A Decade by Decade History of Mexican Historietas: 1960-1999
La Época de Plata (The Silver Age): 1960s-1980s
There were more than 100 comics publishers in the 1960s and, as Hinds and Tatum note, "within the spectrum of comic books, there were titles to meet the needs and match the skills of nearly every age group and educational-cultural level" (Not 6). The age of the individual comiquero had truly ended, and in the 1960s, the standard method of production was to hire a creative team of freelance writers, editors, and illustrators for each comic (Tavera 5). An increasing reliance of the business model and increased competition resulted in less innovation.
Comics of the 1960s are notable for their intensely bright covers. Colors became more gaudy and brilliant due to a paint called "gouache," commonly used by architects and commercial painters for its opaque coverage. On the page, these colours were bright and flamboyant, luring the eye to the increasingly lewd and violent covers of the sensacionales.
Notable Historietas of the 1960s:
The following three series, El Santo, Kalimán, and Lágrimas, Risas y Amor attracted significant sales and encouraged the continued growth of the comics industry in Mexico.
El Santo: El Enmascarado de Plata (The Saint: The Silver Masked Wrestler): José G. Cruz created this incredibly successful series of fotonovelas based on a popular masked wrestler named "The Saint," defining the soon-to-be thriving genre of luchador (masked wrestler) comics. El Santo was a hybrid of a superhero and real-life justice crusader, "with futuristic technology at the ready, damsels in distress, and villains with vendettas" (Rainville online). Three issues a week were released and each issue sold over 500,000 copies at its height of popularity, translating to 1.5 million Santo comics a week, or 6 million per month (Rainville online). El Santo ceased production in 1974, but has been revived at least once a decade since that time, and the comics are now valued collectors items in Mexico as well as the United States.
Kalimán: El Hombre Increible (Kaliman: The Incredible Man): Created by Modesto Vazquez Gonzalez and Rafael Cutberto Navarro in 1965, this weekly comic was based on a popular radio soap opera that initially aired in 1963. Kalimán is a distinctively Mexican superhero with telekinetic powers who was trained by Tibetan monks, and some have said that he is Mexico's answer to Superman. Presidential candidate Vicente Fox even used him as a mascot in his triumphant 2000 campaign. Kalimán's success was, and still is, remarkable and, as Nappo notes, "by the late 70s, an estimated 3 to 6 percent of the public had purchased a Kalimán comic and weekly sales averaged at about two million copies (online). The comic spawned a series of successful films and fotonovelas and by the late 1980s, Kalimán sold 2 million copies a week in Mexico (Malvido). Although the comic was discontinued in 1981, it was revived again in 1998. According to the website, Kalimán "has sold one billion copies to date, which is without a doubt a worldwide record for a comics hero in his own weekly magazine' (site).
Lágrimas, Risas y Amor (Tears, Smiles, and Laughter): Created by Yolanda Vargas Dulché and her husband Guillermo de la Parra, the first issue of this long-running romance comic appeared in 1962. According to Hinds and Tatum, Lágrimas has "titillated the hearts of Mexican readers with tales of idealized love" for more than thirty years ("Images" 151). These comics are aimed at women, and their melodramatic plots have been adapted as telenovelas (soap operas) for the Televisa network. Although the series ended in the 1980s, the franchise continues to be published by Editorial Vid as Lágrimas y Risas and you can visit the official blog here.
