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Picture This : Illustrated Books From Mexico Bring Variety of Characters to L.A. Shelves


At Libreria Mexico, a bookstore in San Fernando, Martin Alvarado flipped through one of the explicit adult novelas for a few minutes before he decided on El Libro Vaquero and a used paperback.

"I like to have a book handy when I'm waiting for a bus. . . . They're small and easy to carry," said Alvarado, a shy, Guadalajara-born cook who lives in Sylmar. "But I have to be careful which ones I buy, or my girlfriend will kill me."

In El Libro Vaquero Kenton Jones and Keith Barret paced slowly toward each other on the dusty mesa, hands twitching over their holstered pistols and ready for a showdown.

" En fin, todas las cosas llegan a su fin ," said Jones, the tall, dark gunslinger. He reached for his revolver, but the slick-fingered Barret was too fast.

" Se acabo, Kenton ," Barret whispered to the wounded man.

Barret, a black-hatted, blond heartthrob, is among the stars of El Libro Vaquero, one of more than a dozen weekly Spanish-language illustrated storybooks found in Latino niches throughout the Los Angeles area.

Novelas follow the adventures of a host of characters, from drug smugglers and mad scientists to samurai and blonde bombshells. Distributors import the thick, pocket-size pulp books primarily from Mexico and sell them for 75 cents to $1.35.

About 40 distributors sell the comic books to newsstands, bookstores and corner markets throughout greater Los Angeles, said Carlos Bacelis, who owns the Laurel News in Pacoima and distributes novelas to bookstores in San Fernando, Pasadena and beyond.

Customers browse through rows of colorful novelas and magazines at Bacelis' newsstand.

A recent issue of "Artes Marciales," a martial arts drama set in feudal Japan, is prominently displayed next to a rack filled with Joyas de Literatura, condensed versions of great Western literature, but with pictures. There is Rudyard Kipling's "La Aldea de los Muertos" ("The Village of the Dead"), Carlos Dickens' "Cuento de Dos Ciudades" ("A Tale of Two Cities") and even Shakespeare's "Macbeth."

David Soto, a newsstand salesman, picked through the books and pointed out their merits.

He nodded at Hombres y Heroes, illustrated adventures that chronicle the lives of famosos like Sir Walter Raleigh. "Very educational . . . good for children," he said in Spanish.

French philosopher Rene Descartes, the star of another book, probably never imagined he would be a comic strip character uttering, "Pienso, pues existo"-- "I think, therefore I am"--via a word balloon.

Soto said some adult customers are hooked on comic books with continuing story lines, such as El Libro Semanal.

Roberto Monti, a publicity manager for Mexapress, which prints many of the books in Mexico, said El Libro Semanal has been rolling off the presses for about 40 years, with more than 2,000 issues. "There are grandmothers, their daughters and their daughters that buy the books," Monti said.

Novela buyers in the United States tend to be Mexican immigrants, Monti said. Exports to the United States--mostly to the Los Angeles area--account for about 5% of his company's novela circulation.

"Latinos with roots in Mexico want to keep reading the stories they used to read," Monti said. Occasionally, buyers also include English-speakers trying to learn Spanish or travelers who discovered the books on trips to Mexico, vendors say.

Publishers say the most popular novela genres, both in the United States and Mexico, are police adventures, horror stories and cowboy tales--the last filled with characters with names such as Edgar, Kim and Junior.

Many of them are set in the United States, although the books are made for Mexican markets.

El Libro Policiaco deals with gritty police stories on the streets of San Francisco and Chicago.

And then there are the books' heroes. Who can explain the presence of so many muscular blond characters?

"Wishful thinking, I guess," said Bror Lesham, a marketing manager at Grupo Piramide, Mexapress' parent company in Mexico City. "It makes them more American."

Certain novelas are tailored for adults and are filled with pictures of scantily clad, full-figured women and are plainly labeled with warnings prohibiting their sale to anyone under 18. Joke books, also popular, specialize in double entendres and raunchy humor.

American comic book characters, such as Spider-Man (El Hombre Arana), also appear in the novelas and are big sellers. Marvel Comics and DC Comics, which own the rights to many of the nation's most popular super heroes, license their characters to companies in Mexico and other countries.

Novela publishers in Mexico hope their still disorganized network of distributors and small street corner selling points in Los Angeles will expand and translate into lots of pesos.

"The books have become increasingly popular in California," Monti said. "It's a market that we see expanding, and it's got a lot of potential."

Almost 40% of Los Angeles residents are Latino, according to the 1990 census, and some Southern California cities are more than 80% or 90% Latino. The numbers were good news for novela publishers.

"At this point, the market is wide open," Lesham said.

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