Action Comics in Latin America

Within the popular culture of USA, comic books assume a highly visible role.  Comic books have been published since the 1920's, and they were part of the process of growing up for generations of Americans.  Bradford Wright has written a very comprehensive and readable book (see link at the bottom of this page) about the history of comic books in the USA.  A proper discussion of the subject of comic books necessarily involves the analysis of its historical trajectory.  As Wright wrote, "... comic books are ultimately a generational experience.  For the most part, they are the domain of young people, who inevitably outgrow them, recall them fondly, and then look at the comic books of their own children and grandchildren with a mixture of bewilderment and, perhaps, concern.  Just as each generation writes its own history, each reads its own comic books.  The two activities are not unrelated, for comic books are history.  Emerging from the shifting interaction of politics, culture, audience tastes, and the economics of publishing, comic books have helped to frame a worldview and define a sense of self for the generations who have grown up with them.  They have played a crucial explanatory, therapeutic, and commercial function in young lives.  To critically examine the history of comic books is to better understand the changing world of young people as well as the historical forces intersecting to shape it."

Within the genre of action comics, there is a sub-genre of superhero comics.  The characters are human (or, at least, of human form) who are endowed with superhuman powers such being "faster than a speeding bullet., more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound."  But the actions and adventures that they encounter are necessarily reflective of the times when those stories were being written.  Wright's books recounts the adventures of Superman

Apart from the time history of comic books, it would be interesting to learn about the spatial reception.  The superhero action comic books are produced by the US-based companies for the domestic market, but the products have been licensed for foreign distribution.  The US companies do not manage or control their foreign partners, and are happy simply to receive the royalties.  So little or nothing is known about how these foreign partners repackage or repurpose these comic books.

The Pan Latin American Kids Study is a survey of 1,568 children between the ages of 7 and 11 years old in 17 Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America.  In this survey, the children were asked about comic book readership.  20% of them had read Batman, 9% read The Fantastic Four, 17% read Spiderman, 22% read Superman and 15% read X-Men Adventures.  A total of 28% read one or more of these five superhero action titles.

The following table shows the incidence of action comic readership within different demographic groups.  

Demographic Group % read any action comic
     Boys 7 years old
     Boys 8 years old
     Boys 9 years old
     Boys 10 years old
     Boys 11 years old

     Girls 7 years old
     Girls 8 years old
     Girls 9 years old
     Girls 10 years old
     Girls 11 years old


Geographical Region
    Balance of Central America/Caribbean
    Balance of South America

Socio-economic Level
     Level A (upper 10%)
     Level B (upper-middle 20%)
     Level C (lower-middle 30%)
     Level D (lower 40%)

Education of Head of Household
     Less than 6 years
     6 to 11 years
     12 years or more

Occupation of Head of Household
     Office worker
     Service worker
     Manual laborer/operator
     Temporary/day worker


The action comic book readers are much more likely to be boys than girls.  Given that the contents are aggressive, violent and militaristic, this is certainly not surprising.  The readers are also likely to have higher socio-economic status.  Given that these books are expensive (relative to income), this would not be surprising either.  We will also note that action comics often have tie-ins with other merchandise and products which may be even more expensive --- such as the television cartoon series on cable television (note: all five of the comic books listed here have their own series) or movies (note: there have been several Batman and Superman movies, while X-Men and X-Men 2 are recent productions).  A final interesting point is that the action comic book readers are more likely to be from the north (Mexico, Central America and Colombia) than from the south (Argentina and Chile), which can be taken as influence by proximity to USA.

In Latin America, the action comic industry appeared to be dominated by the imported US series from DC Comics and Marvel Entertainment.  Such cultural hegemony is problematic insofar as social and cultural values are imparted to the youth unwittingly.  Of course, cultural devices have often been turned on their heads in local contexts.  After the devastating earthquake of 1985 in Mexico City, a masked man in a cape with the letters SB emblazoned on his chest appeared to support demonstrations about local issues such as housing, public services, police corruption and human rights violations.  El Superbarrio is a superhero  modeled not after Superman but on the legendary wrestler El Santo.  His antiques and tactics gain publicity and recognition for those causes.  The author Maya Lorena Pérez Ruiz said, El Superbarrio "has adopted an alienating manifestation of popular culture and remodeled it into an authentic manifestation of the most profound sentiments of Mexico's urban disenfranchised."  Today, El Superbarrio is an internationally renown icon.

Comic books in the USA, especially the action kind, are read primarily by boys and young men.  In Latin America, there is a completely different genre of comic books known as fotonovelas or historietas, whose audiences are not necessarily male nor young.  Anne Rubenstein's book (see link at the bottom of the page) is a wonderfully detailed study of the history of comic books in Mexico.  The significance of her work towards the understanding of the post-revolutionary project in Mexico can be seen in this quotation:

When we see how various Mexicans --- producers, consumers, censors, critics --- interacted around comic books, we see how the ultimate victors of the revolution transformed their faction into both a government and the idea of a nation.  Through arguments like those that swirled around historietas, the state reproduced and legitimized itself.  This was a circular --- not to say labyrinthine --- process.  These interactions shaped Mexican historietas' contents; then these comic books helped define a national culture that, in turn, legitimized post revolutionary political arrangements.  And then the post revolutionary government --- both the government itself, as well as the giant media conglomerates that supported and helped shape it --- helped to freeze the styles and stories of the comic books into their generic and usable forms.  Meanwhile, the attacks on comic books added more directly to the power of the Mexican state: by mediating among all the other actors in the debate, the government strengthened its position as the unavoidable center of Mexico's economic, social, and cultural structures.  Looking at comic books and the arguments against them, we see the subtle and complex process which power in Mexico came to rest in the same hands that hold it today.

Comic books and related periodicals were not the only forms of mass media and popular culture that were part of this process in post revolutionary Mexico.  Similar stories could be told about many entertainments: shopping, television, recorded music, dance, cinema, cooking, fashion, and holidays, to name only a few.  In one way or another, all these forms developed their own interpretive communities, which certainly would have included critics as fiercely conservative as any anti-comic book protester.  All of them engaged in a series of interactions among producers, consumers, and critics that more or less resembled the interactions within the interpretive community for comic books.  All depended on government support and faced government regulations in some form.  All shaped and were shaped by the urbanization and industrialization that transformed Mexico in this era.  And, most likely, all of them will turn out to fit this essentially Gramscian model of the construction of hegemony in the post revolutionary decades (p. 164-165).



(posted by Roland Soong, 8/18/2001)

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