Graphic novel: The erotic fiction that put the 'strip' into comic strips
Nearly a century ago, Mafia money bankrolled an explosion of erotic popular fiction, says Arifa Akbar
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Friday 06 July 2012
The biggest surprise in the gloriously tawdry history of erotic comics is not they first emerged in Prohibition-era America, when people were thirsty for a drink, nor that they saw their heyday during the Great Depression, when people were scrabbling for jobs and food. The most peculiar fact in the annals of these bawdy comics is that they were the creation of the American Mafia, which used them as wrapping paper for their contraband goods, and peddled them in nightclubs and barbers' shops.
Audiences at the Port Eliot music and literary festival, which takes place from 19 to 22 July, will hear how it was the Mob that began to commission these crude, graphic and often humorous images that were used to wrap bootleg bottles of drink to stop them from clinking, and so being discovered. For the price of illicit alcohol, punters got these salacious comic-strips thrown in. To buy on their own, they were no more than a few cents – disposable booklets drawn on rough paper and printed cheaply: the American equivalent of chip-paper. A decade after they came into being, Mafia bosses created a series of dirty comics that have since come to be known as the Tijuana bibles, or more commonly, "bluesies". Mobsters started approaching artists who found themselves out of work in the 1930s. Numerous respectable illustrators thought twice about taking up the illegal – and tacky – commissions, which ran the very real risk of tarnishing their reputations. Some did so resignedly, though only after the promise of anonymity. Will Eisner, the founding father of the modern-day graphic novel, was said to be sorely tempted by the cash but decided against it. Some weren't as particular. Wesley Morse, an artist at the Ziegfeld Follies on New York's Broadway who became known for the famous Bazooka Joe comic strip, became the main "creative' behind the comic strips.
The Tijuana bibles turned out not just to be incandescently graphic in their portraits of sex. They also became a potent tool for social and political satire.
Tim Pilcher, who is the author of a two-volume history, Erotic Comics: A Graphic History, and will give two talks at Port Eliot, says that the connection between sex, politics and satire has always existed, and these comics exploited this symbiosis fully. "Using sex to parody politicians has always been one of the most powerful weapons of social commentary. If you picture people in power having sex, you can really undermine them."
So there is a comic-strip of Stalin in which he is exposing himself, saying, "here it is, girls, the biggest prick in Russia", while another comic shows Gandhi being coerced by two women into having sex, with one woman exclaiming, "Send it home, Matty".
The comics revelled in attacking and parodying celebrity culture. James Cagney, for example, features in the Tijuana bibles in a homoerotic scene, having sex with Pat O'Brien and with other male stars.
By the 1950s, a new sub-genre of romance comics emerged in which the sexual element was tempered by a strong morality. These sex comics might have continued to be incendiary if it had not been for the backlash in 1954 against the negative influence of some comic strips, particularly those that pictured crime and horror. Some thought this had led to greater delinquency both in Britain and America, and somehow, sex comics became embroiled in the debates around whether comics could incite violence. The industry began a period of severe self-regulation, which drew the sting out of sex comics. Neutered thus, they became anodyne and uncharismatic – too afraid now to be too bitchy or beastly.
By the 1960s, they were superseded by a new breed of underground comics that were not afraid to be edgy. Today's erotic comics are more politically potent – and popular – than they have ever been: e-reading has made them almost cheap and accessible, while artists such as the Swiss comic creator, Zep, whose Happy Sex, is set to be adapted for film, has lent critical acclaim to the genre.
Yet while contemporary erotic comics created by the likes of Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky draw on the legacy of the 1960s, it is maybe worth remembering that, just under a century ago, the unlikely combination of Mob money and chip-paper sex-comedy kick-started the sexual revolution in the world of comics.
'Tim Pilcher will be appearing in The Odditorium, a new stage celebrating the fringes of culture at this year's Port Eliot Festival at St Germans, Cornwall, 19-22 July (www.porteliotfestival.com). Port Eliot features over 100 performances on 10 different stages, covering books, music, fashion, food and film
This story appears in tomorrow's print edition of The Independent's Radar: The Indispensable Guide to Arts & Culture
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 2 How to turn off/stop 'seen by' on Facebook: Disable it to make your chats seem less passive aggressive
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 'We're not heroes, just tourists': Swedish police officers on holiday stop vicious assault on New York subway
- 5 Buckingham Palace guard who attacked passers-by in 'most most violent piece of CCTV footage' police officer had seen walks free
MasterChef, TV review: The final climaxed in a frenzy of herbs and hyperbole
Male student sues Columbia University for 'gender-based harassment' after alleged 'Mattress Performance' rape victim Emma Sulkowicz went public with claims
MasterChef 2015: Simon Wood named winner
Black Mass trailer: Johnny Depp might have started making good films again
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove