A Decade by Decade History of Mexican Historietas: Beginnings to 1959
"The reason for the unparalleled success of Mexican comic books is twofold: thanks to the relative political stability and economic growth after the Revolution, Mexicans generally had more money and leisure time than other Latin Americans; furthermore, the post-revolutionary government's aggressive educational programs helped raise literacy rates and to create a readership for all varieties of reading material" (Nappo online).
As far as possible, given the lack of English-language resource materials, I have attempted to patch together a time-line detailing the rise and decline (and rise again?) of Mexican historietas. As a disclaimer, this overview is nowhere near exhaustive as I intend to cover only the most notable developments in Mexican comics over the last century.
Although some critics debate the legitimacy of these claims, some comics historians place the genesis of the Mexican comics tradition in the pre-Columbian period. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud includes a fourteenth century Mixtec codex, the Codex Zouche-Nuttal, as an early example of sequential art (11, image at right). The highly respected Mexican intellectual, author, and comiquero, Ilan Stavans agrees that "pre-Columbian codices and other ancient documents could be seen as primary sources of the comics culture in the country" (Essential 13). A few centuries later, at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Roman Catholic priests used sequential art for missionary and conversion purposes: "During the colonial period, the combination of images and text to tell stories was a favored strategy of priests and friars eager to spread the Roman Catholic faith and to control the meaning of complex Indian images by providing explanatory captions in both Spanish and Indigenous languages" (Coerver 105, see image at left). Needless to say, sequential art has a long and established history in Mexico.
The modern historieta appeared in Mexico in the late-nineteenth century, at around the same time the format appeared in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan. The sudden appearance of comics in these diverse settings can be intimately linked to the invention and widespread adoption of the rotary printing press after 1843, when political cartoons started to appear in newspapers across the world. The first Mexican comiquero is generally thought to be Eusebio Planas, who, in 1880, produced a series of 102 illustrated vignettes to be inserted in packages of El Buen Tono cigarettes. This series was entitled "La Historía de una Mujer" (The Story of a Woman), and was notable for its juxtaposition of image and the text running along the bottom of the panel. These comics were a marketing success, and at the turn of the century, El Buen Tono then developed what is considered to be the first continuing Mexican comic character named Ranilla (Little Frog/Tadpole). Ranilla joined forces with the beer company Cervecería Moctezuma in the first decade of the twentieth century, and the two companies distributed comics with their products. At about the same time, a popular Mexican artist named Jose Guadalupe Posada created a recurring character named Don Chepito Mariguanero Charrasca y Rascarrabias, which loosely translates to "Sir Joey Pothead Switchblade Sourpuss" (see image at right). Posada distributed his comic on the streets of Mexico City via broadsheets, pamphlets, and handbills. The bumbling adventures of Don Chepito became a prototype for the development of later serialized comics, and the satirical nature of Posada's comics influenced the spread of political cartoons in the daily papers.
Under Porfirio Diaz's presidency, before the revolution, political cartoons helped sell newspapers, and, due to political repression and censorship, the political cartoon, or caricatura politica, was the only viable means of free expression.The popularity of the political cartoons led several weekly newspapers to begin printing translations of American strips, which inspired the first crop of Mexican comiqueros to write original strips based on popular American comics characters. Mexican newspapers purchased the rights to print American comics, and the first strip to be acquired was The Katzenjammer Kids in 1903. This strip was published in conservative newspapers in an effort to compete with the political cartoons appearing in more liberal publications, however, "annoyance with the undependable supply and licensing requirements of United States strips led Mexican newspapers to sponsor the creation of local products" (Hinds and Tatum Not 2). As a result of this, a homegrown industry of Mexican comics developed, with a national style, that while inspired by the early American strips, was flavored with a healthy dose of Mexicanidad.
Sunday comic supplements began to appear in the newspapers in 1918, when El Universal, Mexico City's most popular newspaper, began printing them. These dominicales, or Sunday strips, were initially translations of American comic strips such as Tarzan. However, difficulties in obtaining, licensing, and translating these American strips led to the first glimmerings of an indigenous comics industry in Mexico: "One of the earliest factors contributing to the rise of a distinct Mexican comics industry was the simple need for material" (Duncan and Smith 303). In 1921, a Mexican newspaper, El Heraldo, commissioned a local artist named Salvador Pruñeda to create a regular strip about a charro (cowboy), Don Catarino. Within a few years, homegrown strips were running in newspapers across the country.
The real starting point for a widespread comics industry in Mexico can be located in 1926, when El Universal sponsored a contest in search of the best Mexican comiqueros. Based on an American strip, Bringing Up Father, Hugo Tilman and Jesus Acosta's Mamerto y sus Conocencias (Mamerto and his Friends) was awarded the grand prize (image above). This comic, like many to follow, traced the daily life of a rural couple who had moved to Mexico City, reflecting the massive waves of internal migration to urban areas at the time. Other applicants to the contest were published in the newspaper, fostering a burgeoning Mexican comics culture. Most of these early strips were written by teams, and were humorous and appropriate for all ages. They also "drew heavily on Mexican themes, language, and character types, frequently those of lower-class origins" (Hinds Not 3). At first, line drawings predominated, however, as the medium evolved in Mexico, shading and half-tones became the favored styles. While initially these comics were intended primarily for children, as they developed they increasingly became the province of adult readers, with a distinct industry for children's comics not emerging until decades later. On the whole, locally produced comics echoed the broader nation-building discourse promoted by the post-revolutionary government seeking to define a Mexican identity apart from colonial influence.
La Época de Oro (The Golden Age):
The Golden Age of Mexican comics is commonly thought to have flourished between the 1930s and 1960s. During these decades, the government subsidized local publishers and the comics industry flourished. Thanks to the government, comics stayed cheap, and a comic book, on average, would cost between a third and a quarter of what an average Mexican would earn per hour. Few other affordable entertainment options were available at the time, and as the average worker worked long hours, comics were appealing in that they demanded little in terms of time, money, or energy. According to Hinds and Tatum, the Golden Age happened for a variety of reasons: "Increased production and demand, fierce competition between publishing firms, better wages for writers and artists, and a host of creative and innovative talent, all helped the industry thrive and encouraged the appearance of more Mexican comic books" (Not 3). Additionally, between 1930 and 1950, "an expanding economy as well as a growing population created potential comic book buyers: the number of people with money to spend on cheap entertainment ballooned" (Rubenstein Bad 14).
Comics played a fundamental role in bolstering the widespread literacy campaigns initiated by the post-revolutionary government. Article 17 of the new constitution mandated universal public education and reading was promoted as a nation-building, patriotic and revolutionary act. As a result, as Rubenstein asserts, "in the 1930s, consumers of 'trashy' printed materials such as comic books did not necessarily feel as though they were practicing a slightly shameful escape, instead, reading anything at all was an act that reaffirmed a consumer's connection to the nation, as it asserted his or her participation in an activity the government had carefully and extensively marked as revolutionary" (Bad 16). Comics publishers recognized this and would often print pro-government slogans in the margins of their comics in an effort to link patriotism with the reading of comics. In 1930, an official census revealed that Mexico had a 33% literacy rate in citizens over six. The government's literacy campaigns were remarkably effective, and the literacy rates climbed from the original 33% to 42% ten years later. By 1950 it reached 56%, and in 1970 it rose to 76% (Rubenstein Bad 14). However, semi-literacy was, and still is, the norm, with few continuing their education after the age of 12 or 13, and even by 1970, less than 10% of the population finished high school, perhaps contributing to the continuing popularity of comics in Mexico.
In the 1930s, the rising popularity of Mexican comics earned their independence away from the daily papers and magazines. There was a diversification of the medium, with genres including heroes, horror stories, science fiction and melodrama appearing in autonomous comic book anthologies. The industry became highly competitive throughout the course of this decade, with comics undergoing a Cambrian Explosion of sorts as publishers wildly experimented with form, content, and styles. According to Rubenstein, "everything that historietas are, they became in that initial fifteen years of wild expansion" (Bad 19). The audience actually contributed to the evolution of historietas, especially through sales figures. When a comic sold well, publishers eagerly produced more of the same in a rather Darwinian process. Many publishers developed fan loyalty and audience involvement by encouraging participation in writing and drawing contests, raffles, and the contribution of storylines to be used in serialized episodes. As Rubenstein notes, "comics, in their first decade of production, deployed a range of techniques to develop an audience, including cliff-hanging narratives, contests, and other forms of audience participation, and the creation of celebrity cartoonists and writers" (Bad 9). Often, the comiqueros would show up on the covers or in the pages of their own comic, creating a cult of celebrity around the creators and catapulting some to star status. This tactic of reaching out to the reader lasted until about 1950, at which time America's Stan Lee was just beginning to involve fans with letters pages and fan contributions.
