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Those Dirty Little Comics

Art Spiegelman takes us into the world of the Tijuana Bibles, little hand-drawn pornographic pamphlets that provide a subversive peak at America from the 1930s-1950s.

Cartoons have a way of crawling past our critical radar and getting right into the id. It may be that their reductive diagrammatic 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 outré 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.

Though nobody has been eager to bring it up before, theTijuana Bibles were the very 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. The Tijuana Bibles probably weren't produced in Tijuana (or in 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 with one panel per page 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.

These books might have been called Tijuana Bibles as a gleefully sacrilegious pre-NAFTA slur 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. Distribution was strictly under the counter, out of the backs of station wagons, or from outsized overcoat pockets, and they were sold in school yards, 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. The cartoonists were anonymous, and their ranks did not include any of the actual creators of the original newspaper strips.

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 form 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 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.

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.

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% of all American adults followed them faithfully too. It's difficult to overestimate 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.

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 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. 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. 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 that stress.

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.

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.

Readers who would like to see more can check out Tijuana Bibles: Art and Wit in America's Forbidden Funnies, 1930s - 1950s by Bob Adelman. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster Editions, 1997. 160 pages. ISBN 0-684-83461-8 (US$24.00)

Art Spiegelman's graphic novel, Maus, which portrays the Holocaust with animal characters, won the Pulitzer Prize. He also edited, with his wife Francoise Mouly, RAW, a periodical anthology of many of the best independent American and European cartoonists. His cartoon work is regularly published in The New Yorker.