Lust and Lechery in Eight Pages: The Story of the Tijuana Bibles. Pt. 1
But, of course, there was more to the bibles. After all, it wasn’t just anyone’s genitalia on display in those pages. By the 1930’s, newspaper comics were already big business. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer fought near-epic struggles over the strips and creators, and the decades-long war between the two helped elevate the art form to its creative and commercial zenith. The most popular characters were merchandised as toys and on clothing and found new life in other media. E.C. Segar’s salty, spinach-eating sailor Popeye virtually became a cottage industry after he debuted in 1929; starting in the 1930’s, Popeye gave his stamp of approval to almost everything that could be sold, and starred in many classic animated shorts by the Fleischer Brothers studio. Chic Young’s Blondie and Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy were not only iconic in their print forms but also thrived in their adaptations to radio and film. The characters from all three strips – and others – quickly became shorthand for very specific traits and personalities. Americans knew them. When the country was first being crushed by economic depression followed by the destruction of war, they were America, in the best sense we could imagine.
And then, they were stripped naked in the pages of the Tijuana bibles. Looking through the bibles has the same forbidden kick as if you happened to wander past the window of a beloved neighbor just in time to see her hungrily sucking off Pastor Ted and getting rimmed by your Aunt Sally. It’s not just anyone in these comic books. If they were, it’s hard to imagine that they’d get anything more than cursory attention by a few comics historians known for being die-hard completists.
Look, for example, at the mix of class and sexual anxieties in the Blondie and Dagwood eight-pager "Fired!" In terms of art quality and storytelling skill, this one represents the bibles at their very lowest. Dagwood’s cantankerous boss, Mr. Dithers (here called Smithers), is barely recognizable, and the spelling and layout are elementary at best. The sex scenes look like they were drawn by a boy still wondering what girls look like under their dresses. It’s exactly the sort of thing that you probably drew in the back of your fifth-grade English class.
But despite the distorted art and the crudely pornographic story, "Fired!" doesn’t seem that far removed from Chic Young’s daily strip. Right in the first panel, Dagwood once again gets his lazy ass canned by Smithers, a gag that even the most casual reader of the original knows. He goes home and rants to Blondie about "that prick Smithers," but instead of being merely passive and comforting, by page three Blondie is in Smithers’ office demanding Dagwood’s job back. Almost immediately, Smithers starts groping Blondie’s twat despite her protests. By page 5, sexual assault is transformed into impassioned demands for Smithers to fuck her harder and deeper. At last, Dagwood appears on the scene; looking more put out than outraged, he jerks his cock while watching his boss screw his wife, petulantly complaining, "At least you could let me get in." Smithers keeps pumping away, responding nastily, "Shut up Bumstead you got your job back what more do you want." The narration observes without pity, "Looks like Dagwoods the on who got fucked." [sic]
Alongside its crude sexual fantasy, "Fired!" injects the tired gags of Blondie with realities that the strip studiously avoided. The lecherous boss held real power in the 1930s, enabled by a lack of sexual harassment laws and economic desperation. And anyone watching Dagwood’s constant firings has to wonder why Blondie tolerates it in such precarious times. Blondie’s aggressive response to Dithers/Smithers here is much more plausible. Even the Bumsteads’ lascivious appetites seem much more in character when you consider the origins of the strip, which chronicled the adventures of a flapper named Blondie Boopadoop, who loved the dance halls and parties of the 1920s but eventually fell for Dagwood, the dissolute scion of the upper-crust Bumsteads. When the two married, Dagwood’s parents cut him off without a cent for disgracing the family by marrying a working-class trollop.
Dagwood's humiliation is another common feature of the bibles. They catered to the sexual fears of their readers as much as they did their fantasies, and a common theme is the sexual humiliation or defeat of the protagonist. In "Bigger Yet," starring "Claudette Coal-Bin," a delivery boy who's been lucky enough to get laid by the great movie star gets kicked out on his ass on page 8, his cock still rock-hard, when he makes the slip of telling her that his boss is even bigger than he is. In "Chris Crusty VII," the protagonist winds up getting beaten and robbed when the woman's husband comes home; the last page shows him telling a flirtatious young woman to "go pound sand up yer ass!!!" In a nasty display of misogyny and anti-Semitism, "Gimme Beck" portrays Geezil, a caricatured Jew from the early Popeye strips, unsatisfied by what he gets for his $5 from a hooker. In retaliation, he slips his fingers inside her and declares, "Ah dot's it!! Now listen you bedroom boiglar!! I'm the boss—one finger I got up your ass and my thumb in your cunt—now, give it beck my five bucks or I rip out the partition!"