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

Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home