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Lust and Lechery in Eight Pages: The Story of the Tijuana Bibles, Pt. 2

<< Continued from Part One.

The history of the Tijuana bibles is largely speculation, the creators unknown. You can say the same about much of comics history, but the bibles were actually illegal, whereas Superman and Millie the Model were merely disreputable and juvenile. Even the origins of the name are uncertain. The bibles didn’t come from Mexico, but because many people picked them up in border towns, it could have been the specific reputation of Tijuana for forbidden pleasures, or it could have been outright racism. For whatever reason, the name stuck.

Even though the bibles violated virtually every obscenity law in the United States, that inhibited their production and distribution no more than Prohibition kept Americans from getting ahold of gin. Between 700 and 1,000 titles were published from the '30s to the '50s. In The Tijuana Bibles: America's Forgotten Comic Strips, comic historian R. C. Harvey cites a 1992 paper by Robert Gluckson which estimated that in 1939 alone, 300 titles were produced with a total of three million copies. "Other sources," Harvey writes, "say twenty million copies were produced yearly by the end of the decade." Whatever the numbers say, though, they're just broad guesses. The artists, printers, and distributors took great pains not to leave records of how much and what they produced.

The term "underground" has pretty much been diminished to a marketing gimmick to make middle-class consumers feel transgressive. In the days of the Tijuana bibles, though, underground networks were the only way to buy or sell them without legal consequences. Harvey describes the course taken by the bibles as "drawn in attics, printed in garages on cantankerous machinery, and distributed surreptitiously from the back pockets of shady vendors in alleyways and in dimly lit rooms." Occasionally, organized crime was involved in the manufacture and distribution, but even at their height, no mobster was going to become a major player by selling 25-cent fuck books. Despite the mass quantity that Gluckson and others estimate, selling bibles was a small-time racket.

The names of the creators have been almost entirely lost to history. One of the few exceptions to this rule was dubbed "Mr. Prolific" by Donald H. Gilmore in his work Sex in Comics. The prophetically named sexologist Gershon Legman eventually identified Mr. Prolific as "Doc" Rankin, a World War I veteran who worked for Larch Publications, a publisher of girlie cartoons and dirty joke books, in the 1930's. Art Spiegelman unabashedly praised Rankin's work as he would a respected colleague in the introduction to Bob Adelman's anthology Tijuana Bibles: "He was not only the seminal influence on the genre, he was by far its most competent draftsman, drawing credible likenesses in complex entangled poses with graceful steel-pen strokes. This guy was good enough to earn an honest living had he so desired. Visibly enjoying his work, he offered good value, often adding extra gags and caricatures in frames inside the frames."

Spiegelman assigns a moniker of his own to one of the post-War artists: Mr. Dyslexic. Spiegelman's judgment of Mr. Dyslexic is as harsh and merciless as his praise of Rankin is effusive: "He has no sense of left-to-right narrative progression and is constantly placing his figures or his balloons (and sometimes both) out of sequence. By hidden example he teaches the hidden difficulties of the cartoonist's craft. He can't draw even rudimentarily well, certainly can't spell, and holds for me as a working cartoonist the same fascination a really nasty car accident might hold for a bus driver." Mr. Dyslexic's failings as an artist are visible even to an untrained eye, and while he certainly deserves every iota of wrath that Spiegelman calls down upon him, it has to be said that his work never reached the depths of incompetence shown in "Fired!" One of his works, "Chambers and Hiss in Betrayed," is fascinating for the way it blends obscenity with Cold War paranoia. The 1948 Chambers-Hiss case remains one of the most contentious and emblematic of post-War political divisions. Whittaker Chambers, a Communist Party member, testified before the House Un-American Activities Community (HUAC) that State Department official Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union (and to an extent, even today), whether you believed Hiss or Chambers was seen as representing where you stood on broader issues. Mr. Dyslexic explains Chambers and Hiss by imagining a sexual affair between the two. Hiss unforgivably betrays his lover with a woman, leading Chambers to turn Hiss over to the Feds. "I'll not have him," Chambers says as Hiss is led away in cuffs, "but neither will any woman."

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Chris Hall
March 27th, 2009
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Chris Hall is a perverted nerd who has been known to administer severe spankings to writers who confuse "its" and "it's." He keeps one foot in San Francisco and one in Brooklyn and his mind...