The Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan concentrates on art and artifacts from Himalayan cultures–16th century bronze Buddhas, intricately painted murals, and recreated Tibetan prayer rooms are among the collection. Now the museum is looking at the region through a more popular art form. The exhibit "Hero, Villain, Yeti" has nearly 70 years worth of comic books about Tibet.
In many ways the story begins with James Hilton's novel "Lost Horizon," and the 1937 movie based on it. It was the first time many westerners had any kind of vision of Tibet. Of course it's not really an accurate vision. Hilton conjures a land where mystical powers give people profound insight and unnaturally long lives.
"Lost Horizon" inspired a lot of the four dozen-or-so comic books on display at the exhibit. Beginning with the earliest comics, from the the 1940s, characters go traipsing into the Himalayas in search of the "Yeti," or abominable snowman, and familiar figures like Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny encounter strange–often completely imagined–Tibetan customs.
Martin Brauen, the exhibit's curator, says this is particularly true in "Mickey Mouse in High Tibet," which shows Tibetans greeting people by showing their tongues. "Or when they pour tea, they have a pot of tea on their head and then they bend down the head and the tea goes into a cup in front of them. I mean, such funny things," he adds, laughing.
In a 1940s American comic book series, a guy uses wisdom gained in Tibet to transform himself into a superhero called the "Green Lama." In the first issue, the Green Lama uses his powers to unravel a criminal syndicate in New York.
Musical group One Ring Zero rehearsing their score for the Green Lama.
As part of the exhibit, the musical group One Ring Zero composed a score to accompany a live projection of the comic book. The character becomes the Green Lama by chanting a Tibetan phrase "Om Mani Padme Hum." That phrase becomes a reoccurring motif in One Ring Zero's score.
Tenzin Dolker grew up in a Tibetan community in India. She's studying at Columbia University. She says this is actually a real phrase that every Tibetan knows. "We just grew up saying that. Anything that comes to us that's a challenge or a negative thing, or someone passes away, you hear of it–you're like 'Om mani padme hum.' It's instinctual now." She's not aware, though, of any other instance of the phrase transforming someone into a superhero.
Some of the comic books in the exhibit do seem to actually get Tibet. Tsering Lama, also at Columbia, grew up in a Tibetan community in Nepal. She was a huge fan of Western comic books like "Archie" and "Asterix," and remembers the joy of discovering the comic "Tintin in Tibet," where one of her favorite characters travels to a familiar landscape.
"He's kind of walking around the streets where I grew up," Lama says. "It's humorous—he's making fun of some of the clichés a little bit, like a Tibetan lama floating in the air, then there's Nepali people drying peppers on the street, and there's cows walking around, and stuff like that. But mostly it was like a visual thing–to see Tibet portrayed in a visual way by someone I love, like Tintin, walking around in Tibet and Nepal was really, really cool."
Lama thinks that part of the west's enduring fascination with Tibet, on clear display in these comic books, comes from the fact that the country has, for so much of its history, been closed off. It allows imagination to run wild.
And she says there really are some things to be fascinated by. "There are elements about it that are kind of strange–ideas of reincarnation, ideas of monks being able to dry an icy-cold sheet wrapped around them just because of their mental power. Things like that. Those are things my parents believe in, and those are things I wrestle with too."
She finds it ironic that Westerners so often look to Tibet for peace and strength, when the current reality there can be pretty bleak.
"They still think that Tibet, or Tibetans, or Buddhism, can give them something that they can't get somewhere else," she says. "So you have a lot eccentric people who get attached to Tibet. But they don't really ever look at what's actually happening in Tibet, and what's actually happening to Tibetans, and what's happening to our religion, and our survival. And so the whole thing is such a bizarre–totally strange. Because of course now Tibetans, we look to the world to help us. We're like we need help, we're desperate for help from everybody."
The exhibit at the Rubin has inspired Lama and others to start a comic book and graphic novel workshop. They're hoping it might encourage more Tibetans to use this art form to tell their own stories.