Historietas in Mexico: The Present:
"Today, the historieta is a powerful industry with the lion's share of readers in Mexico, surpassing any other printed publication in volume and proliferation. It also enjoys a wide range of distribution, finding its way not only into every corner in Mexico, but also a substantial part of Central America and the southern part of the United States" (Ulloa online).
Although the Mexican comics industry had never experienced the level of slumping sales affecting their counterparts in America, the industry was indeed in a steady decline throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Television, the Internet, and other entertainment options vied for consumer dollars, and foreign competition was successfully crowding out the Mexican comiqueros and their locally produced historietas. Also partly to blame was the flood of semi-pornographic sensacionales on the newsstands, sullying the proud image of the historieta tradition in Mexico. While these so-called 'ghetto-librettos' had not vanished in the new millennium, new publications in a wide variety of genres revitalized the declining industry, with more than 10 different publishers releasing approximately 50 titles per week. In Mexico, comics are still affordable, portable, and widely available, and as Mexican comics theorist Bruce Campbell observes, "the popularity of historietas is in evidence on public buses and in metro trains, in public parks, and in constant recycling of used copies in informal street markets" ("Signs" 179). In quantitative terms, Mexico is the preeminent producer and publisher of comics in the West and exports comics throughout Latin America (Moliné 8). This final section will offer a peek into the current state of the Mexican comics industry and related details. Full disclosure: locating statistics and general information about the historietas in the 21st century was complicated by the language barrier and an apparent lack of information in English. Information concerning particular titles and publishers could be found on the web, but I could not find broader summaries. In this section, I have pieced together the scattered information I could find in an attempt to flesh out an overview of comics in Mexico in the current decade.
As mentioned previously, user surveys and marketing research are not commonly conducted by publishers in Mexico, and statistics on comics readership are difficult to locate. This type of data was not evident in the materials I used in the research for this presentation, but most authors remarked on the omnipresence of comics on the streets of Mexico. Evidently, the Mexican people are reading historietas in enormous numbers, and a publicly thriving comics culture exists that is more comparable to Japan than to the United States. Sergio Ulloa provides a typical observation: "[comics] would appear to be of greater interest to members of lower socioeconomic groups than other social sectors, however, in reality [they] actually fall into the hands of all kinds of readers, breaking with the false notion that it is literature for the lower classes" (online). Only one reference to a recent reader survey could be found, in Campbell's ¡Viva! La Historieta!. Campbell reports findings of the 2006 National Reading Survey conducted by the Mexican National Council for Culture and the Arts, revealing that more than 12% of the nation admits to reading comics (5). He notes that respondents to such surveys are often prone to underreporting the reading of materials like comics, and suggests that this statistic may in fact be much higher.
Collector culture is still not widespread, but a small cadre of Mexican comics aficionados has emerged in recent years, obsessed with locating rare issues of Golden Age historietas and pepines. As aforementioned, Mexican comics were produced to be read, and were passed around regularly. As the paper was often cheap and pulpy, older comics are often in awful and deteriorating condition. Lucha comics collector, Keith Rainville notes, "with no collector mentality inherent in the populace, the comics were seen as disposable media, and finding viable collections today is somewhat miraculous" (online). In order to test this theory, I plugged the names of some of the most famous Golden Age historietas into Ebay Canada, United States, and Mexico, and received absolutely no results. I am guessing that collectors would be best off scouring the street markets in Mexican cities and towns, rather than performing fruitless online searches.
Comics as Tools for Literacy:
Much like the original role played by comics in the mass literacy campaigns of the post-revolutionary era, Mexican comics today continue to play a role in encouraging and maintaining print literacy in a nation where most students leave school at age 13, on average (CIA World Factbook). Although, according to UNESCO, the total adult literacy rate is 92%, the average Mexican citizen reads at a Grade 6 level (UNESCO). Campbell notes, "the cultural currency of the graphic narrative in Mexico is a reflection of the relatively weak role of traditional literature as a national cultural institution in a nation where a majority of the population is semi-literate" ("Signs" 173). As such, the comics medium can be a useful communication and instructional tool for educators, government agencies, and employers, as will be explored below.
