The New Era, 1997-Present
After ACME it was only Zape Pelele that continued publishing strips and sequential art, mainly in the form of parodies of American films. It was in the mid-nineties, and particularly relevant from 1998-2000, that a follow-up to Tukano finally made it to the public. It was a series of comics that made it to 11 issues: Hombres de Acero [Men of Steel], created by Medellin artist Carlos Osorio. Fernandez L’Hoeste (2007) presents the most detailed account of this comics series, although he also admits that some of his information is vague and is disputed between his sources. He claims that this was a comic book series sponsored by the Colombian Army, used as a propaganda tool to promote and improve the image of the armed forces. Although L’Hoeste mainly concerns himself with the propaganda value of the comics series, he argues that only a few thousand copies of each issue seem to have been sold, despite more than 12,000 printed and distributed (2007, 142-143). We have seen estimates put the number of issues at 20 and an excess of 30,000 copies printed per issue. However, we as authors concur with L’Hoeste’s estimates, because for such a considerable production and distribution, copies of Hombres de Acero are difficult to find in the Colombian used books market today, in our experience.
If this is true for a government-sponsored comic, the absence of all other comic books is much more evident. A few bookshops were selling foreign comic book imports, including American and European works, at very high prices and to a small audience. Except for the Chilean Condorito and Barrabaces, and a few scattered Disney comics, the late 1990s saw the demise of the large comics distributors. However, at the same time as the disappearance of widely distributed foreign comics, cheaper technologies for printing, scanning, and copying allowed for the coming of small-market artisanal comics. Another element that may have helped the increase of artisan comics was the development of Bachelor Degrees in Graphic Design, which started in the late 1960s but became more focused on comics in the 1990s, thanks to people like Bernardo Rincon at Universidad Nacional in Bogota and Ricardo Potes at Instituto Departamental Universitario de Bellas Artes [University Departmental Institute of Arts] in Cali.
The post-1997 era saw the increase of national comics, although at a much smaller scale. The private collection of Fernando Suarez, which was started in 1980, only reaches 150 volumes, and we estimate that number to be about half of all published material by Colombian comics creators in Colombia. We stress this, because some Colombian artists have enjoyed recognition abroad, creating freelance products for foreign publishers. The lion’s share of those 150 volumes was published and collected in the last 15 years. The development of computers and the internet have opened up the possibility of web comics, whose distribution and publishing systems may be completely different from printed comics. It is difficult to keep track of these new developments in that “infinite canvas” (McCloud 2000), although we will try to mention something about them as well.
Due to the nature of these groups publishing comics in Colombia, it is hard to have a concrete picture of the industry. Few of the groups actually take out ISBN or ISSN registration for their works, and they usually sell their comics at book fairs or small conventions, particularly anime and manga gatherings. There are no major publishing companies behind their artisanal production process and they pay no taxes or print any receipts, making them hard to trace. It is an informal business for the most part, which makes their work seldom recognized, economically unstable, and not a proper source of income. Most of the Colombian comics creators and artists make a living in some other way, usually in graphic or web design, and their comics are more a work of dedication than a secondary source of income. In fact, one of the most successful Colombian comics publications of the last 20 years, Zambo Dende, has made the headlines because of a deal that includes videogames and animation projects sponsored by Disney Latin America (Portafolio.co 2013).
That is the main reason why it is hard to argue that there are any industrialized process, division of work, or clear channels of production for comics in Colombia. Even in the USA, one could argue that the industry is small. On the subject, Rhoades (2008) notes that no matter how huge the impact is, “all in all, it’s a very small industry, directly employing less than a thousand people—with perhaps an equal number of freelancers” (2008, 4), and that is one of the major industries in the world.