Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tijuana Bibles

One guy I know found a stack of them, when he was cleaning out his father’s estate, locked up in a case with the hunting rifles. They’ve also been known to inhabit old, nondescript cardboard boxes behind the oil cans on the top shelf in the back of the garage. Or in a far, dusty corner of the attic under a stack of grandpa’s high school papers or hidden between the pages of his text books.

They were naughty. They were graphic and gloriously unsophisticated. And they certainly weren’t subtle; nothing was left to the imagination.

They were the “Tijuana Bibles.” Dirty…really dirty…little comic books, often featuring movie stars (The Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Greta Garbo, William Powell, Cary Grant) or characters from the daily comic strips (Moon Mullins, Mutt & Jeff, Mickey Mouse, Blondie and Dagwood) and placing them in, shall we say, compromising positions and mouthing dialog that would make a sailor proud. If clothing was depicted, pants would be around the ankles and dresses would be flapping in the breeze.

The subject was sex. And we’re not talking about sly innuendo here. The Kama Sutra would have been a good guide for the artists.

They were totally unauthorized of course. Copyrights and good taste were violated left and right. And there was nothing about them that was remotely legal.

Sometimes called “8 pagers”, each was roughly 4” wide by 3” high, with a single staple near the left spine holding it all together. They contained crudely drawn black and white line art, printed (often poorly) one panel per page, on cheap white paper. The covers were heavier weight, colored paper, usually displaying an illustration and suggestive title.

The art wasn’t very good. The spelling was atrocious. The printing was haphazard; nothing was quite square and the ink coverage was spotty. But none of that mattered since these weren’t the kind of publications you’d use as decorating pieces on the living room coffee table. If you were interested in reading one, you could figure out what was going on.

The jokes (more along the lines of wise cracks than fully-developed gags) were pretty lame. And they were chock full of racist stereotypes and now-dated cultural references.

In an earlier day and age, long before there was an internet or even before Playboy took hold, they were about as smutty as it got. They were the stuff of snickering adolescent boys, handed around in the schoolyard or in locker rooms. And they were a pretty big deal in their day.

They were sold under the counter. Or, perhaps, in barber shops and bars. Out of the trunks of cars or from deep pockets near the entrance to a back alley. (“Pssst. Hey buddy, you want some…”) Cost ranged from 25¢ to a buck or two, depending upon what the traffic would bear.

There isn’t a lot of good historical information about them. For obvious reasons, the publishers, artists and writers were anonymous (hiding behind absolutely outrageous monikers like “Payne N. Theass” and “Aiken Forett”) and if careful records were kept (doubtful) no one knows what happened to the data.

So, we don’t know who or how many publishers there were. We’re not exactly sure how many titles were published (somewhere around 800 have been catalogued), nor what the print runs were for each.

The first 8-pagers seem to have appeared sometime in the late 1920s, and they hit their stride in the 30s and 40s. New titles continued to appear during the 50s and even into the early 1960s, but the run was pretty much over by that time.

There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest they were a product of organized crime, compiled as an "after hours" project in otherwise legitimate print shops. It was the Great Depression after all, and anything to keep the printing presses moving…

What we do know is that they were some of the earliest comic books produced for mass distribution.

The first comic books were compilations of previously published material. A group of strips that had already run in the daily papers would be gathered together and published as stand-alone books. The Tijuana Bibles appeared shortly thereafter, and were probably the first examples of original comic material created for publication.

As such, they are worthy of at least a footnote in publishing history. No, they don’t rank with the Gutenberg Bible as a cultural milestone. But they are an important piece of Americana; a snapshot of mid-century gutter sensibilities.

From that point of view at least, they make for interesting reading (although small, measured doses are best). They do provide a glimpse into a different world. All in the name of sociological and historical research, of course.

I happen to have a pile of them in the shop, and I am not quite sure how to market them since I keep them under the counter.

Still, I don’t think they will be hanging around too long. I have a pretty good idea of who my customers are. And I think there may be a few who would be interested.

I may just have to saddle up next to one, over by the coffee pot: “Pssst! Hey, buddy…”