In the 21st century, readers can choose from a diverse array of genres, some borrowing on established historieta traditions, and some newer genres that have developed in response to the many changes affecting contemporary Mexican society. Ulloa lists some of the more popular genres: "The most common themes are westerns, adaptations of literary works, historical accounts, reports (ecology, public health, natural disasters), day-to-day life and work, sex, daily dramas (domestic conflicts, crimes, and social offences), police stories, super heroes, and terror (fiction and legends)" (online). Fotonovelas are also a popular choice with many Mexicans and reader preferences seem to have changed little since the Golden Age of comics. However, as Rubenstein notes, other genres have emerged on the market: "More recently, there have been attempts at lesbian-feminist, punk, and art comics, all more or less modeled on North American underground comics" (Bad 160). The spirits of Jose Posada and the recently retired Rius live on in the burgeoning political satire genre, with titles like Meteorix 5.9 and Goji: Un Dragon con Angel enjoying moderate success. Following the North American model has not been entirely promising for Mexican comiqueros, as independent publishers face high paper and production costs and lack newsstand distribution. At this point, the outlook for graphic-novel style historietas is rather bleak, especially given the stiff competition posed by the cheap and ubiquitous mainstream comics in Mexico.
Still, Mexico produces no comics specifically for children, and as Blackaller asserts, "today, the only comic books available in Mexico for children are imported from the North" (online). Serialized stories, popular for many decades in the nation, have given way to single-story comics, such as the wildly popular El Libro Vaquero. Finally, imported American and Japanese comics now represent a significant portion of the comics market in Mexico, and Mexican children have developed a taste for American superheroes. A 1998 survey on the reading habits of Latin American children found that more than 34% of Mexican children had read an American superhero comic such as Batman or the Fantastic Four (Campbell Viva 6). More than ten years later, one would expect this percentage to have increased considerably. To find out more about how these imported comics are contributing to the rise of globalization, consumer capitalism, and cultural homogenization in Mexico, please consult Bruce Campbell's 2007 essay, "Signs of Empire in Mexican Graphic Narrative" and his 2009 book, ¡Viva La Historieta: Mexican Comics, NAFTA, and the Politics of Globalization.
Notable Titles of the 2000s:
Two popular historietas are worth mentioning here, both published by Novedades Editores. El Libro Vaquero (The Cowboy Book) and El Libro Semanal (The Weekly Book) are the two best-selling historietas in Mexico, and are specifically targeted to adult men and women respectively. As Campbell notes, they are the "most widely circulated publications...and enjoy a wider readership than any other publication in Mexico" and each of these titles circulates in excess of 41.6 million copies per year ("Signs" 188). These historietas also enjoy a wide circulation throughout Latin America and in U.S. areas with high concentrations of Mexican migrants.El Libro Semanal: This romance comic has the "highest circulation of any magazine in Mexico with a weekly distribution of 800,000 copies" (Medios Publicitarios). It actually dates back to 1952, when it was originally titled El Libro Mensual (The Monthly Book), and gained its current title, The Weekly Book, in 1956. Each weekly issue contains approximately 100 pages and the artwork is significantly more innovative than standard Mexican comics, including El Libro Vaquero. The panels take on irregular shapes to convey the emotional distress of the heroines, including outlines of buzzsaws. Often, panels are filled with close-ups of tearful faces and engage in the heightened melodrama characteristic of the telenovelas. The series is set in contemporary Mexico and is concerned with romance and personal relationships. As such, the series is highly gendered and attracts a largely female readership. An informal survey conducted by NIESA identifies 53% of El Libro Semanal's readers as housewives and 90% of its readers as female (¡Viva! 73). The treatment of gender is quite traditional and limiting, and depicts situations wherein the "failure to abide by gendered codes of honour and sexual morality exposes the protagonist to the risk of failure in love, business, and/or professional advancement" (Campbell Viva 71). These are moral tales that explicitly lay out limiting codes of conduct for female readers. The stories focus on the upper classes, much like the telenovelas, and the American Dream of capitalist excess.
