Something about Tibet has always seemed very mysterious to the West. Maybe it’s the terrain of the towering Himalayas possibly inhabited by savage yetis, the legends of the heavenly Shangri-La, or the ancient traditions of Tibetan Buddhism embodied by the reincarnated Dalai Lama. All of these impressions, founded on fact or not, have naturally made for great comic book fodder, where the exotic and mystical image of Tibet fits in perfectly with superheroes and mad villains. The Rubin Museum of Art’s Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics is now presenting over 50 comics related to Tibet dating back to the 1940s.
All of the comics are available for reading for free in the lower level of the museum, accompanied by explorations on comic book themes like “The Third Eye” and “Levitating Lamas and Flying Mystics.” A mannequin of comic book hero the Green Lama soars over the exhibit. I spoke to curator Martin Brauen over the phone, and he stated that the Green Lama was one of the oldest appearances of Tibet in comics, going back to the early 1940s. However, as you may notice above, despite being a “lama,” the superhero doesn’t appear very Tibetan. “If you look at the superhero section of the exhibit, very often a monk or several monks are the superheroes, but they are hardly Tibetan,” Brauen said. “The subject is Tibet, and it has something to do with Tibet, but it’s white people.”
After acquiring his mystical skills, including holding back bullets, in Tibet, the Green Lama goes back to New York City to fight evil. He changes into the Green Lama by reciting a famous Tibetan mantra. “When he speaks out this mantra, it echoes to Tibet and he transforms into the Green Lama,” Brauen said. “When he’s done his good work, he reverses the mantra and transforms again.”
Although the Green Lama is a white man fighting Western battles with appropriated powers, the idea of a levitating lama originates with traditional Himalayan paintings and teachings. There is another exhibit currently at the Rubin Museum, Once Upon Many Times: Legends and Myths in Himalayan Art, that further explores narrative art of the Himalayan region, with legends of great teachers, spiritual quests and heroic adventures played out in pigments on cloth. Hero, Villain, Yeti includes one Tibetan scroll painting with spiritual elements that shows how the visual narrative relates to the frames of contemporary comic books.
Hero, Villain, Yeti has some examples of biographical comics by Tibetan writers and artists, that further this tradition of narrative art through stories about the 14th Dalai Lama or Milarepa, “Tibet’s Greatest Yogi.” There are also educational comics from Tibet created for children, that include morality tales like “Settling the Dispute Between Birds and Monkeys” and comics on hygiene and behavior. Another section on political comics is focused on comic books as a way of confronting and interpreting Tibet’s tumultuous recent history. Mercy and Asura is a graphic depiction of Tibetans’ experiences during the Chinese government’s ethnic cleansing, in which the main character is detained and tortured, then returns home to find his wife is pregnant, having been raped by Chinese soldiers. Forgiving his wife, but knowing he can never be a father to this child, he kills himself.
Most of the exhibit, however, is devoted to the more fanciful depictions of Tibet by outsiders. Yetis, both menacing and friendly, and the utopia of Shangri-La are popular tropes, as is the third eye, which gained its popularity due to The Third Eye by Lobsang Rampa, a British man who claimed to have grown up in a Tibetan monastery and wrote the book about his adventures encountering yetis and the mummy of his previous incarnation. He also said that he had an operation to open his “third eye” by having a hole drilled in his head. A private detective hired by Tibetologist Heinrich Harrer revealed that Rampa was the son of a plumber and had never set foot in Tibet.
The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier also had a large role in cementing misinformation about Tibet. The 1960s book on the occult included unverified claims that in Berlin there was a Tibetan monk, nicknamed “the man with the green gloves,” who regularly met with Hitler and foretold in the press on three occasions the number of Hitlerian deputies elected to the Reichstag. Also included was an unfounded story about 1,000 dead Himalayans in German uniforms being discovered by Russians entering Berlin. The myth of a Nazi connection with Tibet has persisted, whether it’s SS soldiers hiding out in the Himalayas or Tibetans taking on the Nazis in battle, and is illustrated in the comic books Pharaon: The Ice Brain and The Sign of Shiva.
Hero, Villain, Yeti is part of the Rubin Museum’s overarching goal of appealing to a wider audience by featuring cross cultural exhibits and contemporary art.
“When I started working as chief curator, it was clear to me that we cannot only focus on traditional Tibetan art,” said Martin Brauen, who recently retired as chief curator after working at the museum for three years. During his time at the Rubin, exhibits like Remember That You Will Die, which examined Eastern and Western notions of death and remembrance, and the current exhibit Modernist Art from India have thoughtfully bridged between the traditionally-centered permanent exhibitions and the broader idea of Eastern and Western culture. With Hero, Villain, Yeti, Brauen’s last exhibit as chief curator, cross cultural understanding and Tibetan history is presented in the most accessible way yet: through the quick turning pages of contemporary comic books.
Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics is showing at the Rubin Museum of Art (150 West 17th Street, Chelsea, Mahattan) through June 11, 2012.