Tijuana Bibles: The Democracy of Lust 

The underground sex comics of the Great Depression were not just an interesting sidebar to comics strip history. More than 700 of these 8-12 page titles were widely distributed in the 1930s through a clandestine, ramshackle shadow syndicate. The art was often at least as crude as the situations and banter. But their connection to mainstream comics were unmistakeable, mainly because they started by supplying Popeye, Moon Mullins, Blondie and Dagwood, Major Hoople, Betty Boop, and most major strip heroes with the raging libidos their real world creators left out. In their early years, the TBs depicted essentially the imagined sex lives of cartoon superstars. [FAIR WARNING: WHILE THE IMAGES TO FOLLOW HAVE BEEN CENSORED TO ABIDE BY WORDPRESS TERMS OF SERVICE, THE SITUATIONS AND LANGUAGE EVEN IN THESE CENSORED COMICS ARE VULGAR, MISOGYNIST, RACIST AND OFFENSIVE TO ALMOST EVERY CONTEMPORARY SENSIBILITY, AND MOST OF THOSE OF THAT TIME. IT WAS INTENTIONAL. TRANSGRESSION WAS THE POINT]

And these so-called “Tijuana Bibles” soon took aim at popular mass media stars like Cary Grant, Mae West, Amos and Andy and Clara Bow, common bawdy tropes like traveling salesman/farmer’s daughter stories, or current events like the New York World’s Fair of 1939, and even political figures including Joseph Stalin and Mahatma Gandhi (yes, Gandhi!). For all of their poor art, worse jokes and relentless vulgarity, taken as a whole these books represented one of the most sustained satires of the mass media that America had produced to that time. for anyone serious about the history of American comics, they are more than throwaway bits of casual rudeness. In them we find the seeds of post-WWII pop satire and cultural rebellion: Kurtzman’s MAD magazine, ZAP and the underground comix movement, and even the SNL era of mainstream comedy. Here we see modern mass media generating its own pop counter-culture.

For the uninitiated, some basic specs are in order. What we now call “Tijuana Bibles” (though never made in in Mexico) were small hand-sized eight-page pamphlets usually with a colored paper cover and black and white interior art of a panel per page on low-grade paper. In their early days, especially through 1935, they featured major comic strip characters put in explicit sexual situations. Popeye and Wimpy go carousing. A horny Maggie (Bringing Up Father) hires a gigolo. Princess Undina challenges Flash Gordon to satisfy her in exchange for his freedom. Betty Boop raises the money for new jewelry by banging her fellow cartoon characters, from Barney Google to Jiggs, Popeye, Joe Palooka, and Moon Mullins. Few comic strips were spared. Dick Tracy, Hairbreadth Harry, Toots and Casper, The Nebbs, The Gumps all starred in TBs at some point. More importantly, their cameos were not gratuitous, but satirical extensions of their character. Popeye and Wimpy have docked in a new town. Betty is imagined as a gold digger.  Maggie is alone and unsatisfied by her carousing husband. Flash is at the mercy of a dominant queen, which, come to think of it, pretty much just surfaces the kink of the actual strip


Only a handful of unnamed artists drew the majority of these books, and one in particular did the lion’s share. The best art succeeded in mimicking the visual signature of original comic characters, but quality was decidedly uneven. Whatever the situation, however, the point of every eight-pager was to titillate with  explicit, if cartoonish images of oversized pricks, wet insertions, a range of sexual positions, inevitable blow jobs, occasional kink, a lot of bawdy wise-cracking and usually some kind of kicker gag in the final panel. 

According to the few historians who have dug into the TB phenomenon, they emerged in earnest around 1930, peaked in production and popularity in 1935-36, surged again in 1939, and then declined steadily in the later 1940s. The details of production and distribution are still unclear, since these books flouted every imaginable obscenity statute of the day. Through press reports we know there were more than a few warehouse raids that confiscated thousands of the books at a time. But officials never succeeded in tracing the supply chain. About a dozen artists were responsible for the art, and most of the printing probably occurred surreptitiously at existing print shops. According to collectors and some oral history, in 1939 a trio of women in New York City helped revive the format with TBs that used the New York World’s Fair of that year as a sexual setting. Local businessmen in major cities often discovered sources to purchase a few thousand books at a time and then used patchwork networks of college students, traveling salesmen, barber shops and local businesses to resell the books at 50-cents to $1 or $2 a piece. But the Tijuana Bible (alternately called “bluesies,” “eight-pager” or “fuck books”) found their way into most small towns courtesy of traveling salesmen who used them to ingratiate themselves to the local prospects. For many American boys, these comic eight-pagers were their first exposure to images of intercourse, their first sources of sex ed.

And in a very practical sense, the Tijuana Bibles were not only instructional for many innocent American boys, but the artists seemed aware of their functional role. More than a few TBs took on an instructional tone, outlining positions and technique..In “Peepin’ Through the Peephole,” for instance, a peeping hotel bellboy narrates the various positions, foreplay and technique of a couple in a way that resembles a sex manual.

