Hero, Villain Yeti: Tibet in Comics Museum Exhibit
There are some weird ideas about Tibet floating around in Western pop culture, some of which are pretty stupid. But weird, stupid ideas have never stopped the comic book industry. Those weird ideas about Tibet have been mined so deeply and for so many decades that there was enough material to put together a fantastic exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.
Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics is the brain child of curator Martin Brauen. There’s a short interview with him on iTunes, here, in which he explains his inspiration for putting together the largest collection of comics related to Tibet ever assembled. “I wondered where people’s weird ideas about Tibet came from.”
I find it fascinating there is enough material out there to devote a museum exhibit to the stereotype of mystical, magical Tibet. A place of flying holy men, gigantic albino hominids, and an eastern Utopia. These are ideas that were brought back by explorers and Christian missionaries encountering a culture strangely familiar yet totally alien to the western mind of pre-globalization. 19th and early 20th century occultists like Madame Blavatsky actually went in search of these wise men and ancient secrets, convinced that Tibet was a sort of magical lost world somehow insulated from all the changes in human society since the fall of a mythical ancient utopian past. Good stories for fantasy comics, but in the real world, total bullshit! The kind of bullshit that lazy writers used over and over in almost identical ways, for decades.
Don’t get me wrong. Bruce Wayne absolutely studied tögal in Tibet, though there is some disagreement on which master he actually studied with in the Himalayas (we aren’t going into that right now). That story, however, was researched and thought out, and thus, vastly more well-written than your typical story about a hero seeking training/wisdom/magical object X in Tibet. (If you’re interested in the subject, there are a couple of links down below to some good articles on the subject of Bruce Wayne studying in Asia.)
And then there’s the Green Lama, a white millionaire from New York who spent ten years in Tibet studying to become a spiritual master. To turn into his superhero self, he chants the well known Buddhist mantra ‘Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ.’ I’ve never read any issues of this comic myself, and I’ve heard mixed reviews that average out to “Cheezy, not bad, but cheezy.” For the 1940′s, it was fairly anti-racist, apparently. Brauen appreciated this comic so much, though, that it’s featured prominently in the Hero, Villain, Yeti exhibit. There was even a performance at the museum of a theatrical circus interpretation of The Green Lama.
The more clichè comics also see various Disney characters go climbing in the Himalayas, Bugs Bunny looks for treasure, and the Yeti eat lots of adventurers while various heroes look for spiritual powers and secrets. These comics span the 1930′s up to today.
The exhibit also features comics by exiled Tibetans, political comics like Red Shambala, religious comics about the historical Buddha, and even discusses the similarities between modern comics and traditional Buddhist religious artworks displaying the lives of saints pictographically. There are even stations where visitors can read bound copies of many of the comics. The list of related lectures and presentations scheduled for the duration of the exhibit (December 9, 2011 – June 11, 2012), past and upcoming, sound absolutely fascinating.
I wish I could go check the exhibit out myself, and if I somehow magically find myself in New York before June 11, I’ll make a point of it.
Rubin Museum of Art
Podcast Interview with Curator Martin Brown
Hero, Villain, Yeti Exhibition Page
The Lost Yak: The Comics Connection I: Batman does Tögal!
Bruce Wayne’s Buddhist Studies in the Orient