El Libro Vaquero: This is a formulaic historieta set in the 19th century American frontier. According to Campbell, the publisher's (NIESA) website conducted an informal survey which revealed that 40% of readers were "workers and artisans" and 22% earn less than the minimum wage (¡Viva! 48). More than 90% of the readership is male and it is also read throughout America by Mexican migrants in places like New Jersey, Chicago and Los Angeles. The non-serialized stories are usually 100 pages long and have on average 2 panels per page, punctuated with single splash panel pages of landscapes. Remarkably, the comic is published in full colour, with detailed shading. The plotlines overwhelmingly concern the struggles of a lone hero and a female love interest (usually very hypersexualized) against an injustice perpetrated against the protagonist, usually a rape, robbery, or some form of deceit. The heroes are often recognizably Anglo-American, with vividly coloured blue eyes and blond hair. The artwork is realist to the point of photorealism, and the panels employ cinematic angles to create dramatic tension. The faces are less iconic than in American comics however, multiple close-ups invite identification from the reader. These details all beg the question: Why is the Mexican nationalism characteristic of previous decades elided in favour of a setting and plotlines reminiscent of a Hollywood Western? One can theorize that the popularity of this title with Mexican migrants in the U.S. is due to the fact that the comic places them at the centre of action in a nation that repeatedly oppresses and/or ignores them. Campbell suggests that the triumphant resolutions of the series may be cathartic to the migrant who finds meaning when "the protagonist, having passed through the tribulations of the morally vexed world of the United States, contemplates the possibilities of a better life," resulting in the "passage through a dangerous foreign space toward economic and social opportunity" (Viva 67-68).
Official Uses of Historietas:
As Campbell asserts, "the deployment of the comic book narrative in the Mexican public sphere for specific political ends has become commonplace" (¡Viva! 180). Throughout the last decade, the historieta format has been used as not only a political campaigning tool, but also as a means of disseminating propaganda, for training and inculcating employees into the expectations of the workplace, to inform illegal migrants of their rights upon arriving in the U.S., to organize trade unions around important issues, for public health education, and for advertising purposes. This tactic is quite savvy, and is an effective means of reaching out to large numbers of readers already familiar with and attracted to the format. I will list below some of the most famous examples of historietas used as instructional tools:
Politics: Using comics as a campaigning tool is not unusual in Mexico. Ulloa notes, "the majority of political parties have used the historieta to make their policies known to voters, or to promote a certain candidate" (online). An interesting question to consider: how do you think a Canadian or American political candidate would fare using comics as a campaigning method?
Other Official Uses:
The Future of Mexican Historietas:
WEE (http://www.webcomics.es/), or Webcomics en Espanol, is an extensive website compiling more than 418 different webcomics produced in Latin America. It was created by Mexican webcomiquero and graphic designer Beatriz Torres in 2004, and has a forum, workshops, contests, tutorials, calendar, a "webcomicpedia," and even a print WEE fanzine. These participatory features are rather reminiscent of the historietas of Mexico's Golden Age, and the sheer proliferation of webcomics available signals a renaissance of Mexican comiqueros.
Despite their popularity and success in Latin America, there has been little crossover success of Mexican historietas in the United States. Why have they historically had such limited export potential? Ilan Stavans, one of Mexico's most famous intellectuals and an avid comics fan, suggests, "American mainstream culture is just warming up to the Mexican kitsch" ("Redrawing" 20). However, Mexican comics are more than just kitsch, they are multi-dimensional products of one of the most established, long-running, and successful comics industries on the planet. Although, as Rubenstein asserts, "comic books are not a global medium; they have very different niches in the cultural ecologies of every region where they are found and they rarely translate well," the success of Japanese manga suggests that Mexican historietas may too eventually find an audience outside of Latin America (Bad 7). In my opinion, it is about time that Americans and Canadians acknowledged the pioneering efforts of the Mexican comics industry and the tremendous success of the historietas.
Some Recent Titles to Check Out:
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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.