The library is a great place for readers to discover comics, and it’s a great place for comics readers to check out things that they want to try without spending their hard-earned cash. I’m looking at comics that I find in the New York Public Library system.
Believe it or not, I found this book by running a search for Art Spiegelman books in the library’s system. Spiegelman’s introduction, on many levels, is the only reason to check this book out. In it, Spiegelman explores the notion of comics as an outlaw medium in their ultimate outlaw incarnation, the so-called Tijuana bible, examining how the trashiest comics of all time undermine and (oh, yes) exploit the elements of culture. A precursor to Mad and other more high-minded satire, the Tijuana bibles of the 1930s-50s were typically eight-page smut comics. They can be forgivingly called crudely drawn and underwritten, and each bibles was usually based on the image of a movie starlet or famous comics character (Mae West and Popeye being the most popular, apparently) engaging in antics best left behind closed doors.
The strips themselves leave little to the imagination. Eight pages, little plot, no character, sloppy art that tries (very urgently, yet totally unsuccessfully) to ape the style of the artist who made the parodied strip famous, each strip has – by itself – a crude, juvenile appeal. Piled atop one another in this 160 page volume, they quickly become tedious and exhausting. The women are essentially men in their actions and simplistic sex drive.
Still, some credit must be given to these little comic turds on some level. You’ll rarely see comics characters displaying healthy sexual interest outside of this, and there is the occasional (very, very occasional) flash of perhaps intentional wit. Most of all, reading these comics you can draw a clear line through Mad Magazine, the underground comix of the 60s and into the thriving alternative comic book scene of today. The low-brow trash of the Tijuana bibles has certainly played its part it breaking down the sacred taboos of the comics field, opening creators’ minds to the possibility of doing something a little bit racier, a little bit edgier, a little bit smarter.
Tijuana Bibles, a hardcover collection published several years ago by Simon and Schuster and compiled and annotated by Bob Andelman, collects some of the worst comics you’ll ever read – it takes a single-minded dedication to even finish this book – but if you find a copy, you’ll have a chance to witness the early car crashes of comic book history. These disasters taught later artists how to put the pieces back together in more interesting configurations. Discovering elements of the medium’s history is one of the great things to be found at your local library.