Today, I thought I would share one more example of the autobiographical essays on popular culture produced by the students in my Media Theory and Methods class. In this case, the focus is on Mexican comic books, a topic which I thought would be of particular interest to the sequential tarts and the other comics fans who read this blog.
Most of this covers are painted by cover star artist Bazaldua, and the rest by his imitators. The stylized stereotype of the female is always the central element, usually depicted in a pornographic fashion. Another important element in the compositions is the text, usually reinforcing the images with ingeniuos word games that could be understood in several ways, usually all dirty. It is evident by looking at this covers how the Librettos have incoporated all the other comicbook genres that were present in the mexican news stands before. Humor, Melodrama, Adventure and Science Fiction, Action thrillers, Police and Detective stories, Political Satire and Costumbrist Realism have all been embedded into the Librettos.
The Sexy Comics of Mexico
Luis E. Blackaller
Maria comes from a small village in the Lacandona jungle in south east Mexico. Like many more in the Mexican countryside, she decided to migrate north looking for better opportunities. She is pretty and naive, and has no problem finding a job after crossing the border, as a maid in a secret pentagon facility. The US military enjoys having her around, and the flirtatious officials try to get under her skirt all the time, but she always manages to avoid them in a quite innocent way. She is very proud of her new job, and gets paid top money that she sends to her village every Friday.
What she doesn’t know is that, as any other secret pentagon facility, the place she works for hosts an ultra secret science project, and she is about to find out. Socrates is a genius gorilla developed by the military science as a genetic experiment. He is kept in secret for studies in the basement, where they treat him like a Harvard scholar. He has an extensive library, a record collection, a pool table, cigars, fine wines and cognac. All but his freedom, or a single ray of sunlight. He is more intelligent than every human being has ever been, but he doesn’t suspect he has been held captive, because all he knows is what’s around him since he was born. A story about a nuclear war has been fabricated to him so there is an excuse to live underground and still talk about the outside world.
One night, Maria gets lost in the corridors of the facilities, looking for a new bottle of Mister Clean, and she somehow manages to enter Socrates’ quarters. Of course they fall in love immediately. After making out for a while, they hear a noise and he hides her in the closet. Just from talking to Maria for a few minutes, Socrates has been able to figure out everything.
During the following weeks, they devise an escape plan together, and using his intelligence and her charms, they get away with confusing the whole US military, the border patrol, and even some Mexicans. After a week of adventures they make it back to the Lacandona jungle, and settle down there, not having to worry about getting found ever again, because all 26 of Maria’s cousins look just exactly like Socrates.
Yesenia is making out with her boyfriend under a tree by a small road in the outskirts of Mexico City. They live in a nearby slum, and visit their corner under the tree every afternoon to enjoy privacy time. They must be seventeen years old. It is getting late, and her boyfriend insistently tries to have sex with her, but she wants to wait for a better moment.
Suddenly, they get interrupted by a car crashing on a curve not faraway from them. They try to help the victims, but all the people in the car, a rich family it seems, are dead. Yesenia tells her boyfriend to call an ambulance or the police, but he stops her as he has a better idea. He starts looking for valuable stuff in the car and on the corpses. After collecting all the goods, he doesn’t think they should call anyone anymore, because they would immediately be linked with robbing the victims from all their goods, and they are already all death, so what would be the difference anyway?
Yesenia still thinks he is wrong, but agrees with him, and they go back to her home, where her father, a big, nasty drunken man, is waiting for her because it is late. Yesenia’s father threatens to beat both her and her boyfriend, but his eye spots their pockets full of stuff, and he changes his mind. He makes them give him everything, and makes them take him to the site of the accident. He’s had an idea.
Yesenia’s father runs a taco stand by the side of the road, and business has not been good lately because dogs and cats are too skinny and sick to make good tacos out of them lately. With the help of Yesenia and her boyfriend, he takes the corpses to the taco stand, chops them off, and puts them in the fridge. “Tomorrow is gonna be good business”, he thinks. Indeed, so good it is that he gets greedy, and, after threatening Yesenia and her boyfriend with making tacos out of them himself, he forces them to devise a way of causing more accidents on the road, to provide him with more fresh corpses every week.
People are loving the tacos. Excellent recipe, excellent meat. But Yesenia, and even her boyfriend, are so disgusted with the whole situation, that they violently murder her father after a confrontation where they refuse to kill more people, and turn him into tacos as well. People didn’t like the tacos that week. Yesenia and her boyfriend get together, and keep on running the business themselves, but they change the menu to seafood.
In Mexico, comicbooks and visual storytelling have had a life of their own. They have degenerated since the times of Posada, el Chango Garcia Cabral and many others to what they are now, a particular mixture of Mexican soap opera melodrama with softcore porn and pulp fiction. I want to explain how that happened through my experience as one that read his first comicbook when he could not still read words.
The two stories I have just summarized are from a couple of books from what in the US is called Ghetto Librettos. They were written by Juan Jose Hernandez Sotelo (1953-2002). Ghetto Librettos are only read by the Mexican servant class. They are called “sensacionales” in Mexico, but I chose to use the Ghetto Libretto term because it is more descriptive of what they are about. Ghetto Librettos are distributed weekly through the Mexican news stands as a small format, cheap form of entertainment for the male Mexican working class. Some of them are meant for the female reader, but those rely more in the melodrama than in depictions of sex. And today, the only comicbooks available in Mexico for children are imported from the north. It didn’t use to be like that.
Ghetto Librettos can be purchased in a secondhand magazine stand by five a dollar. The second story I told was first mentioned in a book Daniel Raeburn wrote on the subject. It is relevant to mention Dan’s work which called the attention of the US public to Ghetto Librettos; they are largely ignored by almost everyone in Mexico, even the people that read them.
Mexico is run by a somewhat subtle, but quite obvious caste system. Brown people use the subway, white people have cars, and you will never, ever find a white four year old child begging for money on the streets, it is that simple. This “master servant” relation was established during the conquest and colonization of “the New Spain”, which is what Mexico was called back then. The “Indians” were placed in the bottom layer of society, treated like slaves without officially being labeled as such. Close to them were the few black people, concentrated mostly in the Caribbean and along the Gulf. Above them were all the possible mixtures of black-indian, indian-spanish and spanish-black. They were called mestizos and would run the indigenous population for the Europeans. The white people were separated too, in such a way that the ones with a pure European lineage, but born in America (called criollos) would manage the whole colony for their Spanish masters. These white Mexicans were the ones that eventually led to the independence wars, supposedly abolishing the caste system. One hundred years later they became the middle class that led the poor to another revolution, this time against the presidence-dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, which was, interestingly enough, of indigenous lineage.
Up to this day, the master-servant relation persists in the media, and is probably there, and in religion, where the different classes in Mexico share their cultures. Depictions of class separation are strong even in some of the most internationally renowned Mexican directed films — Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros — all derive their dramatic fuel from the collision of separate class worlds. They all borrow from The Rich Can Cry Too, a famous Mexican soap opera from the 70s, that epitomizes the structure of Mexican television melodramas. This is not a surprise, because the director of the three films started his career by working for Televisa, the studio that runs Mexico’s soap opera global empire, for more than a decade. In the three films, the rich are suffering, and the cause of their suffering originates from the violent encounters with those wild and reckless poor, which curiously enough, will get out of control after interacting with an expensive commodity that was given to them by chance, in the form of a first class fighting dog, an expensive truck, or a cutting edge hunting gun.
Soap operas take a different path in their depiction of class separation by eternally repeating the story of impossible love between a rich man and a poor, usually beautiful, and most of the times white, woman. The rich brat and his maid fall in love and have sex. She gets pregnant. He means to marry her but his evil rich family has other plans. When a child is born they make her believe the child is dead, and they make him think she is dead. They also make her believe he hates her. After a few television seasons, they overcome all odds and get together again. It seems all the pain she is gone through somehow makes deserve a place in the new, upper class world.
One main difference Ghetto Librettos have with other expressions of Mexican popular culture is that Ghetto Librettos experience segregation. This might start from the fact that comicbooks in general are already a segregated medium in Mexico. They are not something people should be proud of reading.
When I was 5 years old, I would often spend my time in my parent’s library browsing through art books. I was very attracted to depictions of naked people and got specially fond of the work by French romantic painter Euguene Delacroix. I couldn’t help establish a connection between female beauty and male expressions of violence. One day back then, waiting with my mother in the grocery store to pay, I started browsing through the magazines they always have there, and found something that interested me: a Mexican comicbook, that happened to be quite a graphic interpretation of Jack the Ripper. It took a while for my mother to notice what I was looking at, and she quickly instructed me not to look at that filth ever again. It didn’t took me long to realize that she would buy me superhero books (only when there was no other choice), but never the equivalent Mexican hero stories like Santo, Super Sabios, Chanoc, Kaliman, Aguila Solitaria, or even the very intellectual Fantomas. I would go back to my parent’s library, where it was OK to look at pictures of knives puncturing naked bodies, and fantasize about my own incarnation of Jack the Ripper’s story, illustrated by Delacroix and Caravaggio.
A few years later, when I started going to a private school, I realized nobody had contact with those comics at all, but I found a couple of good sources somewhere else: my father’s driver started taking us to school instead of my mother, and the friendship we started with him opened a few doors to the lower class culture. At the same time, we started spending the evenings at a public sports club that, because of it being public, was mostly populated by working class people.
This way I started enjoying two totally separate lifestyles. During the mornings I would be the upper middle class intellectual kid, and during the evenings I would be the only blond in the working class gang. I was a target for bullies in both scenarios, but I was strong and I enjoyed fighting, so that was not really much of a problem.
And I got introduced to a world I found more colorful, more emotional and more lively than the one I was coming from. Little I would know that all those comicbooks and humor magazines I would read sitting on a sidewalk by the highway were about to disappear, in less than 15 years.
The only Mexican comicbook genre that survived the eighties was the so called Ghetto Libretto, absorbing all the other ones. I started buying a couple of them every once in a while around 1989, and it didn’t take me long to identify the most talented writers and artists. Some years later, I got closer to the industry, when I decided to make one. I never could, because, not surprisingly, the editors didn’t appreciate my drawing, even though I tried as hard as I could to adapt my style to their standards. But I made a few very good friends, and I learned a lot in the process.
There are two families controlling the comicbook business in Mexico. One of them quit producing content during the 80s, and is content with reprinting their classics and licensing comics from D.C., Marvel and even from Dark Horse, like Hellboy. The other one controls the realm of the Ghetto Librettos, which is probably the bigger business; there are zillions of different titles that run on prints of two hundred thousand every week. The average pay per page for an artist is 1 dollar, and each one has 96 pages, so you can aspire to a good minimum wage Mexico style, if you spit out one Libretto every couple of weeks. I don’t know about the deal for writers, because I was not interested in writing stories for them back then.
It’s hard to say where my interest in illustrating a Ghetto Libretto came from. In general, it was not until a little late in life that I decided to make comicbooks. I was looking for an opportunity to publish and there were no other options available, but there is a little more to it than that. I think I needed to reclaim the lower culture as my own. Most of the people working on Ghetto Librettos have no other choice than that. They just happen to be very good at it and for them it is just another way to make a living. They don’t think of themselves as authors with an opinion, a message or a role as communicators. They don’t think about why do they portray women or themselves the way they do, or if things could be at all different. They don’t even think their work is worth more than a dollar a page, even if some of them are good enough illustrators to cast a shadow over the likes of Frazetta. The writers dream with writing for television, where they would get a better wage and the satisfaction of having television stars play their characters. In the old days a popular serialized comicbook would be adapted as a television soap opera, but there is no chance of that happening now, first, because there are no serialized stories in the market anymore, and second, because Ghetto Librettos are consolidated as the only way to make a comic that will get news stand distribution. Even the traditional wrestling stories have been molded into the Ghetto Libretto format, where exuberant women run the show instead.
Ghetto Librettos embody almost every social issue you can think of, but in a very superficial way, offering no suggestion to the possibility of actually dealing with them. Institutional corruption, domestic violence, social segregation, and exploitation of women are all exposed as mere plot devices that justify the erratic behaviors of their characters. Perhaps the reason why Ghetto Librettos are rejected by the rest of the Mexican society can be explained because their heroes are the people nobody wants to be: street kids, prostitutes, peasants, servants, taxi drivers, policemen, and working class people.
Starman, the libertarian, 1978.
Usually absent from his covers, Starman would leave that space alone to feature his damsel in distress. “They will torture me in front if everybody”, thinks the asian princess Lyn Min, more concerned about public opinion than the torture itself. Very influenced by Star Wars, Starman will feature a lot of Darth Vader like robot creatures, with a catholic inquisitor twist.
Orion, the Atlantean, 1975.
Another science fiction hero with damsels in distress, Orion is made to fit the stereotype of the prehispanic warrior, with which must of his readers would identify.
Fantomas, the Elegant Menace, 1976.
Inspired by the french character, Fantomas is a world class vigilante that would orchestrate conspiracies with the top thinkers of his time, keeping the world safe from the greedy military powers and corrupt corporations that run the first world’s interests. Octavio Paz, Michael Fucault and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are just three of the many personalities that assisted him in his adventures.
Kendor, the Man from Tibet, 1975.
Kendor came out as a reaction to the more popular Kaliman. The hero doesn’t make it to be the main feature of his own covers. An endangered well featured female body will sell more.
Kaliman, the Incredible Man, 1979.
After almost 30 years of uninterrupted weekly running, Kaliman faces his biggest foe, suddenly overwhelmed by a pantheon of villians from another culture. The editors might have just been trying to rip off elements from the Marvel super hero books, but they delivered an interesting postmodern metaphor of what happened during the eighties, when Mexico opened its market to the US pop culture, allowing it to wipe many traditions out of the market.
Alma Grande, 1974.
Alma Grande, a countryside hero, facing natural disasters and other real problems, was probably, along with Chanoc, the last of its kind, finding it hard to compete with the growing popularity of science fiction fantasies.
Luis Blackaller is an artist from Mexico City with an interest in culture, technology and media. He studied mathematics at the National University of Mexico and has been working for the mexican film industry until 2006, when he took a break to join the MIT Media Lab to explore new paths under the mentorship of John Maeda. He has a special love for comic books and drawings. More information about his work can be found at the following sites: