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

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

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