Stuck in a stalled subway car with nothing to read, most passengers make do with sighing and stealing glances at "Page Six" over other riders' shoulders. Lately, however, it's been impossible not to notice the rash of raunchy comic books that has been making delays almost delightful for some Spanish-speaking New Yorkers.
These adult comic books have long been popular in Mexico, but past imports were little more than steamy soap operas, and they languished on the racks in New York. Now, though, with Mexican government censors approving comics that might make R. Crumb blush and more Mexicans settling in New York, sales are surging.
The pocket-size comics are sold mainly in subway newsstands on the West Side. For $1 or $1.25, the reader gets 80 pages of prurient plot and dishabille drawings of compromising positions. Among the best-sellers: El Solitario, ("The Loner"), a Western whose drifter hero beds bare-breasted virgins -- he smells of "dust," "blood," and "women," an ad promises -- and Bellas de Noche ("Beauties of the Night"), with S&M interludes and delicately drawn pubic hair.
Top titles like these have spurred Spama, a Jersey City distributor, to double its offerings in the past year. The company's owner, Daniel Farquharson, says he now sells 10,000 copies weekly in metro New York.
"They're good," says a young newsstand worker at the West 4th Street station, where about 800 copies are sold each week at two stands. "Everybody likes that kind of magazine." His only problem: "Why don't they have them in English?" He says customers ask him the same thing.
Though also read on Mexico City's metro, the comics are hardly underground. Nearly all are owned by Mexico's media conglomerates, and each bears the authorization of the government's Qualifying Commission on Illustrated Publications and Magazines. Periodic waves of moral outrage have forced the comics to clean up, says Anne Rubenstein, author of Bad Language, Naked Ladies, and Other Threats to the Nation: A Political History of Comic Books in Mexico. "But then they come back, filthier than ever."
The blue titles steaming up subway platforms are but a small part of the comics industry in Mexico, where hundreds of titles circulate in the millions. If the Mexican government decides to crack down on the racier reads, they could disappear overnight, as they have before. Perhaps that's why El Solitario warns his conquests, "I'm only a bird passing by."