Sex, Crime, and Politics: A Brief History of The Tijuana Bible – by Bianca Sandoval
Before the Internet; before DeviantArt, LiveJournal, Tumblr, and any other host to fanfiction, before even the dirty underground comix of Robert Crumb, there was an artist by the name of Mr. Prolific. Before World War II, when comics were just starting up, anonymous artists worked behind the scenes to create the new booming business of Tijuana Bibles. Named for the low-cost printing shops in Mexico, these tiny eight-page booklets featured characters ranging from Popeye and Mickey Mouse to movie stars like Greta Garbo and Clark Gable engaging in sexual acts.
Mr. Prolific, like all these artists, is a person shrouded in mystery. Rumored to be the pen name of freelance comic artist, Don Rankin, Mr. Prolific has been credited for producing over 200 Tijuana Bibles. Police could obtain 350,000 copies in a single warehouse raid. Historians and collectors have estimated an artist could produce 20 to 25 comics a day. Tijuana Bibles were quick, cheap, and mostly poor quality. During the Great Depression, pornography was a serious crime, and anyone caught selling, making, or even delivering could face jail time. Not much is known in how these comics were distributed. In 1939, when the World’s Fair was taking place, men would be standing near the piers to sell them. Vigilance groups prowled the streets of New York and Chicago to catch these obscene men and their comics, which of course inspired these comic book artists to create their own villains from these protectors of innocence.
Absolutely no one was safe; not even beloved Disney characters were sacred. If anyone wondered whether the sex life of Mickey and Minnie was hot or not, a sleazy seller with a Tijuana Bible was there to provide. Tijuana Bibles provided the creator freedom to be as political or satirical as they wanted. Gerson Legman, a folklorist, claimed an artist got paid $35 a week for a comic. Adjusted for inflation, an artist would be making $500 a week. Comic books were a new thing on the market but while they were starting to gain popularity, it still wasn’t enough to pay the bills. For example, Wesley Morse created Tijuana Bibles before going on to create Bazooka Joe.
The business of Tijuana Bibles wasn’t only a man’s game. Blackjack, creator of many tabloid comics was rumored to be a woman. She followed story lines in the gossip rags for either inspiration or reference to many of her works. Blackjack would satirize the innocent comic strips in the Sunday paper. One called “Annie and Rose in ‘Doughnut Girls Fill Up the Holes!’” made fun of a Little Orphan Annie strip where she tried to beat the Great Depression by selling doughnuts. Blackjack poked fun at the idea of the little redheaded girl thinking a bake sale was going to solve any problems.
With WW2 and increasing police raids, the reign of the 8-pager ceased. America needed a good laugh and a moment of pleasure in a dark and bleak world. The legacy of these books influenced many comic book artists to come. They might not be the most well written or family friendly, but they were hilarious and daring. A cultural phenomenon was just beginning, and while their names will never be known, their work will not be forgotten.