Getting Our Pornograph Fixed

A Fond Appreciation of Eight-Page Dalliance So Long Ago Abandoned

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The nice thing about Tijuana Bibles is that they are unequivocally pornographic. They aspire to nothing else. They do not beg for our indulgence by pretending to have some ulterior motive as socially redeeming educational tracts. There is no pretense about them. They are utterly unabashed. And that’s nice, as I said.

            So if you seek to define pornography, seek no further: behold, this is it—Tijuana Bibles, the very definition of the genre. If you ever see anything like them, you may be sure it, too, is pornography.

            It is refreshing to encounter something unapologetically pornographic these days. So much of our cultural detritus is equivocal about its own social standing. The debate rages endlessly: what’s high art and what’s low art? As a culture, we have wrestled with the issue of pornography entirely too much. We have become nearly obsessed by it. Judging from the public prints, it is a daily intruder into our lives. The papers are jammed with pornographic advertising for women’s lingerie. The newsstands are overflowing with magazines whose covers flaunt pornography, handsome virile men and beauteous women, who, together, radiate sex appeal. Wallowing in it isn’t enough: we also want to know if we’ll be harmed by it. Is it good or evil? Is it obscene? Should we care?

            The confusion about pornography began long ago--before, even, my time or yours. But the plain truth is that pornography itself is not evil. If we take its meaning from the antique Greek roots that form the word (porno = harlot + graphy = writing, drawing), we see that pornography quite simply embraces writings and drawings that are about sex. (Harlot’s prose, we assume, would not be entitled to a word of its own if it weren’t about something harlots were more versed in than the average citizen, and if their expertise is not in the sexual arena, where, then, is it?)

            In other words, there is nothing inherent in pornography that is evil or obscene. Pornography and obscenity are not synonymous. Pornography is something that can be objectively identified. If it’s about sex, it’s pornography. Obscenity, on the other hand, is wholly a reflection of personal taste. Something that is offensive to someone’s taste is often described as “obscene.” The term, then, embraces virtually the entire range of human experience not just sex. Photographs of piles of corpses in Nazi concentration camps are, to me, obscene. A treatise that describes in exhaustive detail the tortures of medieval Europe is, to me, obscene. If it turns my stomach, if it’s revolting, it is, to me, obscene.  Our confusion about pornography and obscenity stems from the evolution of taste in our culture.

            In ancient times, no one was confused about it. Pornography was mostly enjoyed by those who could get it (chiefly the well-to-do, admittedly); and sex was enjoyed by almost everyone. Much pornography (like Lysistrata) was essentially humorous in character. It was enjoyed because it displayed art or wit—inventiveness—in dealing linguistically or graphically with humanity’s most popular subject—sex. (Sex is popular, in case anyone should ever ask you, because it is centrally located.)

            Then came the Middle Class. As Medieval Europe evolved, the Middle Class emerged. And the Middle Class, it soon developed, had social aspirations. It aspired to be better than it was. Always. The story of the Middle Class is the story of upward mobility, ever striving, ever seeking a higher social plane of existence, Goethe with a vengeance. Aspiring to the gentility of the upper classes, the Middle Class invented obscenity. It was entirely a matter of engineering a change in taste. Anything that smacked too much of the vulgarity of the lower orders was deemed inappropriate and was therefore earnestly eschewed. If they aspired to the genteel ambiance of the higher classes, they would have to leave behind them all the mementoes of their earlier, more sordid, existence nearer the bottom rung of the social ladder. That, alas, included sex.

            No, they didn’t actually expect to abstain from sex altogether. They merely intended to avoid mentioning it. It was vulgar and undignified. Any activity that required people to assume the position of frogs was undignified. Life, they believed, would be much more refined if they simply pretended that sex was not a part of it. And as long as everyone kept their clothes on, they could maintain the pretense. The elegance of their wardrobes gave the appearance of elegance to their lives. And so nakedness was deemed obscene the better to banish it forever from the parlor. Nakedness and sex. Sex was obscene. And therefore, so was pornography.

            By the same token, if sex is not obscene, neither is pornography. And perhaps that’s why we see so much of it around us everyday. As a culture, we have progressed steadily in the direction of greater reasonableness and individual freedom. That is the direction of Western Civilization; ask anyone. In the course of this progression, several years ago we decided quite reasonably that sex was actually a part of life. Sex, like other aspects of the human condition, cannot be avoided so it may as well be embraced. We embraced it. Suddenly, pornography was no longer obscene. It could come out of hiding. And it did, albeit gradually. So now we find it on the pages of the family newspaper, advertising women’s underwear, as I said, and in magazines and on television, selling everything from automobiles to refrigerators.

            These developments are to be encouraged. As long as pornography was underground, it was fairly crude stuff. Once we get it entirely out into the open, presumably we’ll start to get some pretty high class material—good writing, good drawing. In the old days—before sexual liberation—we had to be content with clumsy excretions like Tijuana Bibles.

            These little eight-page sex comic booklets (sometimes called “eight-pagers,” “bluesies,” or “jo-jo books”) began appearing on the American scene in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Their debut at about this time may have had something to do with the advent of cheap printing methods. I saw my first eight-pager at about the age of nine or ten. A friend showed me one on the playground of our school during recess. The crudeness of the drawings was matched by the means of production: it was printed by mimeograph. I was appalled at the pictures. What did it all mean? I scarcely read the story. But I was fascinated despite my initial alarm.

            I saw no more Tijuana Bibles in the wild. And then about fifteen or twenty years ago some started appearing in captivity—that is, in book compilations that began to show up in various sleazy bookstores hither and yon. But whether or not I saw them being hawked furtively on playgrounds or in poolhalls and saloons, they were there—“the kind men like” (to invoke that joyfully memorable phrase).

            Robert Gluckson in a paper presented at the first Comic Art Conference in San Diego in 1992 suggests that the production and distribution of eight-pagers was fairly extensive. Some students of the genre say that over 2,000 different titles were published altogether. One of Gluckson’s sources estimates that in 1939 alone, over 300 different titles (mostly reprinting previously confected stories) were produced, totaling three million copies. Other sources say twenty million copies were produced yearly by the end of the decade. But we have almost no way of knowing how accurate these estimates might be. The little booklets were drawn in attics, printed in garages on hand-cranked machinery, and distributed surreptitiously from the back pockets of shady vendors in alleyways and in dimly lighted rooms. Since the traffic was wholly underground, no one was likely to keep records of quantities.

            The stories retailed in their flimsy pages followed one of two formulae: in one, the principals have an exuberantly successful sexual adventure; in the other, one or both of the actors fails ignominiously. Typically, the first two pages set the scene, then pages three through seven are enthusiastically devoted to depicting in action as explicitly as possible the most ravenous sexual appetites in as uninhibited a manner as imaginable, and page eight finishes with a comic punchline. In the better examples, the punchline is a proper conclusion, a more-or-less logical outcome of the preceding riot of raw sex; in less adept examples, the punchline has little or nothing to do with the frenzied rutting that occupies the tumultuous pages ahead of it.

            Humor, however, well done or not, is a vital ingredient in TJ bibles—as essential to the genre as daggers rigidly at attention, sheaths oozing in anticipation, and meticulously detailed renderings of their conjugation. In their comedic aspect, the eight-pagers join a long tradition in erotic folklore. Much sexual material in most societies is intended to be funny. The dirty joke is an ancient and enduring artifact. Psychologically, jokes are acts of aggression by the teller; the object of the joke teller’s hostility is the butt of the joke, or, more accurately, the “thing laughed at.” The thing laughed at in most eight-pagers is inhibition about sex.

            It is, I think, an inhibition peculiar to men. Most commentators on eight-pagers recognize that men are the intended audience; the fantasies enacted are male fantasies more often than not. (Perhaps, even, exclusively; not being female, I couldn’t say for sure.) So why are men so intimidated by sex as to savor the ridicule of their inhibitions? The answer, I submit, is biologically obvious: of the two sexes, the male sex is the one that can fail to perform. And the threat of failure at some moment of high emotion and equally elevated aspiration is what makes sex inhibiting to men.

