In a half-dozen trips to Tijuana, I have yet to attend a "donkey show," though that's where cabdrivers will offer to take you first. Leaving aside qualms about animal consent, all sexual performances are numbing in the same way. The real human drama inevitably lies behind the scenes: Why would a woman take such a job? What does she tell her family? Has she been coerced? And how does she feel?
Such questions are the stuff of eros in the imagination and tragedy in real life--an ancient schism that pornography exists to paper over. Now, Mexico has found a new twist in twisted art. Pocket-sized comic books called historietas have been available for decades on every corner newsstand, but in the past seven years they have been overrun by a fresh and lurid genre that's part noir melodrama, part Tijuana bible--what Mexico City writer Alex Giardino dubs the "ghetto libretto."
These nasty funnies are less graphic than their Japanese counterparts but make up in operatic depravity what they lack in plumbing. Page through Heat Between Her Legs, Secret Temptations, or Carnal Sins, at the Las Americas supermarket on East Lake Street, and you'll find every variant of anguish on the characters' faces. My favorite artist, who signs his name Galvez and inks boldly with crude strokes, tells sweaty tales of poor women who endure class browbeating, male predation, incest, and long nights of hot, guilty sex--all before hacking their tormentors to pieces. As one story concludes soberly, "She was trying to defend her virtue even as he was on his way to hell."
Comics critic Daniel K. Raeburn calls this kind of unironic burlesque "hysterical realism," and has made ghetto librettos the subject of the latest issue of The Imp, a journal he writes and self-publishes. Raeburn argues that the comics--like donkey shows on Jet Skis--are a national source of embarrassment for Mexicans (the most extreme titles sell half a million copies per week) and provide an exaggerated reflection of the calamitous world their readers inhabit. "These characters' emotions are 10 times more blinding than in real life," he writes, "their outbursts are 20 times louder than those of real men and women, and their crimes are 100 times more savage than necessary."
Even by the standards of previous Imps--which paid tribute to Ghost World creator Daniel Clowes, fundamentalist Christian comics pamphleteer Jack T. Chick, and cartoonist Chris Ware--this pulp is lowbrow marginalia. But smut seems to bring out the writer in Raeburn, who in a few graceful strokes can identify the themes of caste and race vengeance behind a crude rape fantasy, yet still convey its heat. Describing a few panels from Perverse Souls, in which a woman is blackmailed into having a conjugal visit with her homicidal ex (the guy who castrated her boyfriend), Raeburn writes:
The author revels in the zest with which evildoers corrupt in these stories, and he skillfully breaks down the Catholic morality behind the pendulum swing from shame to flushed ecstasy. Innocence is never merely despoiled in ghetto librettos. "An almost hateful lust fuels their glowering male gazers," Raeburn writes, "and drives their sensation-crazed women to blindly grab anything, be it bottle, needle, or cock, and take it deep into their bodies."
Yet Raeburn, a self-described "gringo hipster" from Texas, ultimately shies away from analyzing the erotic appeal of this stuff. He recounts falling in love with the books while reading them to a girlfriend, a copout if ever there was one. (Some of my best friends love porn....) He cites Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz when he gets nervous about exploring Mexican stereotypes. And he enlists Latino colleagues to help haul out a lengthy thesis about Mexico's national myth (and its relationship to softcore comics). Does Raeburn believe that degradation fantasies would have no resonance today had Cortés never raped Malinche? For all his thoroughness and rigor (the sidebar on chess-psycho Bobby Fischer's historieta collection is hilarious), the bulk of these 100 pages feels like an apologia.
Raeburn might have asked why guilt is the brain stem of a dirty mind in the first place--or why white guilt behaves no differently. For this Yankee reader, at least, enjoying these comics can feel a little like consuming the social collapse of Mexico as entertainment. Yet ghetto librettos remain the least guilty of guilty pleasures, a literature of victimizers that requires no real models, and hence produces no real-life victims. (There's a conundrum for anti-porn zealots.)
In the end, Raeburn redeems his booklet's girth by interviewing the actual men who churn out this trash. With his friend Ernesto Priego translating, Raeburn learns that the largest comic-book companies in Mexico control one big distributor, which holds an effective monopoly and quashes independents who stray from the industry standard of bubble butts and bubbling blood.
Turns out that the brio of those fictional mohawked street toughs, with their endless reams of impenetrable slang, is penned by exceedingly decent, hard-working, censor-dodging professionals who don't much like the comics they make. Raeburn hasn't given us an exposé of Mexico's underside, but he has offered us a peep show into the lives of those who draw it.
The Imp, No. 4, Historietas Perversas: Mexico's Addictive Comics is available at local comic-book shops or from the author: firstname.lastname@example.org