WHEN she's not hawking tamales, Maria Torres passes the slow moments with her nose buried in a martial-arts comic book. A block away, a cop tweeting his whistle at a line of recalcitrant cars has a cowboy comic peeking out of his hip pocket.
Every Mexico City corner newspaper vendor prominently displays dozens of titles. At lunchtime or rush hour, one can see construction workers, commuters, and curbside merchants consuming the pulp fiction.
Mexican comic books, or historietas, are the literature of the masses.
Publishers are loath to give out circulation figures, and there are no independent circulation audits here. But it's estimated some 4 million to 6 million copies are sold weekly. There are plenty of exclamations - "Aaaaaah!" "Ugh!" or even simply "!!" - between the glossy covers. But we're not talking about Superman, Spiderman, or the Hulk, here. Even in translation, for all their superpowers, the United States-born heroes are wimps on the Mexican comic circuit.
"Our historietas are crude," says Alfonso Morales. "The US comic book is too finely prepared, too over-cooked for Mexican appetites." Mr. Morales is editorial director of a four-volume history of Mexican comics being produced by the National Museum of Popular Culture here. Why US comics don't sell
"US comics are pure fantasy," Morales continues. "Mexican historietas are full of orphans, chauffeurs, truck drivers, beggers, the downtrodden, and the working class.... The Mexican public prefers the real-life dialogue of lack, of family melodrama. It wants a gutter mural of scarcity, obsessions, and repression."
In "Puros Cuentos" ("pure stories"), Vol. I of the comic-book history, these little tomes (about one-third the size of a US comic book) are described as giving three generations of Mexicans "a spelling book, a history lesson, a source of sentimental education, a path to exotic worlds, and prime material for dreams and vicarious satisfaction of economic, social, and sexual frustrations."
But Mexican publishers today are no longer certain they know what their public wants. For the past decade, sales have tumbled. "Circulation has fallen about 40 percent in the last five years or so," sighs Rafael Marquez Torres, an editor for the Novedades Publishing house, who oversees a stable of seven historietas, ranging from cowboys to horror stories.
Resorting to soft porn, increasingly voluptuous women, and scratch-and-win raffles has done little to slow the decline. Juan Manuel Aurrecoechea, who co-authored "Puros Cuentos," Vol. I, says the golden age of Mexican comics is past. "The economic crisis of the '80s has shrunk the purchasing power of people who buy comics," Mr. Auuecoechea says. The books cost one and a half new pesos, about 50 cents. "Education levels are climbing," he continues, "and people are demanding more, but the creativity of the
comic writers has stagnated."
Morales agrees that the comic-book industry is in trouble. "In the '40s, '50s, and '60s, the public learned to read by reading historietas. Mexico's demographic profile is much younger now - it's the Nintendo generation. The youths are educated and fed by television. Telenovelas [soap operas] are stronger today than ever. Storylines are similar, and they are free. The historieta is in a dangerous situation because it's not reaching the new generation."
Comic-book series that have been best-sellers over the decades find that their audience - while still substantial - has shrunk. The No. 1 comic book on the market today is the weekly "El Libro Vaquero" ("the cowboy book"). Its sales have slid to about 1.5 million copies a week - "off substantially from a few years ago," says Mr. Marquez, who began his comic-book career as a writer 40 years ago.
First published in 1978, Vaquero is set in the "Old West." Its characters are not Mexican, but American cowboys. "Mexican bandits occasionally appear in stories," says Marquez, "as they would have in the West, but we don't need to see Mexicans portrayed to see ourselves. We can see ourselves in the good and bad characters in the story." `Gringo' names add cachet
Main characters are noble, valiant, and honest - and justice always prevails. Credit goes to Mexican editors and artists. But the "original text" is often written by "Billy Flynn" or some other "gringo-sounding" author.
"The authors are actually Mexican," Marquez admits. "But it lends credibility to the story to list a North American name." Simply copying US stories doesn't work, though. "The US comic hero is too stoic, too solitary. US storylines are not emotional enough. The role of women and the family are stronger in our version," he says. "Our interpretation of the Old West reflects Mexican thinking."
"Mexicanizing" the Old West and offering pure escapism are the keys to Vaquero's success, says Marquez.
"People can forget their urban lives, drugs, and money problems. It takes them to a different world, to the countryside, which is where most people fantasize of living."
Also among the classics still selling relatively well are "Memin Pingn," "Lagrimas, Risas y Amor," and "La Familia Burron." [See accompanying story.] "Memin Pengn," begun in 1943, is about a mischievous black boy (drawn as a startlingly anachronistic stereotype, by North American standards) and his gang of friends in a poor neighborhood, sort of a cross between Dennis the Menace and "Spanky and Our Gang." "Lagrimas" contains one or more romantic adventures in make-believe settings ranging from Transylvan ia to a pirate ship.
In addition to "Vaquero," Novedades publishes five police comic books, each set in a different US city. Together, they sell about 1 million copies a week. Started in 1981, this series prides itself on being up to date on crime and crime-fighting techniques. "The law prevents us from using official names and Mexican institutions," says Marquez. "Since we can't touch Mexican police, we set it in the US."
The problem, says Aurrecoechea, is that the comic-book industry is "controlled by very conservative business people, and distribution outlets are tightly controlled." He cites the recycling of old "Memin Penqn" stories from the 1940s and '50s in new editions.
A new line of soft-porn comic books, with lower-middle-class Mexican characters, known as "Sensacional" is selling well and could be a "new wave," says Aurrecoechea. "But it's difficult to tell.
"Perhaps we need to wait until this generation [of editors and publishers] moves on before we see a fresh impetus in Mexican historietas," says Aurrecoechea.