The Creation of Mexican Comic Books, 1934–1952
Mexico's first comic book appeared in 1934. By 1940, comic books were part of most Mexicans' experience, as ubiquitous as radio and more common than cinema. A huge audience had been called into being practically overnight. How did comic books find, and keep, these readers?
There are two possible approaches to this question. First, we can see that the Mexican publishing industry took advantage of demographic luck. In the mid-1930s, a vast number of newly literate working people began to visit newsstands; the conditions were right not just for comic books but also for such related forms as tabloids, women's magazines, and collections of song lyrics.
Second, we can examine the contents of the comic books from this era. Comic book publishers used the freedom inherent in a brand-new form to experiment with narrative, imagery, and format until they hit on generic formulas–strategies for making up stories, characters, advertisements, and contests–that promised to build and maintain an audience. These strategies worked by persuading consumers that there was little or no distinction among the readers, creators, and characters of the comic books.
Literacy as a Political Question
The decades between 1930 and 1950 were, for the most part, a healthy time for Mexican industry in general and the newspaper business in particular. 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. For instance, although wages in the manufacturing sector (adjusted for inflation) lost about a third of their value between 1942 and 1947, they climbed steeply between the mid-1930s and mid-1970s. A factory worker in 1975 could expect to eab rn more than twice the real salary she or he made in 1950, and three times what his or her parents might have earned in 1930. In the same period, the percentage of workers employed outside the ill-paid agricultural sector became a substantial majority. But it was the booming population, increasing from roughly sixteen million in 1930 to some forty million in 1970, that enlarged the pool of potential readers the most.
Comic books and related periodicals were one of the cheapest forms of entertainment available to this growing, relatively prosperous pool of working people and their children. Cover prices stayed at ten centavos per copy from the comics' first appearance through the early 1940s, when prices drifted gradually upward until they reached a peso per magazine around 1950. By comparison, while a Mexico City daily newspaper usually sold for about as much as a comic book, or slightly higher, a first-class movie ticket or a ticket to a bullfight cost five to ten times as much in this era. A comic book cost approximately one-third to one-quarter of what an average worker made in an hour. This ratio held even in times of inflation or scarcity: publishers preferred to cut back on the number of pages per issue or the size of their periodicals rather than raise prices.
The government's commitment to education also helped comic book publishers by producing a startling rise in literacy. In 1930, the census recorded a literacy rate of about 33 percent among Mexicans older than six. That number had climbed to 42 percent by 1940; by 1950, it reached 56 percent. The 1970 census, at the end of the period under consideration here, found a literacy rate of 76 percent among Mexicans over ten. By these measures, the postrevolutionary program of free, universal, mandatory education had worked extremely well.
But literacy, like everything to do with education, was a vexed political issue, which renders government statistics somewhat suspect. Among other problems, literacy was defined generously: for example, while the 1930 and 1940 censuses distinguished between literate people who could read and those who could also write, as late as 1970, less than 10 percent of the total population had studied at the high school level or beyond. Thus, all these numbers should be viewed only as indicators of a broader transformation that created an audience for mass media in general and comic books in particular.
This transformation–what people at the time called modernity, but what could equally well be described as industrial capitalism–can be seen at work in the battles over education that were still occupying public attention in the years that comic books first appeared on Mexican newsstands. In 1917, Article Three of the new revolutionary constitution proposed universal public education. The schools were regarded by all concerned–teachers, parents, government officials, and opponents of public education–as a means for the new government to establish itself and inculcate children with revolutionary ideology. In addition, the government sponsored three well-publicized adult literacy campaigns between 1922 and 1943, which, like the public schools, used highly politicized textbooks and exercises. These campaigns probably were not very effective at teaching reading or writing. Rising literacy rates were caused largely by the increased availability of public schools. But the literacy campaigns did involve hundreds of thousands of citizens as students and volunteer teachers, and suggested to all Mexicans that reading could be a revolutionary, patriotic, or modern act.