            This simple biological fact, by the way, is probably the key to the difference in character between men and women. Men, as everyone knows, are more honest, more straightforward, than women. This trait is biologically derived: it is impossible for men to fake sexual passion (or lust, for that matter). If they are sexually aroused, any casual observer can tell it. Women, on the other hand, can counterfeit passion with impunity: no physical evidence will betray them. Hence, women can dissemble more successfully than men: it’s a capacity for which their biology prepares them. Men, however, are biologically prevented from disguising their true emotions in this, the most fundamental of human encounters; and from this handicap, they learn the folly of trying to dissemble at all. They are so incorrigibly forthright, in fact, that none of them could ever undertake to sell a well-known bridge in Brooklyn to anyone who subscribes to this theory. Certainly, I could never hope to peddle that bridge to readers of mine. Sheerly astute as they all are (without exception), they can tell a put-on when they see one (even when my tongue is in only one cheek).

            Biologically predisposed to honesty or not, men are, I think, more likely to be inhibited by sex than women. And so we find in eight-pagers that everyone is candid about their desires, entirely open to any and all sexual practices, eager for sex to the exclusion of any other consideration, and with their candor, openness, and eagerness, they banish bashfulness and timidity and fear--and inhibition--from the conjugal couch. And the concluding joke (not to mention the comic dialogue that often infects the action throughout) completes the banishment with an outrageous guffaw: the joke is on anyone who doesn’t accept their carnal appetites as being wholly natural. When one of the principals fails in performance, incidentally, it is usually a popular culture character with a reputation for virility. The lesson in the tale is a comfort to the (male) reader: see, macho guys aren’t any more expert at this than you are (in fact, if the truth be known, probably none of them can ever get it up).

            Laughter breeds acceptance. And it is relaxing. Few human enterprises are as fraught with tension as a sexual encounter, and while laughter during sex is usually counterproductive, laughter about sex is relaxing: it relieves us from the strain of pretense, the pretense that we are immune from the imperfections that undermine performance in bed, or, alternately, that we are somehow above the fray, unconcerned because we are uninterested in sex or sexual performance.

            The cast of this biblical bawdry completes the psychological sabotage the eight-pagers attempt. The characters so joyously depicted flagrante delicto in them were chosen from popular culture (comic strip characters, movie actors and actresses, gangsters, politicians) or folklore (traveling salesman, bellhop, secretary applying for a job, starlet seeking stardom). Such personalities, whether fictional or real, were old acquaintances of the readership. As Gluckson says: “The use of familiar characters helped destroy the artificial separation of sexuality from the rest of readers’ lives.” To which, Les Daniels (in Comix: A History of Comic Books in America) adds: “The commentary on [sex] which [the eight pagers] treated was implicit in the contrast between the immaculate originals and the [sweaty] imitations. Somewhere between the two extremes of purity and pornography lay the truth about human behavior. ...” To see that Blondie and Tillie the Toiler had sex lives as real as those of their readers assuaged fears and insecurities: despite these characters’ “public appearances” in newspapers where they seemed pristine and sexless, offstage they had “secret sex lives” just like everyone else did. Appearances were therefore deceiving. Reality was something a little messier. To admit to this truth was to accept one’s sexuality—perhaps even to embrace it.

            The Tijuana Bibles also served an educational function. In the days of their debut, no one talked about sex in any precise way. The youth of America often grew up largely ignorant of the specifics of copulation. The eight-pagers removed that ignorance. In Tijuana Bibles Book 2, underground comix publisher Ron Turner explained: “Tijuana Bibles ... were very helpful. They were gross and extreme but they showed us how fucking was done and that there was more than the missionary position. And we would read them and practice what we saw. Very instructional.”

            Some maintain that TJ bibles paved the way for comic books. Seems to me I read a diatribe one time by literary critic Leslie Fiedler in which he maintained that these little sex comics were reincarnated as superhero comics. The legendary chronicler of eroticism in most of its forms agrees. Writing in the rocking rhythms of prose both erudite and vaguely erotic, Gershon Legman noted that the comic books of the 1940s “substitute legal blood for illegal semen, crime for coitus, in the erotic comic book of a dozen years standing, quadrupling its size fearlessly as they brought it forth from under the counter, legal now in its sadism where it had been criminal then in its sex” (Tijuana Bibles Book 3). Certainly, turgid superheroic musculature evokes at a subconscious level images of the similarly engorged sex organs that are flaunted in the eight-pagers.

