'I'm walking across the schoolyard, heading toward the Boys Entrance of P.S. No. 17, Albany, circa 1949, when I see Fat Wilkins coming toward me on a mission.
Fat was one of those picked-on guys in our class who didn't seem to care that his persecutors didn't even bother to add the slightly dignifying "s" to his nickname. He was too busy working this or that deal.
This particular time, I think, he is going to try to sell me the speckled plastic yo-yo he is casually spinning. Or maybe he's out to deal his latest stash of wax lips I see bulging out of his shirt pocket. It's always hard to guess what might be coming with Fat.
I'm not even close. Fat draws me over to a couple of pines at the side of the school, reaches under his shirt and pulls out a tiny cartoon book. Knowing that I like art, Fat figures that I just have to see this, and proceeds to show me, one by one, eight eye-blinking pages of Blondie from the comic strips doing things that I was only starting to realize were popular pastimes with adults. Seeing these strange acts depicted so vividly in ink sends me into a shock that lasts from homeroom until Social Studies just before lunch. When I came to, all I can say, over and over, is, "So that's how it goes."
I'm sure legions of American boys received a similar instant sex education on schoolyards across America during the 1930s and '40s. The eight-pagers, Tijuana Bibles, Jo-Jo books or Jiggs and Maggie books, as they were variously called, were the only graphic descriptions of sex circulating at the time.
To the typical naive kid of that day, these books, as crude as they were, seemed to have all the startling detail and unflinching fidelity to life of a medical manual. They served up the basic facts, and then some. And that was important. Nobody else was talking, at least in terms that made any sense.
And because these books were done in a familiar and (previously) friendly cartoon style, they seemed to ease just a tiny bit the big trauma that inevitably comes with the discovery of forbidden bodily pleasures that even your saintly Aunt Eunice probably indulged in at one time or another.
These little books were not things that boys tended to hang onto as mementos of youth. A whole barrel full of shame was attached to them. You'd look and study as best you could and then pass them hurriedly along. If you did dare take one home, you'd most likely soon find yourself committing it to a small fire at the back of the sandlot. Even though the books were expressly designed for clandestine use -- most measured about 3 by 4 inches -- it was the brave kid who'd tuck this kind of flammable material behind his bedroom radiator.
After that day with Fat and a few later encounters with eight-pagers (all featuring famous comic strip characters, by the way), I never expected to see examples of these publications again. Now photojournalist Bob Adelman has scoured Madeline Kripke's rich collection of these obscure publications and come up with the book "Tijuana Bibles: Art and Wit in America's Forbidden Funnies 1930s-1950s" (Simon & Schuster Editions, 160 pages, $24).
The volume, impressive for its range of cartoon styles and its mostly cheery take on sex, is enhanced by an insightful and witty introductory essay by cartoonist Art Spiegelman. Richard Merkin, a New Yorker illustrator and another eight-pager collector who contributed to the selections, offers a useful commentary on the ins and outs of this long-lost genre. Kripke, an acknowledged expert in Americanisms, contributes a helpful run-down of the racy terms employed by Dagwood, Popeye, Betty Boop, et al. Adelman irreverently refers to his team, and the other researchers of this arcane topic, as "the Bible Study Group."
Probably not coincidently, the eight-pagers arose just at the time when women were finally achieving a bit of personal and economic freedom. In the 1920s, women dumped restrictive fashions of the past, openly took up heretofore male pleasures like smoking and drinking, and began to invade the workplace in greater numbers. The girl strips -- "Tillie the Toiler" (later "Tillie and Mac"), "Winnie Winkle," "Dixie Dugan," "Fritzi Ritz and Boots," among many others -- that came out of that period often depict this new woman with flapperish tendencies and a sexuality fastidiously suppressed by the workaday storylines.
Tillie, cute as a button and ever-manipulative of her goofy boyfriend Mac, was a favorite among eight-pager artists. In fact, Tillie provided yet another name for eight-pagers: Tillie and Mac books. The artists never seemed to tire of transforming Tillie and the other socially regulated females of the strips into raving sex maniacs. Could the artists, and through their creations their readers, be expressing pent-up feelings of sexual inadequacy? This new liberated women was sure not the subservient female of the "pure vessel" variety so beloved by the Victorians.
It's no accident that most of the males -- with the notable exception of Jimmy Durante -- are heroically endowed. Even sweet, well-meaning guys like Li'l Abner can't help but cruelly dominate the women who come in his path. It's not his fault; nature has simply made man the all-powerful creature.
