Some Historical Landmarks, 1970-1997

We should not start thinking about today’s comic book industry—or lack thereof—in Colombia without looking back to when it was enjoying wider popularity. Reynaldo Pareja (1982) wrote a book about comics at the time when they were omnipresent in kiosks, newspaper stands, and even in small convenience shops in Colombia. His book addresses two issues: a critique of the advent of commercial advertisement in comic books following TV commercial models, and a concern about the topics present in comics, which he considered to be threatening to our social values.

Pareja (1982) emphasizes that the comic book industry in Colombia followed the structures and developments in the usA, much in the same way that Colombia had structured all other domestic media. He asserts that some of the changes experienced in comic book industry in the usA took longer to take hold in Latin America but argues that by 1979 almost all comics in Colombia included commercial advertisement within their pages.

Although Pareja’s (1982) criticism is not as profound as Dorfman and Mattelart’s (1998) regarding cultural imperialism, it evidences concerns about the effect of commercial interests in a medium he considers predominantly targeted at children. He warns us that excessive commercial interest and a promotion of negative cultural values might have detrimental effects upon our children.

Despite the moral fears he seems to substantiate, akin to those experienced in the UK with Action Comics (Barker 1989), what is interesting is that all of Pareja’s (1982) examples are drawn from comics made in the USA which were available in Spanish translation. He writes about Latin American comics, but he actually refers to comics from the USA distributed in Spanish in Latin America.

A second interesting aspect is that Pareja (1982) mentions two companies, namely Ediciones y Publicaciones Colombianas [Colombian Editions and Publications] and Editorial Novaro [Novaro Publishers], as holding a duopoly on publishing, with the latter a branch of National Periodical Publications Inc., Walter Brothers Inc., and Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. It needs to be noted here that in the late 1970s and all throughout the 1980s there were many publishing companies in Colombia: EPUCOL, publishing large format comics under an agreement with the Mexican Editorial Novaro since 1973; EDICOL, reprinting those comics distributed by the Chilean Zig-Zag; GRECO/CINCO; and Editorial America. These were the main players (Kingdom Comics 2011), with some minor publishers (e.g. Editorial La Foca [Seal Publishers], PRIMAC, and Ediciones Triton [Triton Publishers]) on the sidelines.

Most comics were translations of American comics, including Archie, The Lone Ranger, Batman, Superman and a whole array of Disney comics. But there were also comics developed in Mexico and published in Colombia by either GRECO/CINCO or Editorial America, including Kaliman—at one point as popular and commercially successful as Superman in Latin America—Orion el Atlante [Orion, The Atlantean], Kendor el hombre del Tibet [Kendor, The Man from Tibet], Balam, El fugitivo Temerario [The Reckless Fugitive], Rarotonga, Fuego, Lagrimas y Risas [Fire, Tears, and Laughs], Memin Pinguin, and Aguila Solitaria [The Lone Eagle]. Despite the prominence of American comics translated into Spanish, there were many created in Mexico.

One of the few Colombian titles published in the 1980s was Tukano, by Jorge Pena, who was also renowned at the time for his art and scripts in the Colombian comic book version of the Six Million Dollar Man, El

Hombre Nuclear, a work he did under supervision and explicit permission of the owners of the rights in the USA (Rabanal 2001). Pena was the only Colombian comic book creator during the halcyon days of comics distribution.

Pareja (1982) quotes the massive appeal and distribution of comics by referring to the number of issues of one of the main newspapers at the time, El Espectador. The Sunday funnies, Los Monos [The Monkeys], published and distributed with the newspaper, reached a circulation of up to 200,000 copies in the early 1980s. This Sunday magazine included, alongside one-page comic strips mainly from the USA, some nationally produced ones, such as Marcianitos [Little Martians], Tukano, and Cuidapalos [Woodland Protectors].

At around the same time as the creation of Los Monos in the early 1980s, there was another interesting development. In Cali, the second largest city in Colombia at the time, a magazine called CLICK! was published by some comic strip artists. Though short-lived, reaching only eight issues by 1984, CLICK! was the first magazine that presented a collection of works, proving there was a group of people willing to create and study sequential art in Colombia. Like many other occasional titles after it, CLICK! was more of a fanzine, or compilation of comic strips, than an actual comic book (Rabanal 2001; Garzon 2007). In fact, whereas Pareja (1982) clearly talks about comic books—the large or small format magazines usually containing one or a few stories by the same characters—Rabanal (2001) and Garzon (2007) talk about comic strips and comics interchangeably, using the Spanish term historieta (comic strip) to refer to both forms of sequential art. This leads Rabanal (2001) and Garzon (2007) to consider the late 1980s and 1990s as the boom of historietas, which is not the same as a boom in comics.

Two of the issues mentioned by Pareja (1982) are fundamental to understanding why a national comic book industry was never developed. On the one hand, the moral fear and the condemnation of commercial advertisement led to comics being excluded from tax exemptions established for other published materials. Law 98, passed in 1993, was enacted to promote cultural and scientific publications, especially books, by allowing certain tax exemptions for those publications. However, comic books and comic strips were explicitly excluded from this benefit under Article 2. This meant that publishing comic books was considerably more expensive than other, similar magazines. It took 20 years for that definition to be modified, and thanks to sentence 197/13 of the Constitutional

Court, Article 2 of Law 98 of 1993 had to remove the words comics, comic strips, and photo-novels (i.e. historietas, tirascomicas y fotonovelas) from the list of items not covered by the law. As of 2015, comics now enjoy the same tax exemption as other scientific and cultural publications. This has led to a decrease in production and distribution costs, making comics more widely available in bookstores all over the country.

On the other hand, the Colombian magazine publishing and distribution market remained consistently dominated by a very few companies, always eager to distribute material already available in mass distribution from other countries (mainly the USA, but also Mexico and Argentina). They based their choices upon ideas similar to those of other media industries, including cross-cultural predictability—a product’s success in one cultural market taken as predictor for success in a culturally similar one (see Fu & Govindaraju 2010; Lee 2006)—and bundling deals, packing successful titles with less successful ones under one single price (Bielby and Harrington 2008; Hoskins et al. 1994). Translating and publishing existing material was, thus, less risky and more profitable.

There was one magazine that was published precisely through the waning of comics distribution. ACME was a collection of short comic strips, visual art, and some other creative artworks by people who were interested in sequential art storytelling, to borrow Eisner’s terminology (2008). The magazine was published between 1992 and 1997 having received twice a grant by the Colombian Cultural Agency, Colcultura. 1 Similar to ACME in format as collections of comics and comic strips were TNT (1994-1996) and Zape Pelele (1993-2001), which was loosely based on MAD magazine and Agente Naranja [Agent Orange] (1992-1997). Zape Pelele reached a circulation of around 7000 copies at one point and managed to reach 20 published issues by 2001, making it the longest-standing publication of its kind, but unlike ACME it was not a product of a variety of artists trying to create a concept of Colombian comics art but a parody of cultural products, rendered in sequential art form.

ACME might have become particularly relevant because it included the conceptual as well as the production at its core. The editorial to ACME #4 (1993) illustrates this interest by making a call to what can be deemed the national argument for sequential art creations (Guerra 2011), and that particular issue can be considered to be one of the most inspirational manifestos of its kind. Most Colombian reports on comics, and even academic works on the subject, still place ACME as the main conceptual effort and cult item in the Colombian comics scene (Garzon 2007; Rabanal 2001).

Undoubtedly, ACME was fundamental in raising awareness and focusing interest in sequential art storytelling in Colombia. But in terms of fostering the industry, it was long way away. ACME, like many other projects before and after it in Colombian comics, was a commercial failure.

Curiously, ACME was subsidized by grants created after Law 98 of 1993, the irony of which is evident. ACME was considered to be a publication of cultural worth in the visual arts, and thus an acceptable recipient of the grant, yet it was full of comic strips and other sequential art, previously deemed unfit by the same legislation. When ACME failed to secure funding after 1997, it disappeared. Sales had never been good enough to ensure continuing publication. At around the same time, all other comics started fading away from kiosks, supermarkets, and newspaper stands. Editorial CINCO [CINCO Publishers], the last remnant of the comics heyday was acquired by Editorial Televisa [Televisa Publishers]. It was the end of an era.

 
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