Finally, we cannot leave the 1960s without mentioning Eduardo del Rio, or "Rius" as he is commonly known. Rius is arguably Mexico's, and Latin America's, most famous and influential political cartoonist. Although comics culture in Mexico remained conservative and mainstream in the 1960s, while new innovations swept through the American underground, Rius almost single-handedly represented the 1960s spirit of political opposition and rebellion against conformity. Born in 1934, he drew for a variety of Mexican magazines and newspapers at first, but his propensity to criticizing the government and to take on sensitive issues led to him being fired from many jobs. Tired of being laid off, Rius started up the series Los Supermachos in 1966 in an attempt to raise the consciousness of the Mexican people, and was the first comiquero to include bibliographies in his comics. This series depicted a satirical version of Mexico, set in a central Mexican village populated by recognizable stereotypes, and revived the early tradition of satirical political cartoons that had been popular at the start of the century. Rius's style was eclectic and multifaceted, borrowing heavily on nineteenth century graphic art, Aztec glyphs, medieval woodcuts, and graphics from Mexico's Taller de Gráfica Popular (Graphic Arts Workshop). However, only two years later, Rius's publisher was pressured by the Mexican Minister of the Interior to cease the publication of the series. A year after that, his oppositional politics and continuing widespread support led him to be kidnapped by the Mexican Military, and in front of a firing squad, was forced into swearing to tone down his radical opinions. Shortly after this incident, Rius did the opposite, and used the situation to his advantage as a means to expose government corruption and the lack of intellectual freedom in the country (Duncan and Smith 305). Interestingly, Rius was also the creator of the "for beginners" series of books that are now internationally successful.
Lastly, in 1968, the Tlacuilos Circle (Circulo de Tlacuilos) emerged to protect those working in the comics industry.
The industry continued to consolidate, and by the 1970s only four major publishers accounted for more than half of the nation's comics. However, unlike the situation in America, small publishers continued to flourish. About 159 different titles were being published, along with 49 fotonovelas (Hinds 13). The industry was not as concentrated as in the U.S., where DC and Marvel controlled about 75% of the market. According to Hinds and Tatum, "Mexican comic books thrived during this period, while in the United States comic-book sales rapidly declined, largely due to a failure to effectively compete with television" (Not 21). As noted above, the Mexican comics scene did not experience the radicalization that swept American comics in the 1960s and 1970s. Styles remained consistent, and changed little from the historietas of the 1940s and 1950s, however, the content became much more mature, with a strong focus on hypersexualized women and episodes of extreme violence. While American comics during this period appealed to adolescent and college-aged readers, mostly male, Mexican comic books were intended "mainly for adults" (Hinds Not 22). Comics in the 1970s were the country's second leading mass medium after radio. About 26 publishers produced cheap comic books with monthly print runs ranging from 280,000 to 8.4 million copies. These remarkable figures fail to show the numbers of times the comics circulated after purchase, as they were passed along to family and friends, sold second-hand, rented out by vendors, or provided in barber shops.
Although pulp fiction is commonly prose-only in the United States, Mexican pulps during the 1970s were graphic narratives "notorious for their miniature size, gaudy covers, and blatantly sexual and violent storylines" (Tavera 4). Production numbers of pulps were remarkably high, and by the early 70s around 28 to 30 million pulp comics sold per month, and by mid-70s these numbers reached to around 58 million per month (Hinds Not 7). Some of these pulp comics were issued as micro-cuentos (mini stories), measuring 2 x 3 inches and released weekly. As Mexican author Carlos Monsivais observes, "pulp sales thrived when they reflected Mexico's poverty, lack of development, and failure of technology to solve Mexico's problems" (qtd. in Tavera 6). The contents were strongly localized, and despite the Quality Commission's ban on slang in illustrated periodicals, the Spanish used in the pulps was colloquial and very basic. The protagonists in micro-comics were "ordinary people facing common challenges in life, such as alcoholism, domestic disputes, or infidelity," and the characters were not at all heroic (Tavera 6). These lurid and sensational comics tarnished the reputation of the comics industry in Mexico, and contributed to the loss of readers in the latter part of the 1970s and well into the 1980s. However, by 1979, the industry was still going strong, and Mexico was publishing 70 million copies of fotonovelas and historietas per month (Herner).
In 1973, the Historietistas Dibujantes Unidos de México (Union of Mexican Cartoonists) formed - an association of comic-book authors and illustrators who trace Mexican comic culture back to pre-Columbian codices and Mexican murals.
