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

Overview of Mexican Historietas

Old Pepin

"Moralistic, prejudiced, racist, misogynist, manipulative, sexist, daring, exciting, critical, sarcastic, and passionate - these are just a few adjectives that commonly describe Mexico's most widely-read publications: the historieta"
(Sergio Ulloa, "Pulp Fiction," 2006).

Mexican comics, or historietas, appeared and evolved at a pivotal moment in the nation's history and played an important role in boosting literacy and fostering a strong national identity after the turbulence of the Revolution. As will be explored on the next page, Mexican graphic arts and progenitors of sequential graphic narratives have a long history in the country, with some critics, including Scott McCloud, placing the pre-Columbian Aztec Codices as early examples of Mexican historietas. The modern Mexican comic is said to have emerged at approximately the turn of the last century, when a cigarette manufacturer inserted short serialized graphic narratives in their product. Alongside this, Mexican newspapers began printing translated American strips as early as 1903, inspiring the development of a homegrown comics tradition that was, and still is, distinctly Mexican. As Armando Bartra and Juan Manuel Aurrecoechea observe in their landmark 1998 history of Mexican comics, the growth of the Mexican comic book industry resulted from "the insistent combination of two divergent compulsions: the imitation of North American models and extreme Mexicanism; the new comic arose from the tension between irresistible mimetic will and deeply felt national vocation" (182). Unlike American comics, Mexican comics portray realistic and recognizable local settings and characters. Superheroes, fantastical and otherworldly settings, and escapist themes were slower to emerge in Mexico, and this nationalist realism remains predominant in Mexican comics to this day. Anne Rubenstein comments on Mexican comics: "Their stories are often set in an entirely familiar world, rather than an alternate universe, and it is a world without superheroes" (Bad 8).

While American comics reflected social preoccupations and anxieties in the fantastical universes of superheroes, the battlefields of super-soldiers, and the sci-fi realms of alien threats to mankind, Mexican comics remained solidly concerned with the daily lives of average citizens, and as such, are fascinating windows into a society struggling to define itself in the aftermath of colonialism and a bloody revolution. In the 1930s and 1940s, as massive numbers of citizens migrated from rural areas to the promise of urban centres such as Mexico City, historietas served as entertaining and affordable guidebooks to navigating the ins and outs of city life. As Rubenstein observes, "they showed Mexicans who moved to the cities how to behave in the workplace and in their new neighborhoods, warning them of what to expect while consoling them to the possibilities of middle-class comfort and family happiness" (Bad 8). Urban migration and post-agrarianism ushered in a new era of Mexican prosperity, and more people than ever before possessed a disposable income, however meager. During this same period, the government initiated a widespread literacy campaign and developed a free, universal, and mandatory educational system that both contributed to an incredible rise in literacy rates. Together, these two factors set the stage for the flourishing of a mass print media that was affordable, portable, entertaining, and patriotic: historietas.

Before we begin our whirlwind tour of Mexican comics, I just wanted to provide a brief overview of a few aspects of the historietas.

Audience:

"At the industry's height, nearly 90% of the literate Mexican population regularly read historietas"
(American Business Review, qtd. in Stavans 19).

From the beginning, the readership of the historietas has been incredibly diverse, especially in comparison to the United States. During the Golden Age of comics in Mexico, approximately 1930 to 1960, a participatory and communal culture of readers was actively cultivated by the comics publishers, who published readers' letters, biographies, and letters in the pages of the historietas, and sponsored contests that engaged and excited their readers. As Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith assert, "the historietas were a interactive, communal experience" that arguably assisted in the process of nation-building and a creating a sense of Mexicanidad, or 'Mexican-ness,' in the nation's citizens (304). At their height, an estimated 90% of the literate population read comics, and while newer mediums such as television and the Internet have adversely affected this incredible percentage, Mexicans remain some of the most voracious consumers of comics in the world. Harold E. Hinds Jr. and Charles Tatum, in one of the first English-language studies of Mexican comics, Not Just For Children, observe, "comic books are read on a regular basis by young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural Mexicans" (146). As opposed to the stereotypical young, white, male reader of American comics, the popularity and appeal of comics in Mexico cuts across lines of age, gender, region, and class.

Unfortunately, as Hinds and Tatum discovered, audience surveys of comics readers in Mexico are quite rare, and for most publishers, they are simply too expensive to conduct (16). When they conducted their field research in Mexico in the late-1970s, they found that every demographic group enthusiastically consumed comics in a variety of formats and genres. Comparatively speaking, Mexico more so resembles Japan than their neighbors to the north in terms of comics culture; comics are ingrained in the fabric in society rather than vilified and cast to the margins. However, as is the case throughout the world, Mexican comics have also attracted their fair share of controversy, raising the ire of conservative and religious groups seeking to 'purify' the mass media and encourage 'good reading' in the nation. These efforts will be examined in the censorship page. Until quite recently, there has not been an established fan or collector culture comparable to that in the U.S. or Japan. Historically, there have been no conventions, fanzines, or collections that fetched exorbitant prices - historietas were there to be read and passed on to friends, family, and co-workers. As a result, the vast majority of older Mexican comics, when they have been preserved intentionally or not, are in poor condition. However, these comics are increasingly fetching high prices on Ebay (when they sporadically show up) and are sought after by new generations of Mexican collectors.

