Mexican Historietas: A History


Introduction

Terminology

Background Information

Women in Mexican Comics

Historietas: Beginnings to 1959

Censorship and the Historietas

Historietas: 1959 to 1999

Historietas in the 21st Century

Resources

Naughty Comics

Censorship and Mexican Historietas

Anne Rubenstein's Bad Language, Naked Ladies & Other Threats to the Nation: A Political History of Comic Books offers the most comprehensive coverage available on the history of censorship and Mexican historietas. I use her book as an invaluable resource for this brief introduction to the topic. After outlining the three major outbreaks of censorship efforts, I will also provide a bit of information about the recent American controversy concerning the racially insensitive Memín Pepín comics.

According to Rubenstein, "disdain and distrust for the comics was so general that, by the mid-1940s, the word pepines came to connote any vulgar or indecent publication" (Bad 76). However, opposition to the rising popularity of the historietas was first articulated in the 1930s, by upper-class conservatives concerned about the corrupting influence of the mass media, including comics, on the newly literate lower classes. These opponents "believed that reading comic books corrupted women and tempted men with irreligious ideas and images of modern life" (Rubinstein "Leaving" 115).

There were three major periods of conservative opposition to the historietas: 1942-1944, 1952-1956, and 1971-1976.

1942-1944: In the early 1940s, religious organizations such as the Catholic Mexican Legion of Decency, waged a campaign against the increasingly popular historietas, starting the debate in the pages of a free weekly leaflet called Apreciaciónes. In 1943, the publication began denouncing the pepines as sinful and urged believers to agitate for state control of the comic industry. They saw comics as advocating licentious and loose behavior, and for inspiring violence in young men. The Legion of Decency abhorred the corrupting influence pepines potentially wielded over the next generation of Mexican citizens. A year before, the Acción Social (Social Action) campaign, led by prominent Catholic bishops, campaigned for the purification of the mass media, asking the government for a ban on "the sort of publications that ought to be considered morbid" (Rubenstein Bad 88). This language strongly echoes the rhetoric employed in 1950s America, during the trials that culminated in the Comics Code. Joining in the effort, the Family Action Section of the Union of Mexican Catholics wrote a barrage of letters to the government in 1944, arguing "comic books foment delinquent acts and the child is made incapable of serious reading" (qtd. in Rubenstein Bad 89). As a result of these campaigns, the Mexican government authorized "the Regulations of Illustrated Magazines," which banned images of crimes, the use of slang, and indecent illustrations. Government officials added a clause to this law which was an unintentional boost to the indigenous comics industry, banning periodicals "which provoke disdain for the Mexican people, their abilities, or their history" (qtd. in Rubenstein Bad 95). This clause prevented foreign publishers, mostly from the U.S., from obtaining publishing licenses, allowing the Mexican comics industry to develop and flourish with a minimal amount of competition. As the Government cast a disapproving eye on the industry, Mexican comics became increasingly patriotic, holding patriotic essay contests and using their characters as mouthpieces for nationalist propaganda. Photos of celebrity cartoonists alongside prominent government officials were published and nationalist slogans were printed along the margins of the pepines. Most importantly, the campaign resulted in the development of a regulatory body, La Comisión Calificadora de Publicaciones y Revistas Ilustradas (The Quality Commission of Illustrated Publications and Magazines). After this first wave of moral panic, all periodicals, including comic books, fell under the supervision and control of the Mexican government, who subsidized the industry, again, inadvertently contributing to the growth of the comics industry in the country.

La Comisión Calificadora de Publicaciones y Revistas Ilustradas [The Quality Commission of Illustrated Publications and Magazines] is a small government body that protects "the populace from the influence of morbid contents in frankly anti-educational materials" (Rubenstein Bad 2). The Commission was founded in 1944 as an official regulatory body for the publishing industry, with a particular focus on historietas. As Duncan and Smith assert, "the charge of the Comisión Calificadora was to review all comics titles and related publications once they were issued" and commissioners were appointed to review all illustrated periodicals (305). Publishers were legally obliged to submit all periodicals within one month of publication and the commission could impose fines, revoke publishing licenses, and recommend prosecutions for violation of decency. Comics could be censored or banned on grounds of denigrating "the work ethic, enthusiasm for studying, law and order, the idea that crime does not pay, the Mexican people and culture, democracy, standard Spanish, and high moral and ethical standards" (Hinds 14). However, the Commission lacks power of enforcement and their efforts have historically been limited by an extremely small budget. Nappo remarks, "although the Commission attempted to exercise control over content, nothing really approaching censorship was achieved, because of the popularity and persistence of the genre as well as the fact that some of the Commission's laws were unenforceable" (online). Unlike the tremendous aftershocks experienced by American publishers subsequent to the comics trials of the 1950s, this campaign did not manage to affect the Mexican comic industry at all, with the exception of the increased nationalism within the pages of the pepines.

1952-1956: This wave of moral panic targeted the Comisión Calificadora and its alleged inadequacy at policing indecency in comics. This time, individual Mexican citizens rather than religious groups instigated the protest against the allegedly immoral contents of the historietas. Mass demonstrations occurred, enabling the mobilization of a massive censorship campaign. Public bonfires of comics were staged on the streets of Mexico city. These campaigns temporarily spurred the Commission to action, but this activity dwindled by 1960s. Despite the efforts of the Commission, the comics industry continued to flourish and ironically, the contents of the historietas grew more pornographic and violent in this decade.

1974-1976: The last major ripple of opposition against the historietas occurred in the mid-1970s. Religious campaigners, civic groups and community associations convinced tens of thousands of Mexican citizens to send letters of protest to government officials. At least 2571 telegrams were sent to government officials by citizens protesting the immorality depicted in the pages of the popular press (Rubenstein Bad 100). Some community associations mailed boxes of offensive periodicals to the president and sent lists of offending titles to the classifying commission, but, again, over time the Commission became indifferent to these complaints and relapsed into inactivity. These widespread efforts to censor comics did alter the content of comics to a certain degree, but the sexual imagery remained in force. When the Commission did manage to threaten a publisher with heavy fines or legal action, the offending title often disappeared, only to re-emerge under a new title and with a new cover. Although the Commission was largely ineffective at actually pushing through legal action, the threat of censorship still caused many publishers to tone down their content. For the most part, this meant that criticisms against the government were excised, while sexual imagery remained. However, as Ilan Stavans remarks, "censorship is the mother of metaphor" and comics remained a potent yet subtle source of political satire and critique ("Redrawing" 21).

Stamps

Controversy over Memín Pinguín:

Memín Pinguín Stamps:
In 2005, President Vicente Fox made a controversial comment that angered African Americans, suggesting that Mexican migrants in the U.S. take jobs "not even blacks want" (McKinley). Mere weeks after this highly charged incident, the Mexican government proudly issued a commemorative Memín Pinguín stamp set. The set consists of a series of five stamps, with a run of 750,000 stamps, "depicting a black boy with thick lips, big eyes, and protruding ears" (McKinley). The stamps attracted criticism from civil rights leaders in the U.S., including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who, along with other civil rights activists, declared that Pinguín's "mannerisms and speech reinforce 1940s stereotypes of blacks as lazy, mischievous, and uneducated" (McKinley). A Mexican ambassador to the U.S. responded with accusations that the Americans were overreacting: "Memín Pinguín is a character like Speedy González, created in the 1940s. Just as Speedy has never been interpreted in a racial manner by the people in Mexico, because he is a cartoon character, I am certain that this commemorative postage stamp is not intended to be interpreted on a racial basis in Mexico or anywhere else" (McKinley). The assistant marketing director for the Mexican Postal Service also refused to discontinue the stamps, claiming, "he is a character who embodies many good values and is a beloved part of Mexican culture, not a racist caricature" (McKinley). The stamps continued to circulate, despite these protests.

Walmart

Walmart:
Memín Pinguín is still in print and remains popular with readers throughout Latin America. As a personal aside, I recall being stunned when I encountered Memín's face staring at me from baked goods, comics, and t-shirts all across Mexico on my last visit. The comic is also a favorite with Mexican migrants in the United States and can be purchased at specialty stores. When Walmart's Texas stores decided to start carrying the title in 2008, many Texans protested against the racist depiction of the protagonist. An activist in Dallas, Quanall X, declared, "This is poking fun at the physical features of an entire people. Making them look buffoonish (and) portraying the young kid as stupid. Whenever they are beating him, they are referring to him as Negro. Even here when he is being punched, slapped (he is called) Negro. This is a disgrace" ("Wal-Mart"). A statement was released immediately, asserting that "Wal-Mart carries a wide array of products that reflect the wants and needs of Hispanic customers. And we understand that Memin is a popular figure in Mexico. However, given the sensitivity to the negative image Memin can portray to some, we felt that it was best to no longer carry the item in our stores. We apologize to those customers who may have been offended by the book's images" ("Wal-Mart").

Read about the Silver and Bronze Ages of Mexican comics on the next page.



This website was created by Brianna Erban for LIS 518: Comic Books and Graphic Novels in Schools and Public Libraries

Last updated December 2, 2009.