Thankfully, this kind of sexism -- progressing into outright sadism in the Popeye books -- is balanced by those narratives that have an insatiable woman coupled with a man who is worried to death about whether he is up to the monumental task. Impotence makes for good comic moments, admittedly, but the real anxiety behind the humor often comes through.
Spiegelman, in his introduction, deals directly with those who protest that these books horribly demean women. His answer: "They demean everyone, regardless of gender, ethnic origin and even species." He also argues -- a little disingenuously, I think -- that the stereotype is the basic building block of all cartoon art and therefore one should expect a rather nasty across-the-board assault on one and all.
But as Spiegelman and Merkin maintain, these books have none of the real nastiness of the current representations of sex in movies, on television, on the Internet and in magazines. There are vicious characters -- Hitler, for one, and an extra-cruel Bonnie Parker -- but the death-saturated sex of our times is mostly missing. Even when it gets kinky, it's mild. Bestiality, for instance, is handled as gently as such a grim theme can be.
And though the racial biases are overt and distressing in these books, they have none of the virulence that comes through on any average day on talk radio. Reflecting wider society's views of blacks at the time, these books present Amos 'n' Andy and Aunt Jemima as different and as culturally inferior. But they are for the most part treated almost affectionately. The language doesn't turn raw, nor does the drawing -- which, for the automatic comic reaction that will come from whites, clings closely to the standard stereotypical renderings.
The artists of these books, engaged as they were in both an illegal and shameful profession, naturally enough carefully disguised their identity. But one figure was so constantly in evidence that he gathered the tag of "Mr. Prolific." He produced an amazing number of these books in a clean (sorry) and orderly style. His firm line and clear form, as seen in his wonderfully drawn "Fuller Brush Man" examples in the book, was the ideal style for this little pornographic theater.
On the other end of the scale was another ubiquitous artisan of the trade who worked in crude but powerful forms. He was something of an accidental expressionist: He tried to draw correctly but got everything all out of whack. Spiegelman calls him "Mr. Dyslexic" for his confusion of left-right sequences in the narrative, his illogical drawing, horrible spelling and a tendency to blanket the heads of his characters with voice balloons.
For all his bumbling, Mr. Dyslexic is probably the most fitting artist for the genre. Because of his cramming and distorting of bodies and balloons, everything has a premade superheated atmosphere even before the sex starts. He's the folk artist of the group, the guy who intuits his way into a style and reaches deepest into his own feelings. You get the feeling he was really involved.
Mr. Dyslexic had none of the charm and sophistication of Wesley Morse, one of the few artists known by his actual name. Morse, who in his day job did the Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrapper cartoons, authored a number of books around the theme of the World's Fair. Despite what his characters are up to, Morse's delightful wriggly line, loose cross-hatching and free composition make it almost impossible to view his work as anything approaching real low-down smut.
Sometimes, later in the eight-pagers game, an artist got badly misplaced. The fluid, fast-moving line of one I'll call "The Ma Bell Master" (for his early 1950s depiction of a chance encounter in a phone booth) is like a drawing that escaped from the pages of Vogue to go slumming. Too much chichi stylishness can take the life right out of the raunch.
The use of comic characters gave these artists ready-made characters and, to some degree, even a style. But they had the sense, like any American who read his funnies with devotion -- and that was just about everybody in the '30s and '40s -- to recognize the wealth of suppressed sexuality lurking in those scenes of domestic foibles and office pranks.
The artists of the eight-pagers may not have intended to be social critics, but they did cut right through all the repression of a nation that purportedly was composed of half sweet innocent girls and half honorable, upstanding guys.
Some of the satirical takes on movie stars, baseball and boxing heroes and other famous folk quite consciously dismantle the high and mighty of popular culture. In one book Cary Grant goes to great lengths to prove he's not gay, while in another Jimmy Cagney is gay. Tough guys like Jesse James, Dillinger and Al Capone are mercilessly lampooned.
And lack of sexual attractiveness does not necessarily disqualify a pop figure: Kate Smith, Joe E. Brown and Charlie McCarthy all make memorable appearances. These artists are perfectly willing to reduce anybody of fame to his or her most basic instincts. It wasn't enough that they chipped away at the sanctity of family values with their out-of-control Tillies and Boots, but they also delivered the goods on Hollywood, assaulting its coy manipulation of Americans' sexual appetites.
Now that time has mellowed these books, for some they have gathered the status of nostalgic items. Like any nostalgic object they offer a false view of the past, but one that we might want to hang onto anyway just because it is no more. These cartoon views of American sex are indeed quaintly artificial productions, but they are also on occasion hilarious and, in an almost innocent way, sexy.
As Spiegelman says, "They seem to marvel at the very idea of sex." Even Fat Wilkins might see it that way today.