The first Mexican comic book to appear was Adelaido el Conquistador, which ran for 100 weekly issues between 1932 and 1933. It was an anthology that included translated American strips as well as locally produced material. Adelaido, while short-lived, set a model for other publishers to follow and refine. Soon thereafter, four incredibly successful comic books appeared on the market: Paquín, Paquito, Pepín, and Chamuco. These comic books were not aimed at niche markets, but rather were intended to appeal to a diverse audience of readers. As Rubenstein notes in her essay "Leaving the Old Nest," the creators of the historietas "aimed at an audience undivided by age or sex, so that their stories incorporated both scenes of settled domestic life and domestic passion, boxing matches and fashion shows" (117). The Spanish was basic, reflecting the emerging literacy of its audience, and the prices were, as aforementioned, affordable to all socio-economic levels. These early comic books were printed in black and white, but had colorful covers and measured 7.5 x 10.5 inches, with six or less panels per page and a length of around 35 pages. At first, they were compilations of mainly American strips in translation, such as Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, and The Spirit. Although these books started as anthologies, with the exception of Chamaco, eventually each comic contained only one story, or one episode of a serialized story. They were initially printed as weeklies, but as they grew in popularity, they became dailies, with Pepín eventually appearing eight times a week, twice on Sundays. On average, 320,000 of these comic books sold daily.
All of these pepines predate the first American comic book, which appeared in 1937 with Action Comics #1. Although little acknowledged, the Mexican comics industry pioneered many innovations and developments in the format.
In the 40s, Pepín was published eight times a week, twice on Sundays, and each issue was 64 pages. The big four - Pepín, Paquín, Paquito, and Chamuco - all started to print at least a few pages in colour every day to attract readers. The shrinking size of the books was targeted to a mobile and urban populace - they were pocket-sized and lightweight, and durable enough to withstand the multiple readings they were undoubtedly subjected to. They relied less on strips, and in this decade completely dropped translated American strips in favor of Mexican material. The stories grew more episodic and serialized, and around six to twelve appeared in every issue. Serialized stories contained in the pepines spawned the 'true romance' genre, with cuentos de la vida real, or real-life stories, becoming common and attracting a large audience. The real life stories were allegedly based on letters submitted by readers, although comics historians doubt the veracity of this claim. By 1943, as Rubenstein notes, a contemporary journalist "estimated that Mexicans purchased half a million comic books a day" (Bad 18).
In the 1930s and early 1940s, comics were mostly conceived, written, and drawn by a single author, although this was to change as the comics industry grew throughout the decade. The concept of individual creativity was supplanted by the advent of industrialization, and the historieta adapted to mass production. Large work teams emerged that included an illustrator, a scriptwriter, a printer, painter, letter designer, and distributor. Censorship debates and campaigns, in tandem with internal and external political tensions emerging from civil unrest and WWII respectively, transformed historietas into instruments of political propaganda under the guise of mass entertainment. During this period, the themes in comics also grew increasingly Manichean, mirroring these tensions. The content was toned down and the chica moderna, along with other controversial elements, disappeared in an attempt to appease moral crusaders. It should also be noted that an official regulatory body was developed in response to the moral outrage voiced by religious groups. La Comisión Calificadora de Publicaciones y Revistas Ilustradas (The Quality Commission of Illustrated Publications and Magazines) was set up in 1944, although its limited powers led to little change in the industry. You can read more about the Commission on the censorship page.
The pioneering spirit of Mexican comiqueros continued with innovators like José G. Cruz, creator of the popular 1960s wrestling comic El Santo, who refined a new technique of graphic storytelling with photos that were overlaid with painted and illustrated artwork. These early fotonovelas predated Italian fumetti, although it is unclear whether the fumetti were inspired by the Mexican fotonovelas. The realism of this format was appealing to the public and to the publishers as well, as their production was incredibly cheap and quick, without the costs of hiring a team of workers. Therefore, issues could be released regularly at a reduced cost, making fotonovelas one of the most popular and enduring forms of Mexican historietas (Rainville online).