End of an Era:
There was a marked decline in comics readership and quality in Mexico during the 1980s and 1990s. According to Armando Bartra, "a clear sign of decline was the proclivity of los sensacionales to pornography, when voyeurism became dominant, as if the publishers were playing their last cards looking to 'open the fly' of repressed Mexican sexuality" ("Seduction" 321). Unscrupulous publishers attempted to dominate the market by cashing in on pornographic images, compromising the prestige and credibility of the well-established comics industry and culture in Mexico.
The death knell of the native Mexican comics industry was sounded in the 1980s, when, according to Luis Blackaller, "Mexico opened up its market to the U.S. pop culture, allowing it to wipe many traditions out of the market" (online). A prolonged economic crisis affected the spending habits of consumers throughout the decade, cutting down the circulation numbers of historietas and adversely affecting the already declining quality of the comics on the market. The major publishers, Grupo Editorial Vid and News Publishers concentrated on importing superhero comics from America, and as the decade progressed, manga from Japan arrived as well to supplant homegrown comics in popularity. Yet, despite all of this, again sales and circulation far outstrip those in America. Maria Christina Tavera estimates that 80 million pulps sold per month in the early 80s (4). By 1989, Mexico was "the largest producer and consumer of comics worldwide," and almost 40 million comics were purchased every month, some titles exceeding one million per week. While the American industry slumped, Mexican comics sales continued to make worldwide records. Although locally produced comics were nowhere near as numerous as they had been in the past, high quality comics such as El Pantera and Karmátron y los Transformables continued to be released, and the luchador and true romance genres, while formulaic, kept the local industry afloat. Although the Mexican public still voraciously consumed comics, the Golden and Silver Ages of Mexican comics had declined into a Bronze Age that traded in pornography and tired formulas.
Given the declining state of Mexican comics in the 1980s, it is heartening to note that the Museo de la Caricatura y la Historieta (Musuem of Cartoons and Comics) opened its doors in Morelos in 1987 (image at left). The goal of this museum is to promote the history and tradition of comics in Mexico, and symbolizes the government's official recognition of historietas as a legitimate national art form. La Sociedad Mexicana de Caricaturistas (The Mexican Society of Cartoonists) occupies an upper floor of the museum, and hosts exhibits and workshops.
As Blackaller notes, "the only comic book genre that survived the 80s was the so-called ghetto libretto, absorbing all of the other genres" (online). While this statement is partially true, genres such as true romance and westerns remained on the market but circulated in reduced numbers. However, the industry was healthy compared to the U.S. Just as children's comics were beginning to be published in earnest in America, children's comics halted production in Mexico and comics were marketed almost exclusively to adults. Furthermore, the Sunday supplements, once a staple of the daily newspapers, died out completely, although they were reinstated in the next decade. Translated American superhero comics rose in popularity, and one of the last remaining Mexican comics publishers, Grupo Editorial Vid, started publishing DC and Marvel titles. According to Bartra and Aurrecoecha, "the comic industry and new foreign proposals are partly responsible for people no longer look for the Mexican comic, but so are other entertainment media such as cartoons, video games and all forms of entertainment associated with new technologies" (29, Google Translated). These imported comics revived the ailing industry, along with swift sales of popular manga titles such as Dragon Ball and Video Girl Ai. Resissues of popular Mexican historietas also kept the major publishers in business, while new Mexican comiqueros were ignored by mainstream publishing houses. El Gallito, an independent comics publisher emerged during the 1990s, as well as the Taller del Perro, or Dog Project Workshop, giving these overlooked artists a chance to publish new and innovative comics in a variety of genres and styles. These new comics were much like their American indie counterparts, breaking free of the conservative formulas that characterized mainstream comics. Unfortunately, these independent publishers were not permitted distribution in the regular channels, such as newsstands, and the local industry became more specialized, with comics being sold in separate comic book shops. Despite a strong tradition of nationalist, distinctive, and financially successful comics, locally produced comics in the 1990s were distributed in a manner that had served to ghettoize American comics for the previous four decades. Did things look up in the new millennium? Find more 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 1, 2009.