And when the Mexican comic emerged from the sea…

In the latest of our PEN Atlas Mexican series, novelist Laia Jufresa muses on the fall and rise of Mexican comics

Translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott

I remember my first lesson in narrative art: the day I learnt – or experienced – what a deus ex machina is, and why it’s not a good idea to spring one on your reader. I was at a family gathering and my aunts and uncles were reminiscing about their childhood, one populated by characters from the comic books they bought religiously every Friday: Kalimán, Los supersabios and La familia Burrón, all of them made in Mexico. One Friday, Kalimán (which was printed in sepia) ended with the hero chained to a rock, plummeting to the depths of the sea. My aunts and uncles spent hours – days – constructing elaborate theories about how he would make it out of the water. (Would he break the chains? Would he be saved by his sidekick Solín?) But when they finally got their hands on the next issue, it began like this: ‘And when Kalimán had emerged from the sea…’ The treachery! Unforgivable for the average child in the fifties, who consumed Mexican comics with the same feverish devotion with which children today demand iPhones. Even now, people born in the fifties make jokes based on those comics. In the company of my aunts and uncles, for example, you can’t show any kind of bodily disgust without them comparing you to Borola Burrón, who was horrified when she learnt she had a skeleton inside her.

Because of all this you might think that I too was raised on a healthy diet of local comics, but I wasn’t. By the time I started to read, at the end of the eighties, the national comic book industry (which had at one point been the most productive in the world: every week, two million copies were printed of Kalimán alone) was in decline. The main publishers had decided to focus on translating material from elsewhere (much cheaper than producing their own) and the stands were filling up with imported superheroes. The country’s comic book tradition was sinking fast, chained to a rock. My generation read foreign comics. Bernardo Fernández, ‘Bef’, perhaps the main representative (and defender) of graphic novels in Mexico, learnt English by reading comics and has said he feels ‘no creative or emotional connection to the old Mexican comic strips’.

But now the Mexican comic book is emerging from the sea, transformed into webcomics or graphic novels. Over the past four years, government-funded scholarships, national prizes, dedicated festivals and a few more publishers (Resistencia, Sexto Piso, Caligrama, Jus – still not many) are getting behind the genre. This is a new creature, more sophisticated and, inevitably, less popular. However, this creature has not simply materialised from the ether – it has materialised from the persistent efforts of its creators – and neither is it the daughter of the twentieth-century Mexican comic book alone. If anything, it is its long-lost niece, an animal with mixed blood in its veins: from manga, from pop, from French bandes desinées, and from everything else the random tides of the internet can cast ashore. And this great variety of influences leads to a great variety of voices and styles, from Edgar Clement’s complex clarity to the muted palette and painterly flourishes of Patricio Betteo, via the playful, digital figures drawn by Micro and the straightforward yet subtle watercolours of Alejandra Espino.

It is interesting to see that Mexican history is still the most important character in the country’s comics, however far-reaching their other influences may be. This was the case in F.G. Haghenbeck’s anthology, A Mexican in Each of Your Comic Books [Un mexicano en cada comic te dio] (paraphrasing a line from the national anthem: ‘a soldier in each of your sons’), as it is in the forthcoming Moquito and the Colonial Sarcophagus [Moquito y la Momia Colonial] by Juanele (set in the colonial period) and Rafaela by Alejandra Espino (about ‘a woman in the twenties in an alternative Mexico City, an aspiring muralist who wants to paint fantastical rather than historical scenes’). In Cry of Victory [Grito de victoria], Augusto Mora explores two recent civil protest movements: the marches in 1971 and the #YoSoy132 protests. There is also Operation Bolívar [Operación Bolívar] and others by Edgar Clement, which are rooted in fiction and mythology but have clear parallels with the country’s painful contemporary reality. In a sense, the history of Mexico also stars in Uncle Bill, the new graphic novel by Bef, a virtuoso account of William Burroughs’ fateful years in the country.

It isn’t all Mexican history, of course. The brilliant Powernap happens in the future in a place that could be anywhere in the world. Its author, Maritza Campos, began writing it in Spanish, but – like Bef, and like so many others – she has become bilingual and almost bi-national as a result of consuming and assimilating so much American culture, and she soon switched into English. Powernap takes place in a world in which people no longer sleep; it’s illustrated by Sebastián ‘Bachan’ Carrillo and you can read it online or buy it in an elegant edition that was financed by crowdfunding.

In a country that tends – by necessity, by instinct, by way of a response to its barbaric reality – towards graphic violence, I think it’s worth celebrating the people who are producing graphic novels instead. People working hard at telling good stories. Because this – telling stories – is, I think, also a social responsibility. Storytelling with images has historically had a wider audience because of its ability to reach people who couldn’t read. This isn’t necessarily the case with contemporary graphic fiction, and yet I see in this new creature of ours a determination to go far. And I hope it does. It really deserves to.

Find out more about Laia Jufresa at www.laiajufresa.com.

Read English PEN’s open letter to President Enrique Peña Nieto on the occasion of his visit to the UK as part of #mxuk2015.