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America’s earliest underground comics made Robert Crumb look G-rated

With more than 4.9 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or looking for a medical reason Popeye’s forearms could be 50 times as thick as his upper arms. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 4,919,068-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Tijuana Bible

What it’s about: First, an editorial note: Last week, we teased a follow-up entry on Wikipedia’s list of hairstyles, forgetting that this is Comics Week at The A.V. Club, for which we had already planned an entry on some of history’s dirtiest underground comics. For Wiki Wormhole purists, last week’s Neologism links to “cyberspace” coiner William Gibson, who wrote his early futuristic novels on a typewriter. Typists were usually young women, and almost immediately the cliché of the sexist businessman harassing his typist formed around that, and was immortalized in the Tijuana Bibles of the day, so here we are.

As for what a Tijuana Bible actually is, the same cheap paper that made pulp magazines widespread in the 1920s and ’30s also led to their sleazier cousin. So-called because of the (oft-mistaken) belief that they were printed cheaply in Mexico, Tijuana Bibles were the first underground comics. Wallet-sized and nearly always pornographic, they were usually X-rated spoofs of newspaper comics of the day, or occasionally starred transparent stand-ins for celebrities (so not that different than today’s “This Ain’t _____” school of porn parodies). Published anonymously, nearly all of the writers and artists have been lost to history, and like the pulps, production shut down almost completely during WWII and never recovered, although Tijuana Bibles were still being printed as late as the 1960s.

Biggest controversy: Since basically everything about illegally distributed, pornographic, intellectual property theft is controversial, we’re going to go in the opposite direction. While Tijuana Bibles were usually rife with racial stereotypes (as were most things in the ’20s and ’30s), one story, “You Nazi Man,” ended with a serious message speaking out against anti-Semitism in Germany.

A Popeye spoof believed to have been drawn by Mr. Prolific

Thing we were happiest to learn: While artists weren’t given credit in very many Tijuana Bibles, their reputations still live on. Collectors have recognized distinct styles recurring across titles, and therefore are able to assign a body of work to certain artists, given nicknames like “Mr. Prolific,” and “Mr. Dyslexic,” so named for his messy prose. One such artist, “Blackjack,” is believed to have been a woman, and is so called because of her frequent use of blacked-out areas. It’s also believed that some of these artists went on to careers in the legitimate comics world. “Mr. Prolific” is rumored to be Doc Rankin, a freelance comic artist who did editorial cartoons for the Brooklyn Eagle and artwork for Tin Pan Alley sheet music. A set of Tijuana Bibles set at the 1939 World’s Fair is believed to be the work of Wesley Morse, who created Bazooka Joe (the comic, not the gum). Superman co-creator Joe Shuster even contributed to Nights Of Horror—a bondage-themed series of underground comics—in the 1950s, well after creating Superman.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Producing Tijuana Bibles was a dangerous business. To this day it’s not clear whether the bulk of Bibles were produced by organized crime, or simply small publishers, but the penalties were stiff for sending pornographic materials through the mail, with one printer serving five years in Leavenworth prison for advertising through the mail, even though the shipping was handled by a private concern. As a result, Tijuana Bibles were often hand-delivered by car, and sold under the table in bars, barber shops, burlesque houses, and other places that start with “B” where men congregate.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: We’re again going to break with format and use an off-Wikipedia link. During the run-up to the 2008 election, Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall created Obliging Lady, a fake Tijuana Bible claiming to be from 1934, and the “oldest known John McCain memorabilia.” (Although McCain, George W. Bush, and other political figures appear at their 2008 ages). The comic shows McCain as a woman being seduced by George W. Bush (presumably commentary on how the “maverick” McCain quickly toed the party line once he secured the nomination). The McCain comic was distributed at both parties’ 2008 national conventions, presumably without the approval of the candidates (thanks, Obama!). Be warned, the link is extremely unsafe for work. The “Fuller Bush Man” on the title is a page reference to Fuller Brush Man, a popular series written by Mr. Prolific during the original Tijuana Bible era.

There’s also a Wikipedia link here to hentai, which we’re not even going to click on. Instead, may we suggest Dōjinshi, Japan’s culture of (sometimes racy, but often not) self-published comics.

Further down the wormhole: While comic-book characters were the most frequent figures depicted in Tijuana Bibles, movies stars or athletes like Mae West and Joe Louis were popular characters as well. There were even Bibles about the (X-rated) exploits of gangsters like Legs Diamond, Machine Gun Kelly, and Al Capone. While Capone rose to become the most powerful and notorious criminal in American history, he had humble beginnings, born to immigrant parents, his mother a seamstress and his father a barber. Barbers naturally lead to hairstyles, and we’re back on track.