality, fuck books range from abysmal -- second-grade-level dirty jokes, hideous drawings -- to quite high -- elegant caricatures, witty stories. The women's bodies are as comely as any Miss May's, but instead of simpering unapproachably on a bearskin rug, they are actively screwing their brains out, while mouthing such peculiarities as "Come on darling, drop that great big hand-made thing in the slot." The male partners, who by comparison are inevitably drawn to look like buffoons, have enormous erections, sometimes dwarfing the rest of their bodies.

As pornography, the Tijuana Bibles fall somewhere between X-rated drawings on toilet-stall walls and early stag films. There's a certain wacky innocence to them, despite their furtive prurience. As Art Spiegelman points out in his stimulating introduction, "Though there are bound to be those who loudly declaim that the Tijuana Bibles 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."

A glance at the "Index of Subjects Parodied" at the back of this wonderfully entertaining book makes clear how wide a cultural swath the Tijuana Bibles cut: Aunt Jemima, Barney Google, bellhops, Ingrid Bergman, Bringing Up Father, Al Capone, Chiang Kai-shek, farmer's daughters, Lou Gehrig. In fact, just about any stock figure from popular culture is liable to drop his or her pants in a Tijuana Bible -- the amorous adventures of the Fuller Brush Man are a favorite, while Benito Mussolini and Joe Stalin are also depicted enjoying the fleshly perquisites of dictatorship. (In "The Great Leader," Stalin announces at a mass rally that "as long as everyone gets an equal share under Commuist [sic] rule I don't see why one woman should get more prick than another. And I'll start the ball rolling by fucking the first girl that feels cheated." At the bottom of the frame in which Stalin proudly exposes his monstrous phallus to a pleased woman, the artist -- a weirdo of dubious spelling and drafting ability whom Spiegelman dubs "Mr. Dyslexic" -- comments, apropos of nothing, "That's right Joe not only do you have the biggest prick in Russia but you ARE the biggest prick in Russia.")

If comics like this existed today -- dogeared little pamphlets showing Bill Clinton porking Paula Whosiwhatzit in the keister, while she yelps, "I've been pierced by the penetrating prong of presidential privilege!" -- we'd probably all be either dying with laughter or adding our names to a libel suit. Just look at what happened to Larry Flynt (an heir to the Tijuana Bible throne if there ever was one) when he published his notorious cartoon of Jerry Falwell having sex with his mother in an outhouse! But now that the targets' names have faded from public memory, the Tijuana Bibles just seem like a good-natured roll in nostalgia hay.

Funny how having a little historical perspective makes the raunchiest porno look like darling little illustrations, socially perceptive parodies and evocative clues to our past. I can hardly wait for our great-great-grandchildren to look at a collection of Internet pornography and say to each other, "Look honey, weren't they just the darnedest little cutups!"

By Susie Bright

Susie Bright is the author of the new book "Full Exposure" and many other books, and the editor of the "Best American Erotica" series. For more columns by Bright, visit her website.

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