Some popular historietas of the 1940s:
La Familia Burron (The Big, Dumb Family): This comic book series by Gabriel Vargas was one of the longest-running in the country's history, starting in 1948 and wrapping up just last August 2009. It sells, on average, between 70,000 to 110,000 copies weekly (Hinds "Images" 154). La Familia Burron has often been compared to the Simpsons, and depicts an urban, working-class/lower middle-class family trying to make ends meet. The settings and values represented in the comic are very recognizably Mexican and the long run of the comic has reflected the numerous changes in Mexican society. It was published on a weekly basis for nearly 60 years and has been awarded many prestigious prizes, including the Mexican National Science and Arts Prize in 2003. Daniel J. Nappo remarks, "the clever wordplay and dialogue of Vargas has encouraged some academics to declare that he deserves a place in the Academy of Spanish Language" (online). Vargas is highly respected in Mexico, and is critical of the negative influence American comics have historically had on the Mexican comics industry: "He believes that La Familia Burron offers an alternative to the Mexican reader, in that he has created typically Mexican characters and placed them in an authentically Mexican environment" (Hinds "Images" 154).
Memín Pinguín (Mischievous William): Created in 1943 by Alberto Cabreras and "the most famous and prolific author of comics in Mexico," Yolanda Vargas Dulché, Memín Pinguín first appeared as a serial in Pepín, and spun off as its own series in the mid forties (Nappo online). Memín Pinguín is a highly racialized Cuban-Mexican child who is extremely devoted to his mother, speaks in slang, and gets embroiled in a series of sticky situations. The comic is a national favorite, akin to the popularity of Mickey Mouse in the U.S., and is a successful export to other Latin American countries such as Chile, Peru, and Venezuela. Memín Pinguín is officially the longest running comic book series in Mexico, and continues to be popular with Mexicans young and old. It is estimated to sell upwards of 100,000 issues a week in Mexico; however, it has attracted controversy in the United States based on its insensitive portrayal of the Afro-Cuban/Mexican protagonist. Read more about this on the censorship page.
According to Hinds and Tatum, "the comics of the post-1950s era have not fared well with critics" and quality of comics declined as "the cultural influence of the United States overwhelmingly dominated" (Not 4). Despite this, the comics industry flourished in the 1950s as individual comics books, after 1950, traded their attempts to attract universal appeal for targeted niche markets of readers. As Rubenstein remarks, "the new comic books reached toward a readily definable group: fans of bullfighting, ranchera music, romantic stories, or specific movie stars; young boys interested in science; women who wanted fashion advice" (Bad 19). The increasing public demand for genre comics ultimately sealed the fate of the four pepines that dominated the market for the previous twenty years, with the last holdout, Pepín folding in 1955. Readership continued to grow as readers responded favorably to these new targeted publications, and for the first time since the dominicales of the 1920s, comics produced specifically for children were published. At this time, the industry employed thousands of editors, writers, artists, and printers (Coerver 105).
Genres that proliferated in the 1950s included westerns, luchador (masked wrestling), pastoral romances, urban satires, and even superhero comics. The true romance genre continued to be popular, with popular titles including Corazon (Heart) in 1955 and Aventuras de la Vida Real (Adventures in Real Life) in 1955. This true-life convention still appears sporadically in contemporary Mexican comic books. To a much lesser extent, reader participation still lingered on, as some comics continued to publish fan letters, reader photos, and pen pal pages. Much to the horror of many Mexican citizens, newer genres of soft-core pornography, sexually explicit fotonovelas, and true-crime tabloids emerged, however, unlike the concurrent situation in the U.S. that culminated in the Comics Code, the Comisión Calificadora lacked effective powers in suppressing the proliferation of naked bodies, bloody corpses, and imprisoned zombie women on the nation's newsstands.
Fotonovelas, in particular, took off in the 1950s, and the industry experienced a boom in readership between the 1950s and 1980s from fans hungry for the melodramatic and lascivious tales contained in the many publications available. In a progressive move, the government, attuned to the popularity of comics, used the format to publish Mejor Vida (A Better Life) in the mid-1950s, which encouraged family planning in a time of an exploding population. As will be detailed later in this presentation, this tactic would be revived in the 21st century. Finally, in 1957, the Sociedad Mexicana de Dibujantes (Mexican Society of Illustrators) formed to fight for the improvement of working conditions for those working in the comics industry. This Society continues to represent the interests of comiqueros in Mexico.
Read about censorship and the historietas 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 October 20, 2009.