Indeed, the TBs could be remarkably loquacious. Surprisingly for porn that was aimed to arouse, these comics were very chatty: tons of wise-cracking vulgarisms, instructive descriptions of the action, and even some books that included lengthy diary entries. The genre was as much about dirty talk as it was about dirty pictures. They were at once furthering and reinventing an oral tradition of crude male banter. In fact, the TBs pack a lot of sociological weight. They not only supplied a generation of boys and men the only accessible stroke material and sex ed. They also redistributed a virtual thesaurus of sexual vulgarisms. Euphemisms for organs, positions and acts spewed across the TBs as liberally as cum shots, acquainting a generation with a common locker room lexicon. As well, they traded relentlessly in sexual punning. These books often were presented by “Mae Givitt,” “Phelta Puss,””Iva Crustycrotch,” et. al. And while American pop culture didn’t need porn comics to further racial and gender stereotyping, the TBs supplied a sexual lens to cultural racism. “A Sailor Finds Out If It’s True What They Say About Chinese Girls” and “Henry Armetta in ‘Guinea Cock'” are examples of referral/instructing in ethnic sexual tropes. At the same time, these books also resuscitated folk porn themes like the sexual escapades of traveling salesman/farmers’ daughters/ice and milk delivery men/horny sailors. The adventures of the “Fuller Brush Man” was the closest thing to a regular series in the genre. For good or ill, you can see these books working within a host of American folk traditions that were whispered across the generations and rarely recorded.

And the TBs were not as removed from mainstream humor and pop culture as we might like to think. After all, even newspaper comic artists had been depicting many husbands as carousers and women as leggy and alluring. A host of men’s humor magazines had already emerged in the 20s and 30s that danced along the edge of propriety and dared to be “naughty.”

It goes without saying that pretty much all traditional pornography objectifies and debases women. But women are curiously counter-cultural in most TBs. Invariably they are cast in one of two roles – using sex for material gain or just being plain horny. In most TBs, the woman character is either initiating sex or responding immediately to an exposed dick. Otherwise, she uses her sexuality simply as a means to an end – to get a dress, jewelry or pay the rent. Another common trope is the woman being unsatisfied or insulting of the man’s prowess. Innocent or precious femininity has no place in the TBs. Sexual coercion is generally unnecessary. Odd as it seems, women literally give as good as they get in these books, and seem to exercise agency.

Labeling certain examples of popular culture “transgressive” or “subversive” has become tiresome academic nomenclature. There is a kind of scholarly  chic to tossing these phrases about in pop culture criticism, usually to help establish the radical credentials of the critic and suggest the political importance of their work. But it is hard to overstate the transgressive power of unfettered vulgarity. The thrill of reading these books, surreptitiously, far away from the prying eyes of parents or wives, is the middle finger they throw up to all kinds of conventions – propriety, self-restraint, innocence, liberality, gender roles. The fact that these books target and subvert some of the most public symbols of formal propriety and innocence – from cartoon heroes to film stars to political leaders – is the tell here. The underlying social criticism is of a sanitized “official” culture, whether it is the restrained idealizations of American life presented in the still-new mass media of newspapers, radio and film, or the pomposity of politics. And it shouldn’t surprise us that the TBs flourished in a decade when the distance between the America depicted in mass entertainment and the actual everyday experience in America was greatest. Some of this was intentional and welcome. At a time of Depression, entertainment industries found profit in diverting Americans from their troubles. Nevertheless, the saccharine niceness of modern radio, film and newspaper invited mockery. And 30s Americans were just the ones to do it. Their political, economic, legal and religious institutions seemed to have failed them. Irreverence of any kind would find an audience.

And “transgressive” is too reductive a label for these comics. Because taken as a whole, they imagine an alternative America. There is a consistent tone to the TBs. To enter into these eight-panel worlds is to encounter a hard-boiled, knowing, sexually candid, licentious, greedy reality conducted without shame or guilt that underpins official public life. This is an unrepentant inversion of pious, proper American normality. And it is a mirror world that everyone seems to be in on. There is little shocked innocence in the TBs. Cops, grandmas, wives and children who come upon theflashse sex scenes usually just want in on the action. The “corruption” – if you can call it that in this context – is total in TB world. In fact, in this imagined America, lust is a democratizing force; it has a leveling effect on all ages, genders, races. 

I don’t believe it is too much of a stretch to draw a line between the TBs and the post-WWII wave of pop culture satire initiated by Harvey Kurtzman in MAD magazine, which itself inspired the underground cartoonists of the 60s. Kurtzman’s own send-ups of “Superduperman,” “Batboy and Rubin,” and “Bringing Back Father,” tried to deflate the pomposity and politeness of mass culture. Kurtzman himself often characterized his satirical view as an attempt to poke through the silliness of mass media, its idealizations of American life, heroism, relationships. Isn’t that exactly what eight-page dirty books were doing with similar techniques of childish subversion two decades beforehand? Deflating mass media icons simply by showing them to be humans with appetites and hypocrisies was a relatively new way of taking on American culture itself. Obviously without the sex, MAD echoed some of the satirical tone of the Tijuana Bibles. And it is not surprising that a later generation of underground cartoonists often traced their own origins back to Kurtzman and even revived some of the vulgar sexuality of the Tijuana Bibles to enact their own kind of counter-cultural transgressions?

A special note on sources is in order. For those interested in sampling the uncensored TBs, some reprint collections and historical overviews are available. Most recent and still in print is an extensive compilation, Dirty Little Comics by Jack Norton. Also good for its selection and introductory material by Bob Adelman and Art Spiegelman in their 1997 The Tijuana Bibles: Art and Wit in the Forbidden Funnies, 1930s to 1950s. Less available is Donald Gilmore’s 4-volume history and massive reprint Sex in Comics: A History of the Eight-Pagers published in 1971.

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