I’ve been deep in the trenches of a writing project for the past few months. The pages keep rolling by, the characters are talking to me and, like any real writer, I haven’t been awake before noon or sober since Lent. When people ask me what I do, I no longer have to make something up about skydiving or investment banking; I just say “author” and watch everyone drop to their knees in awe.
There’s a nagging problem, though. At some point, unless I really up the castration rate, several of my characters are going to take their clothes off and have sex. All well and good – Davie Boy in particular certainly deserves it, what with the brain tumor and the leprosy – but how do you pull it off? Let’s be clear that I’m talking about sex, rather than sex appeal: two or more people, accessories and wildlife optional, all the possible connections of a Lego set. The problem is making it interesting. There are more ways to create sex scenes than there are to actually hump, but in a world where books, movies, videogames, and the internet have all grabbed their share, it’s increasingly tough to stand out from the bunch. Imaginary coitus is a crowded market indeed.
I thought about ducking the whole issue. Then I went half-mad trying to outdo the internet before backing off to a classic JFK-and-Marilyn approach which bored me silly. Finally, I remembered Tijuana bibles, the joys of crude, secret things passed among friends, and figured there’s another way to chuck an orgasm-filled custard pie at the world.
Tijuana bibles were Depression-era smut booklets, eight-page comics on cheap paper that gave you the real lives of the rich and famous. You too, my friend, can finally see Donald sweeping Daisy’s chimney. J. Wellington Wimpy laying the pipe to Olive Oyl. You can find out once and for all whether Betty and Veronica look the same when you flip them upside down. Big-lipped black people, sex-crazed nuns, grasping old pensioners and every other ugly caricature known to man? Right here in this suitcase, yours for fifty cents.
The bibles (no one seems to have figured out the nickname, beyond perhaps a cheap shot at Mexico and a giggle at that other sex-filled book) were produced by anonymous cartoonists, usually to the very crudest standard, and distributed through friends and workmates. Depending on who’s counting, the overall readership may have been in the tens of millions. Here then, 80 years ago, was your real Creative Commons; books passed hand-to-hand, advertised purely by word of mouth, easily copied by anyone with basic equipment, enjoying circulations that dwarfed the mainstream. Artists like Art Spiegelman see them as the advance guard of the underground comix scene, and there are certainly echoes of Robert Crumb and Justin Green in there somewhere.
It’s a faint echo, though. These books are smut in raw form. Many Tijuana Bibles were at the bottom of the barrel in terms of drawing ability and basic English, and the humor is that distinct, right-on-the-button style that’s been drowned out by 50 years of TV comedy and cynicism. The sex is … well, it makes American Pie look like a Merchant Ivory production. (My favorite so far would have to be Archie getting his head stuck inside Veronica.) This isn’t cute nostalgia; it’s the real ugly thing, though for all the depravity there’s an oddly charming innocence about the whole experience. These bibles existed in an information black hole, passed hand-to-hand in an age that predated the galactic porn megastore we call the internet, and they take a simple, crude, straightforward approach to getting drunk and doing it twice.
In one sense, this artistic approach is dead, killed off like so many other things by the need for sophistication. Playboy showed up in the 1950s, smut photography got better and more widespread and no one needed some badly drawn comic about Prince Edward’s royal jewels to get off. Nowadays, the age of digital video has erased the need for dodgy 8-pagers with smudgy ink. The Sheen of Modernity (or the attempt to capture it) infects everything from Iron Man to Photobucket.
In another sense, though, the Tijuana bible spirit is alive and well. At their core those little packages were the currency of small, weird sexual communities – and now, of course, we’re all about small, weird communities.
There’s something very special about things that get handed around a group of people who know each other. Like comic books and demo tapes. Or syphilis. Think of dot-matrixed Dungeons & Dragons handouts, dodgy cellphone pictures, the rough cartoons and home-made newspapers that so many kids try at some point. In the dark and vile corners of the world, child porn could be included on this list, of which we’ll say no more. But benign local sex groups still spring up around things as disparate as fetish photography, yiffing, swinging, and Godzilla-lust, with no signs of stopping.
How do you replicate these authentic, rough-hewn things? Where’s the market gap in make-believe mating?