"Socialist" education became a site for struggle between local and centralized powers. It also became an arena for conflict over gender ideology. The most sustained and visible project of Mexican conservatism after 1930 was collective opposition to public education. Article Three, because of its anticlerical bent, had been hotly contested even within the 1917 constitutional convention. After the article's enactment, state efforts to bring secular education to remote rural areas were met with powerful resistance, ranging from mild satire–as in the popular 1935 musical revue, Socialist Education, in Mexico City–to the burning of rural schoolhouses and the murder of teachers. Indeed, opposition to educational reform was one cause of the 1926–29 Cristero War. Yet in some ways, the schools were successful. Besides improving literacy, as mentioned earlier, they sometimes served to mediate conflict. Mary Kay Vaughan reports that women schoolteachers (who often found their work experience personally empowering) helped temper parents' and children's perception of schools as "an ideological apparatus of [state] domination" through negotiation over such questions as sex education, which they joined parents in resisting.
This, then, was the political context of literacy in mid-1930s' Mexico. Modernity and reading were so connected in the public imagination, and together provoked so much anxiety, that some advertisements for electrification suggested that parents needed light in their homes to protect their children' health from the strain occasioned by reading too many schoolbooks. Reading was a gateway to modern life, although nobody had unmixed feelings about modernity. And reading was also patriotic, thanks to the legacy of the literacy campaigns, the canonization of certain revolutionary texts, the public identification of the state with education, and the state's material support of the publishing industry.
So, 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 from their daily responsibilities, as present-day readers might. 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 that the government had carefully and extensively marked as revolutionary. Even browsing at a newsstand was evidence of the reader's participation in modernity. Examining the content of the comics reveals that their creators understood and exploited these powerful associations between patriotism, modernity, and reading.
The content of the comics reflected the industry's intense engagement with economic and political ideologies. This is not to suggest that Mexican comic books spoke with one voice or that they were deliberate agents of propaganda. Rather, the historical conditions in which the comics found themselves shaped both their material form and their ideological meanings, without forcing any goal on the publishing industry other than the obvious–maximum sales, maximum profits.
The Comic Book Business
The single largest fixed expense in producing comic books was newsprint. Not only was it expensive, but the supply was unreliable as well. This situation changed after 1940, however, when the government founded its own wholesale paper monopoly, Productora e Importadora de Papel, S.A. (PIPSA). Originally designed to support book publishers, PIPSA soon shifted to supplying Mexico City newspapers almost exclusively, a reflection of newspaper publishers' vastly greater political clout. (Their printers, much to the disgust of book publishers and regional newspapers, eventually passed some of this bounty on to comic book publishers who rented their rotographic presses, in preference to sharing it with "outsiders.") As a consequence, the newspaper business grew, becoming more competitive. This competition, in turn, resulted in the formation of media conglomerates that were better placed to vie for government favor than individual newspapers, especially those outside the capital. Yet beyond their contests over state affiliation, newspapers also competed for readers.
Particularly in Mexico City, one means by which papers tried to build consumer loyalty was in having the most exciting Sunday funnies. Mexico City newspapers, like their European and North American counterparts, began publishing Sunday comic supplements as soon as rotographic newspaper presses arrived in the mid-1920s. These supplements, called dominicales, offered readers translations of American comic strips. For example, one of the biggest papers, El Universal, printed "Tarzan" every Sunday on the front page of its dominical section for more than forty-five years, from 1932 through 1978. At the same time, dominicales presented locally produced comic strips. Cartoonists sometimes drew on Mexico's long tradition of popular graphic art as well as on more recent postrevolution social-realist conventions. More often, they adapted or imitated North American strips. Running the best local comic strips seemed to boost newspaper circulation figures, no matter where the cartoonists were turning for inspiration. From 1923 to 1927, El Universal ran a yearly contest for amateur cartoonists that helped them find new talent and also publicized the mexicanidad of their Sunday funnies: they announced a preference for "comics about the national project." By 1930, however, the space that Sunday supplements dedicated to local cartoonists was dwindling.
Evolving out of the dominicales, and supported by improved conditions in the publishing industry, comic books not only rented newspaper presses, but also shared the PIPSA newsprint allotment of some large dailies. (Eventually, this process would be reversed, with successful comic books providing the startup capital for other publishing ventures, including newspapers.) In fact, the cartoonists who founded the comic books had worked for the Sunday supplements until they were supplanted by the cheaper products of U.S. cartoon syndicates. The first Mexican comic book, Adelaido el Conquistador, featured an eponymous cartoon character who also appeared in a strip running in El Universal. Adelaido included other comics as well, some by Mexican cartoonists and some translated North American strips. Little or nothing in the new magazine was unavailable in the regular dominicales, and so Adelaido survived for only 100 weekly issues (1932–33.) Still, it set a pattern that three other new comic books soon followed, with greater success.
Paquín, founded in 1934, was the first Mexican comic book to find a wide audience. It was quickly joined by Paquito (1935) and Chamaco (1936). The most popular of all, however, was Pepín, also founded in 1936. Its influence was such that some Mexicans still refer to comic books as pepines, although Pepín ceased publication almost four decades ago. Like Adelaido el Conquistador, the new comic books mixed syndicated North American newspaper cartoons with local strips and serials. Unlike Adelaido, the new comics thrived. Pepín appeared three times a week after 1938 and daily after 1940; its competitors followed suit. In 1943 a journalist estimated that Mexicans purchased half a million comic books a day. Pepín alone, at its peak in the late 1940s, probably printed as many as 300,000 copies a day, eight times a week–there were two completely distinct editions on Sundays–of sixty-four pages each.
As high as these figures were, they did not represent even a majority of the comic book audience. Trade in used comics sprang up, so that public marketplaces usually had at least one stall where recent historietas could be purchased for half price or less. Even less formal mechanisms of passing magazines along helped to ensure that the total readership was far higher than these circulation figures might indicate. As a government official admonished the officers of the Barbers' Social Center of Mexico City in 1955, "barbershops are the most important places where obscene publications are advertised and circulated"; he asked that barbers remove the racy periodicals, including Pepín and Chamaco, from their shops.
The comic book industry underwent a significant shift by the end of the period under discussion. At first, four publishers printed one comic book each, competing with each other for all potential readers. Pepín and Chamaco lasted until 1955; Paquín and Paquito were gone by 1951. By 1952, at least fifteen producers printed over forty daily, weekly, or biweekly comics. Individual comics, after about 1950, stopped trying to reach all semiliterate Mexicans. 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; and so forth. Such segmentation of the market brought an end to the era of the daily comic books, but only increased the total number of comic books printed and purchased.
Within this transformation of the comic book, there remained continuities of plot structure, imagery, subject matter, and narrative trope. These continuities help explain the comics' long-term popularity, and reveal some of the strategies that led to explosive growth and fragmentation of the comic book market in the first place. Everything that historietas are, they became in that initial fifteen years of wild expansion.
Constructing an Audience
What did comic book buyers get for their ten centavos in those first few years? Publishers were not sure what would make a reader keep on buying their periodicals, so every issue of the historietas, in their beginning, deployed multiple strategies for attracting and holding an audience. Among the most important of these were variety, familiarity, sentimentality–including an appeal to patriotic feelings–and above all, the identification of the reader with the creator.
Mexicans who bought historietas felt as though they were helping to create the narratives included in them, that they were participating in a communal project, rather than passively absorbing stories invented by somebody far away about distant people. This was a marketing strategy, a means of flattering the audience; but it also distinguished comic book reading from any other form of leisure activity, and it implied a connection between buying historietas and participating in the economic, technological, and social improvements that were supposed to characterize Mexican life in the postrevolutionary era. To read these particular comics seemed like a powerful, patriotic deed, underlining the politics of reading; their pages were also imbued with a strong dose of faith in progress and modernity. All this was accomplished through identifying producer and product with consumer.
The first successful Mexican comics–Chamaco, Paquín, and Pepín–appear to have stumbled accidently on this strategy. The new periodicals had no particular political agenda, but rather, only the intention of creating an audience for themselves and surviving in a tough marketplace. They were in competition with each other, as well as the Sunday supplements. As Armando Bartra points out, the early years of these comics saw them experimenting with innumerable methods of filling space; they retained what sold. Mentioning the mexicanidad of the new cartoon magazines was an obvious step and, since it worked, the cartoonists kept on doing it.
When a reader picked up one of the pepines, she or he encountered a package stuffed with many different items, all more or less familiar to a regular reader. Any Chamaco, Pepín, Paquín, or Paquito included episodes of tragic or dramatic serial tales meant to last up to two years, and episodes of tragicomic or comic serials designed to go on indefinitely. It contained very little blank space: games, contests, puzzles, ads, and other filler packed whatever room was left between the stories. Even the top and bottom margins sported advertising or patriotic slogans.