In 1952 television was still a very recent phenomenon in Mexico and Latin America, and commercial TV channels would not be available until three years later. According to Mexican comics historian Armando Bartra (2001:147), by the 1950s 50% of the Mexican population was literate (in comparison to the 5% in the 1940s). In the 1950s there were 25 million Mexicans, and "four or five million" of them read comics.
According to Bartra, this was the decade in which the indigenous Mexican pepines (as the local 12 x 15cm black and white publications were known due to the mainstream popularity of Pepín and other similar comics periodicals) became closer, in form, format and plot to the standard American comic book of the time. Television would still need one more decade to become available to the working classes, and there were only about 300 cinema theatres in the whole country.
By then, lucha libre (Grobet et al 2005) offered a combination of theatre, sport, melodrama and a popular sense of justice that did not generally exist in the sociopolitical arena. José Guadalupe Cruz (1917-1989) was behind a prolific and profitable comics publishing empire, and it was his idea to turn the already-popular lucha libre star "Santo" into a comics hero. Publisher, producer, writer, editor and marketer, Cruz was a pioneer of transmediality, producing series with characters and situations that incorporated celebrities from other artistic forms (cinema, journalism, the stage) and de facto blurred the boundaries between realist figurative representation through drawings and fictional, fantastic social realism through photomontage and mixed media.
According to Bartra, Cruz's Santo, una revista atómica, came out every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday, with 31 pages of story in each issue (though the magazine was also published with the subtitle "un semanario atómico"-- "an atomic weekly"). This made it, in Bartra's words, "the world's fastest comic book". Spin-offs and parallel series were also published due to the original's success, and Santo, el enmascarado de plata would run from 1955 until 1986 on a weekly and bi-weekly basis. The fact that el enmascarado de plata was a real, public and incredibly popular public figure (Roberto Guzmán Huerta, 1917-1984), in combination with the extreme deadlines that demanded the production of thirteen pages per day, had as a consequence the merging of technical and aesthetic conditions: the mixing of hand-drawn illustration and lettering with photo-montage.
The photographic compositional work of José Trinidad Romero (1925-1999) was essential to define the noir feel of the book, which a priori required printing on cheap paper on black and white, often sepia inks and tones, favoured by the Mexican comics industry of the time. In spite of being technically what often is referred in English as "fumetti", or photo-comic, the publication advertised and defined itself as an historieta, or comic book, often with non-photographic covers:
Unlike other photo-comics and even regular comics of the time published in Mexico, Santo's hand-drawn lettering matched the attempts to make the photographic work look and feel like comics illustration. The publication, as exemplified by the cover above, made no attempt to disguise its kinship with previous or contemporary American comics (Dick Tracy (1931-1977) by Chester Gould (1900-1985) comes to mind) and thus liberating a series of intertextual references that at the same time emphasised the publication's urban audience (Mexico City's 1950's middle class fashion was not too dissimilar from what could be seen in Chicago or New York City).
Santo's "origin" sequence is very obviously influenced by cinema and superhero comics, particularly the Bat-Man (May 1939) by Bob Kane: the darkened alley, the silhouetted hero on the rooftop, the Fedora hats, the vigilante who rans away, without accepting acknowledgement or publicity, remaining a mystery. If, as Mark Fisher wrote, "the Batman mythos has been about the switching of Gothic Fear into heroic Justice" (2005), Santo switched Catholic/Colonial Fear into Charitable Justice (page 1 is a splash panel where the reader sees the luchador from behind, kneeling in front of the Virgen morena, whom Santo had "as his only guide").
The writing is syntactically and grammatically clumsy ("legend" and "legendary" in the same sentence; a lack of agreement in verb tenses and modes between the captions in panels 2 and 4, which is further confused by the introduction of direct discourse in speech balloons in panel 3, etc.), and in retrospect the whole situation is commonplace and predictable. But this was 1952, literacy was still limited and Amazing Fantasy #15 would not appear across the border until June 1962... (you can see "your friendly neighborhood Santo" waving from the top of the building in the distance in panel 4, ten years before Spiderman made his debut).
The noir feel of the book has its roots in what could be called a transmedial mestizaje of different orders: a technological one, juxtaposing handmade artistry with photographic montage and live acting/modelling (very often it was Roberto Guzmán, el Santo, appearing as himself); a sociological one, representing the transition between the semi-literacy of the past with an Americanised idea of urban progress; an aesthetic and ideological one, integrating religious imagery (part of the same iconosphere as the ex-votos) and comics's penchant for the fantastic; and a trans-genre one, blending romantic melodrama with fantasy, Universal Pictures-style horror and a considerable dose of Catholic ethos.
Canadian scholar Anne Rubenstein wrote a 224-page book about Mexican comics only to conclude they were neither "good" nor "interesting" (1998:161), but as comics anthropologist and librarian Manuel Aurrecoechea has written,
in spite of the fact that Mexican comics are an essential source of knowledge to understand what [Mexicans] have been, our comics are now the stuff of legend. (Aurrecoechea, no date, "La historieta popular..")
A lost classic like Santo #1 deserves further and thorough analysis. It reveals a fascinating underworld where heroism consists of charity, and where social realism is the work of fiction through the merging of elaborate montage, mixing manual and mechanical techniques.
Aurrecoechea, J.M. (1999). “José Trinidad Romero: Carnival of Images.” Luna Córnea 18, p. 207-217.
Aurrecoechea, J.M. (no date). "La historieta popular mexicana en la era de su arqueología." Catálogo de historietas. Pepín y Chamaco en la Hemeroteca. < http://www.pepines.unam.mx/index.php?vl_id_ensayo=5&seleccion=ensayos&vl_salto=1> Accessed 23 April 2011.
Bartra, A. (1999). “Photographic Narrative in the Mexican Press,” Luna Córnea 18 (1999), p. 181-198
Bartra, A. (2001). "Fin de fiesta. Gloria y declive de una historieta tumultuaria". Revista Latinoamericana de Estudios sobre la Historieta Latinoamericana, vol 1, no. 3 (September 2001), 147-166.
Cruz, J.G, Del Valle, M. and Del Valle, D. (1952) Santo, el enmascarado de plata. Un semanario atómico #1 (México: Ediciones José G. Cruz) Wednesday 3 September 1952.
Fisher, M. (2005) "Shades of White: Fear and Injustice in Christopher Nolan's Gotham". k-punk. Abstract Dynamics. < http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/005757.html>. Accessed 23 April 2011.
Grobet, L., Morales, A., Fuentes, G., Aurrecoechea J.M., Monsiváis C. (2005) Espectacular de lucha libre (México, D.F.: Trilce Ediciones, CONACULTA, UNAM).
Rubenstein, A. (1998). Bad Language, Naked Ladies, & Other Threats to the Nation: A Political History of Comic Books in Mexico. (Durham and London: Duke University Press).