Distribution of Historietas:

Newsstand

Mexican comics are ubiquitous and consumed on a massive scale. While American comics were steadily ghettoized to specialty stores subject to the whims of the direct market, Mexican comics appear in great numbers on newsstands located on busy street-corners or in the entrances to subway stations. The second-hand trade in comics is immense, with displays of used comics laid out on sidewalks or in the busy markets located in the centre of cities and towns. The prices are extremely affordable, with new copies running at 30 pesos (about 40 cents) to 100 pesos (a dollar), and less than ten cents for a second-hand title. Mexican comics are omnipresent and affordable, contributing to the development of a thriving comics culture that survives to this day. As Campbell remarks, "you don't see their comics being priced expensively as vanity projects with negligibly small print runs and sold in a few hard to find specialty shops" (8). During the Golden Age, Mexico started exporting comics to Central and South America and became the second largest exporter of comics after the U.S., and is still viewed as the hub of comics publishing and innovation in Latin America.

Small Comic

Physical Form:

This area will be described in more detail in the subsequent pages of this presentation, but for the most part Mexican comics are unique in their smaller size and relatively poor quality in terms of materials used in the production process. The covers commonly use lurid and eye-catching colors, such as bright yellow and magenta, to lure in readers, while the inner pages are often monochromatic and colour-coded according to genre. For example, romance comics are printed in a reddish-brown ink and adventure comics in sepia tones. In order to maintain the affordability of comics, publishers use the lowest grade of paper, pulpy and grainy, that often smudges the ink used in the printing process. As a result, Mexican comics are harshly judged on the basis of their appearance and rarely merit the closer attention they deserve. Over time, historietas grew smaller in size to accommodate the typically long commutes to work. Due to the portability of the format, along with their light weight, Mexican comics are portable, "making them an everyday sight in public places like bus stops and barber shops" (Rubenstein Bad 8). Arguably, the physicality of Mexican comics, that is to say, their inherent portability, was an important contributing factor to the widespread popularity of comics in the nation.

Style:

In historietas, the page is typically divided into two to six panels throughout the Golden Age, and then decreased to two to four after 1973 as comics decreased in size due to a slumping economy, and consisted of one or two panels per page for the micro formats, to be discussed on the next page. Hinds and Tatum comment on the enduring conservatism that characterizes the national style of Mexican comics: "In Mexican comic books, page layout has become rather standardized and conservative, at least when compared to American and European trends" (11). They continue to observe that "innovative page designs are unusual, for example, montage; splash pages; action that breaks into adjoining panels; and wavy, billowy, angular, or curvilinear panel edges" (11). Additionally, panels without words are also quite unusual as artwork is more expensive than dialogue, therefore, Mexican comics are somewhat more text-heavy than Japanese or American comics. Indeed, "whatever lacking in artistic merit in Mexican comic books was more than compensated for by intricate, complex plots" (Hinds 22). The imperative to maintain the affordability of comics, stiff competition, frequent publication schedules, and the low wages earned by artists are all contributing factors to the lack of artistic innovation in the historietas, although a graphic novel and webcomic culture is emerging, expanding the creative potential of the Mexican comic. However, as a typical graphic novel costs, on average, up to five or six times the price of a historieta, it appears unlikely that mainstream comics artistry will alter anytime soon.

As is the case with color-coding by genre, Mexican comics employ different artistic techniques according to genre. Line drawing is done for humor comics, while an expressionistic half-tone technique is utilized for adventure comics. Carbon penciling, the most expensive medium, is used for the romance comics, which are still wildly popular in Mexico. As mentioned above, most comics are printed in only one color, although the South American two-tone or North American four-tone color systems are employed occasionally. Bright, full-color covers are the norm, and are hand-painted, then photographed for the printing process. A full list of genre color-coding is as follows: adventure comics are sepia toned, reddish-brown in used for romances, black for crime and westerns, and multicolor for humorous comics (Hinds No 12). The humor comics employ flat colours rather than shading.

Genres:

Sensational Comics

Mexican historietas are notable for their diverse genres. As the comics industry evolved, the general-audience comics of the early Golden Age made way for comics targeted to specific demographics. Genres include humour, adventure, police and crime, political satire, romance, horror, slice-of-life, fashion, sports, superhero, western, and science fiction. These genres are alive and well on the nation's newsstands and are read by young and old, rich and poor, male and female, urban and rural readers. When the industry hit a slump in the 1980s and 1990s, the so-called 'ghetto librettos' or 'sensaciónales' dominated the market and continue to be a considerably popular genre in the country. In these comics, publishers attempted to snag readers with sensational images of hypersexualized women and ultraviolence, damaging the reputation of the comics industry as a whole. Luis Blackaller, in a seminal essay on the genre, "Ghetto Libretto: The Sexy Comics of Mexico," calls them "a particular genre of Mexican soap opera melodrama with softcore porn and pulp fiction" (online). Although technically illegal according to Mexico's existing decency laws, they are distributed weekly through newsstand and are aimed largely at male, working-class readers. Some are intended for female readers, and rely on melodrama rather than quasi-pornographic imagery. Most run at around 80 pages and "are nearly pornographic in their depiction of curvaceous women, offering a stark contrast to the traditionally conservative content of Mexican historietas and ultimately making for an unflattering coda to an industry that largely held very high standards for decades" (Duncan and Smith 306). Although the comics readership remains more diverse in Mexico than in the United States, these ghetto librettos have tarnished the reputation of comics and have contributed to an Americanized aura of the comics reader as male, semi-literate, and misogynist.

Speaking of gender issues, please go to the next page to read a little about women in Mexican comics.



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.