It is surely no accident that illicit pornographic comic books, popularly known as Tijuana Bibles, thrived during the heyday of media censorship in modern America, roughly the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s. In the early decades of the century, movies, comic strips, and pulp magazines all had ample room for the naughty and risque, but by the 1920s the pressures of social respectability were increasingly hemming in popular culture. The acceptance of the stringent Hays Code by Hollywood in 1934 was a significant turning point in this larger trend. Like girlie magazines and stag movies, Tijuana Bibles represented an escape from the puritanism of mainstream culture. As the cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman, creator of Mad magazine, once noted, "The obvious repression of sexual fantasy in [mainstream comic strips] brought its release in the little dirty books, or Tijuana Bibles."
Almost as ephemeral as washroom graffiti, Tijuana Bibles were anonymous in every sense imaginable. For the most part, no one knows who wrote them, who drew them, or who published them. The name "Tijuana Bible" plays off the fictitious foreign addresses that were given as the place of publication. In addition to erotic and exotic Mexico, Tijuana Bibles were said to be produced in Cuba, England, and even Canada. Some suggested that organized crime was behind these tawdry sex books. Cartoonist Will Eisner, best known for creating the masked crime fighter the Spirit, frequently has recounted the story of how as a struggling artist in the 1930s he was approached by a gangster who wanted him to draw Tijuana Bibles.
Yet, despite their obscure origin, almost one thousand separate Tijuana Bibles were published and managed to circulate throughout North America. "The distribution system was mysterious, but it worked," commented Kurtzman. Comic book historian Donald Gilmore, in the first scholarly study of the genre, noted that Tijuana Bibles were "conceived in dark attics, published in dingy garages on unnamed alleys, and distributed from the hip pockets of vendors across the nation.… [but] accounted for a multi-million-dollar business in the tight economy of the Great Depression."
The earliest Tijuana Bibles of the 1920s and 1930s were comic strip parodies. Often deftly done imitations, these books featured such stars of the funny pages as Betty Boop, Popeye, Olive Oyl, Mickey Mouse, and Dick Tracy all engaging in activities forbidden in family newspapers. In positing a secret sex life for popular cultural icons, Tijuana Bibles both influenced and anticipated the work of such later cartoonists as Kurtzman, whose Little Annie Fanny started running in Playboy in the 1960s. The work of countercultural cartoonists of the late 1960s like Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson—who drew Disney-esque animals with earthy human appetites—also shows the influence of Tijuana Bibles.
By the early 1930s, Tijuana Bibles had expanded from their origins as cartoon parodies and started featuring Hollywood celebrities such as Laurel and Hardy, Mae West, the Marx Brothers, and Clark Gable. These Tijuana Bibles played off the rumors of "Holly-wood Babylon" that flourished in the tabloid press. Hollywood was shown as a happy playground of orgies and bisexuality. Noting the large number of strips featuring celebrities, cartoonist Art Spiegelman observes that Tijuana Bibles "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."
Some Tijuana Bibles that were more explicitly political in one way: they featured such world figures as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, and even Whittaker Chambers (a Cold War spy who, a recent biography confirms, was a bisexual, just as he was portrayed in a Tijuana Bible from the late 1940s). As with the Hollywood strips, the politics of these Tijuana Bibles was implicitly anti-authoritarian, ridiculing the powerful by showing that they had base needs. Of course, there was a limit to how subversive Tijuana Bibles could be. In all these strips, the main goal was to titillate, and they replicated the racial and ethnic stereotypes found in mainstream culture.
Artistically, the quality of Tijuana Bibles varied greatly. Two talented cartoonists, "Doc" Rankin and Wesley Morse, have been identified and singled out by aficionados of the genre. Bob Adelman praised Rankin's "graceful, articulate, Deco style" and Morse's "wonderful graphic flair." (Morse went on to do Bazooka Joe comics in the 1950s.) Only a few other Tijuana Bible cartoonists, all of them anonymous, were as good as Rankin and Morse. The worst Tijuana Bibles were also among the worst comic books ever done: crudely drawn, illiterate, and mean-spirited.
With the decline of censorship in the mid-1950s, signaled by the emergence of Playboy in 1955, Tijuana Bibles lost their reason to exist. However, as with other trashy and throw-away bits of the past, Tijuana Bibles continue to have a nostalgic appeal. In the mid-1970s, the novelist John Updike wrote that the type of pornography he "most missed" was "Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy fellating and gamahuching one another, in comic books circulating in southern Pennsylvania in the late 1940s." Not surprisingly, books reprinting Tijuana Bibles continue to roll off the press.
Adelman, Bob, with additional commentary by Art Spiegelman, Richard Merkin, and Madeline Kripke. Tijuana Bibles: Art andWit in America's Forbidden Funnies, 1930s-1950s. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Gilmore, Donald H. Sex in Comics: A History of the Eight Pagers. 4 vols. San Diego, Greenleaf Classics, 1971.