            Alas, the artwork in eight-pagers is scarcely on a par with over-the-counter comic books. Even the earliest commercially produced comic books were drawn better than most TJ bibles. The best art in the latter is found on the covers, where bold lettering and design overwhelm otherwise amateurish rendering. Inside, the drawings, while explicit, are typically crude laboriously overwrought scratchings. Some of the art shows individualistic style but no flare. What’s even more disappointing, few of the naked ladies on display inspire any heavy breathing by reason of penned pulchritude. These aren’t Playboy playmates. No mammoth mammaries. No pouting stares into the camera. No pendulous poses or gorgeous gams. Just naked ladies. Anatomically correct but scarcely inspirational.

            The artists (who are almost all entirely anonymous) made up for their lack of drawing ability with an almost clinical explicitness in detailing sexual organs and methods of congress. The informational value here superseded the entertainment function. That’s probably why none of the examples I’ve seen display any visual sense of humor. Why, for instance, wouldn’t the artists drawing ersatz Popeye or Alley Oop depict their organs with the same distinctive bulge at the extremity that signifies virility in the forearms of the characters? They passed on a marvelous opportunity for pictorial comedy, seems to me. Clearly, they were less interested in such fine points of cartooning than in explicitness for the sheer sake of explicitness.

            By far, the best artwork in the TJ bibles, in my view (although scarcely encyclopedic on the matter), was committed by Wesley Morse. Morse’s drawings are clean and expert, his line lively and confident. In this genre’s most compendious history, Donald H. Gilmore’s four-volume Sex in Comics (Greenleaf, 1971), Gilmore identifies twelve artists who did much of the work. He identifies them not by name but by style, giving each distinctive manner of rendering a numerical author—Artist 1, Artist 2, etc. Of the so-called Tijuana Dozen, Morse, Gilmore’s Artist 8, is without quibble the best, the most consistently amusing and well-executed cartoon drawing. If all TJ bibles had been drawn by artists of equal skill, they’d constitute an underground of cartooning masterpieces unsurpassed until recent times, when Playboy’s Little Annie Fanny joined us. Morse had a nearly invisible career in comics. He had contributed a single-page strip, Beau Gus, to the first issue of a 1938 comic book, Circus, which ended its run with No.3 but included work by a star-studded list of contributors—Basil Wolverton, Jack Cole, Will Eisner, and Bob Kane. Judging from the samples in the Gallery at the end of this Hindsight entry, Beau Gus had an earlier life in comic strips, too, in 1933. Written, apparently, by Bud Wiley, its run, if it had one, was doubtless very very brief, and it may have never reached the syndication stage. In the 1920s, Morse’d produced three very short-lived comic strips: Kitty of the Chorus (March 20-April 14, 1925), Switchboard Sally (which debuted June 15, 1925, and ran, probably, for less than six months; written by H.C. Witwer), and Frolicky Fables (November 23, 1925-April 10, 1926)—all identified and rescued from complete obscurity by Allan Holtz in his compendium of comic strip names and dates. Morse dropped completely out-of-sight until he re-emerged in the early 1950s, illustrating Bazooka Joe for Woody Gelman. (For that story, visit Opus 127 by clicking here.)

            Tijuana Bibles faded from the scene in the 1950s, perhaps because Playboy and its host of imitators began to perform the educational function that eight-pagers had served in the decades before. Without the raison d’etre of satisfying sexual curiosity to sustain their circulation, the little sex comics had to stand on their crude art and their gross comedy. Neither were of sufficient interest to keep the booklets in production. Now we can find them only in esoteric reprint collections, most of those almost as rare as the original artifacts. But these relics are still the same joyous celebrations of sex that they were when they first seeped into the cultural scene seventy years or more ago. I recommend you find one or two someday and kick back and relax and let yourself be drawn into a world in which sex preoccupies everyone’s every waking moment. A world different from the world around us but only in its unrelenting merriment. We should all be so lucky.

Gallery. Wesley Morse is the only cartoonist represented in the Gallery here—a few scattered panels from a couple of his TJ bibles ouevre, a two-page comic commentary from an unknown source, and two Beau Gus strips, one of which I own the original of. It’s only partly inked: the lettering is still in pencil. And I’ve reproduced one of its panels as large as the original art on the page with the eight-page items.

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Footnit: This essay, minus a few asides, appeared as the introduction to an Eros collection of eight-pagers a few years back.


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