Nowadays, the fringe feel is too often the result of clever marketing, with polished edges that are impossible to hide if you look with the right eyes. For me this cuts out many things right away, from Suicide Girls to David Hasselhoff, while the MySpace/Facebook world is just creepy. I’m also not trying to out-run the internet with ultra-perversity; the world has seen enough tentacle porn, and Warren Ellis took a recent journey in Crooked Little Vein that ended up with saline testicle injection parties and the aforementioned macroherpetophiles. This is no country for an innocent writer on a sex hunt.
Then, a breakthrough. I hadn’t thought of looking in videogames, with their big-budget flavor and nonexistent love lives, until I remembered Leisure Suit Larry, the pixelated Tijuana bible of my childhood.
On the surface, Larry’s a pretty mainstream character. The original Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards was one of the most famous and controversial games of the late 1980s, a 16-color, 640K ramble through the city of Lost Wages with a 40-year-old virgin. It’s funny, crude and direct, especially for its time. There are plenty of outlets in Lost Wages for you to drink, gamble, and whore-shop till you drop.
Despite its high profile, though, Larry was the progenitor of plenty of weird communities; the game may have been a commercial release, but it was extensively pirated, shared around friends on floppy disks and spread through junior high schools like mono. I got Larry off someone in math class, and I think damn near everyone else did, too. Playing it now with the Tijuana bibles in mind, it’s remarkable how much creator Al Lowe seems to have drawn from them for inspiration and style. The clunky graphics, high technology back in 1987, are now as rough and ugly as those of a cheap underground cartoonist slaving away in the 1930s. Simple, direct, and surprisingly naive, Larry shares a distinct charm with long-ago Tijuana silliness like “The Adventures of a Fuller Brush Man” and “Bebby Snooks in the Hay Loft“.
The ceaseless demand for MOAR is unlikely to ever relax, but surely there are enough groups of weirdos (all of us) around to take the Larry example and run with it. The curious fantasies and desires of small communities can be stranger, funnier, more immediate than large corporate creations could ever replicate. So let’s go find a small bunch of gamers. Really small, like down the road and up the driveway. A place where people with access to the very latest in high-res graphics and Grand Theft Auto scale choose instead to use Adventure Game Studio in much the same way I’d like to write.
Adventure Game Studio is a free toolkit that helps you make out-of-date computer games. Twenty years on, the resources needed to make a miniature, five-minute Larry have boiled down to one person. In fact, by my count, they’re not far off those needed in the 1930s to create a crude eight-page comic.
There’s no sophistication to be found here. When one person writes, draws and programs something, the results are rarely spectacular. They’re straightforward, though, and free of the Sheen. Their five-minute length leaves just enough room for one or two scenes, a single encounter, a bit of scratchy dialogue and some hilariously pistoning pixels. There are more opportunities than ever for amateur game-makers to show their stuff, from the Indie Games Festival to Microsoft’s ramped-up XNA Creator’s Club; these little AGS gems, however, aren’t for public consumption.
In other words, let’s back away from the driveway and leave our friends to their business.
More and more, I find myself appreciating the simple things around me. Touches. Smells. Handmade, homemade things. I miss crude innocence, I really do. You’ve got the vast shininess of corporate-sponsored sex dreams in one direction, a perverse arms race in another, but what about that third coordinate: the unadulterated thrill of dumb lust?
A well-known New Zealand comics artist once handed me his own attempt at a Tijuana bible, complete with rough-print paper. But it was far too stylish, and the sex was like a Penthouse letter. It’s the downside of all this knowledge, all the sweat that makes individuals into professional creators and the world into a fantastic imaginative playground; it gets harder and harder to just turn it all off. It’s a shame, because I guarantee that one of the untapped oil fields of creativity lies right beneath us, there for the drilling, if we could just forget the last 80-odd years for a minute.
I still haven’t solved the writing problem, and while a few more rounds with Larry and the AGS community may nail it, I wonder if I can ever remake the small community flavor on a grander scale. Ah, well. God forbid we should actually go and have real sex and real relationships with real people … in fact, that sounds pretty good right now. I’m off for the evening. I’ll have Mothra home by midnight.
Colin Rowsell has seen too much. Talk to him on email@example.com.