Lust and Lechery in Eight Pages: The Story of the Tijuana Bibles. Pt. 1
There is something innately pornographic about comic books. Something about the form itself, the uninhibited passion of everything from the bright, gaudy colors on dirty newsprint to the characters' exuberant declarations of heroism, villainy, love, and despair, inspires the pornographic imagination. Nothing is ever done halfway in comics, either physically or emotionally, and even the blandest books keep sexuality simmering right under the surface. Comics fans may almost universally revile his name today, but when psychiatrist Frederick Wertham asserted in his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent that Batman's relationship with Robin was a homosexual fantasy and that Wonder Woman was a handbook for lesbian bondage, he was pretty much spot-on. You don’t even need to know about the details of William Moulton Marston’s very unorthodox sex life to cock an eyebrow at all the ropes and spanking that cropped up while Wonder Woman was battling the Nazis.
But sex had been an intimate part of comic books for a good ten years before Superman made his 1938 debut in Action Comics #1. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the first form of mass-produced pornography for thousands of Americans came in the form of crudely-printed comic books called "Tijuana bibles," "eight-pagers," or simply "fuck books." The Tijuana bibles were porn in its purest form, without the slightest pretension towards art or nuance. They were not about sensuality or eroticism. They were about fucking, in a time when fucking was portrayed in no other mass medium. Tijuana bibles were created in a time before the Internet, before DVDs, before pay-per-view, before VHS or Betamax, before adult movie palaces on public streets, before a stack of Playboy magazines could be found in every home in America. Between the wars, the country was making the transition from 19th-century morals and technology to the modern age, and it did it in uneven heaves and starts. People were just getting used to the novelty of having radios, and large parts of the country wouldn’t have electricity or running water until after World War II. For thousands of Americans, their first explicit images of sex, the only ones that were regularly available to them, were the thin, cheap pages of the Tijuana bibles.
The typical Tijuana bible was eight pages long in a 4x3 format in black and white, or sometimes red or blue-and-white ink. Some bibles were 16 pages long, and a few very extravagant ones even reached the mammoth size of 32 pages. One of the ironies of time is that virtually the only comics distributed today that are similar in size and shape to the Tijuana bibles are the Christian tracts that Jack Chick has drawn and sold for the last 39 years. The content and philosophy of Chick’s work is 180 degrees away from that of the fuck books, if no less extreme in its passion and fantasy. In Chick’s world, teenagers get sucked into black magic and human sacrifice by the temptations of Dungeons and Dragons or Christian rock bands, and the Catholic Church lurks behind endless conspiracies ranging from the Holocaust to the rise of Islam.
While Chick has used the format to plead with his readers to turn from earthly sin and embrace Jesus, the world of the Tijuana bibles vigorously indulged carnal pleasures in every combination that could possibly be squeezed into eight narrow pages. The characters in those pages were invariably familiar, even if their behavior wasn’t. Every icon of popular culture—from comic strip characters to movie stars and even politicians —ultimately found themselves starring in at least one of the bibles. Within the pages of the Tijuana bibles, Mickey and Minnie’s relationship was finally consummated; Josef Stalin serviced the proletariat in ways Marx never imagined; and Jimmy Cagney fellated Pat O’Brien. As well as being the predecessors of today’s slash fiction, the Tijuana bibles provide a secret history of popular culture at the time. Every well-loved comic character, every movie star who made hearts throb and laps moist, at some time found their corporate-enforced chastity peeled away to expose inelegant and insatiable lusts.
The sexuality the Tijuana bibles depicted was not beautiful. It wasn’t nuanced enough to be considered "erotic." It was frequently not only crude but also hateful and ugly. Reading the bibles today, one can’t help but be impressed by how they are so obviously a product of a sexually repressive society, where discussion of sexuality—and especially sexuality’s pleasures—was all but excluded from the public square. The erotic charge of the bibles seems to depend on the sexual naïveté of the reader; underlying all of them is a sense of amazement that such a thing as sex even exists. To captivate their audience, they had to do little more that simply acknowledge cocks, tits, cunts, and asses.