As with most of my blogs, this one started with an essay written by a Tibetan-run account that I follow on Wechat. Sweet Tea House (甜茶馆）published a piece in April 2016 entitled “A Green Coloured Lama: Elements of Tibetan Culture on the Front Covers of Well-Known Foreign Comics”. It got me thinking about representations of Tibet in (English language-medium) western comic books and curious about what other examples I might find.
In this post I take a look at how Tibet and Tibetans have fared in western comic books, and some of the reasons why the particular kinds of pictures of Tibet we see tend to crop up time and time again.
Mention Tibet and comic books, and Tintin’s name will immediately be raised. Arguably the most well-known of Tintin’s globetrotting adventures, Hergé, the Belgian artist behind the series, has even noted Tintin’s trip to Tibet to be his favourite episode of all the Tintin comics.
Originally published as a serialized weekly in Tintin magazine between September 1958 and November 1959, and later published as a book in 1960, Tintin in Tibet follows the young explorers search for his friend Chang Chong-Chen. While flying from Hong Kong to London to start work in an antique shop, Chang’s plane crashes in the mountains of Tibet. He’s miraculously survives the crash only to be rescued by a mysterious Yeti. Despite the authority’s claims that Chang died in the crash, Tintin is unconvinced and sets out with his companions across the Himalayas to find his friend, encountering levitating monks and lots of “mystic Tibetan culture”.
I remember Tibet popping up here and there in comics and cartoons when I was a kid. It seemed to rank pretty highly on the superheroes’ adventure bucket list, a kind of superhero rite of passage perhaps. Western superheroes had a bit of a habit of turning up in Tibet and as we’ll see, they have been doing it for ages.
So why did Tibet prove to be such an irresistible destination for so many western superheroes? What was the enduring attraction that saw references to Tibet cropping up again and again across the pages of Marvel, DC, and even Walt Disney?
In a word: Orientalism.
Orientalism, a term popularized by Edward Said in his 1978 book of the same name, describes the particular power dynamics at work in how “the West” represents and produces knowledge about “the Orient”. As Said writes, it is about “the way that the West perceives of — and thereby defines — the East”.
Relying on setting up “the West” and “the East” as fundamentally different and distinct cultures, Orientalism creates and perpetuates subtle and persistent prejudices and essentializing stereotypes about non-Western people and their cultures. It works to promote ideas of “the West’s” cultural superiority and justify Western imperialism. In a nutshell, Orientalism is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”, and popular culture is a powerful channel for this.
Tibet has always been filtered through the ideological prism of popular Western Orientalism. Long an object of fascination and fantasy exciting the popular imagination in the West, Tibet is variously framed as an exotic and timeless place of magic, mystery, and sometimes even danger. Popular culture in the West regularly presents Tibet as a mythical spiritual wonderland, full of yetis, mystic monks with supernatural powers.
Certainly, many of the comic books superhero giants like Batman, Superman and the Incredible Hulk have been to Tibet at some stage or another. Batman, who visited Tibet in 1970s and 1980s issues, even apparently gained a decent mastery of tögal, an esoteric Tibetan meditation practice.
The Incredible Hulk went to Tibet in 1962 when he found out that Tibetan monks were under threat by the Chinese Army led by General Fang. Stepped in a heavy dose of anti-communist rhetoric and fears of China’s rising geopolitical might that characterised the time, the Hulk flings himself into the conflict against Fang’s and his army. In true dedication to the cause, he even dresses up as a yeti to scare off Fang’s forces.
As is probably becoming pretty apparent, yetis make a number of guest appearance in comics set in Tibet.
In 1967 Superman jumped on the action-packed-Himalayan-adventure bandwagon when Clark Kent traveled to Tibet to investigate a possible Superman sighting and ends up getting stranded there for five years.
Superman #194, Feb 1967. Source
Another superhero who you might have heard of was the Green Lama, a crime-fighting Tibetan Buddhist. Reputed to have inspired by the story of self-proclaimed “white lama” Theos Casimir Bernard, the Green Lama is an alias of Jethro Dumont, a graduate of Harvard University, Oxford, and the Sorbonne. Dumont spent 10 years studying to be a lama at Drepung College in Tibet, during which time he acquired mystical and supernatural powers, as you do. To read more about the Green Lama, check out The Lost Yak’s blog here.
The Green Lama, however, was not the only green being from Tibet to grace the pages of western comics. During the 1940s, Captain America Vol 1 #2 featured the ‘Green Tibetan Giants” (also known as “the walking mountains”, “Oriental Giants” and “Ageless Orientals”). The “Green Tibetan Giants” were an ancient race of giant humanoids who lived in a remote region deep within the Tibetan mountains. They even captured Captain America for a bit, before getting killed by loud noises.
Now of course we can’t talk about references to Tibet in comics without mentioning Dr. Strange. Dr. Strange first appeared in Strange Tales #110, 1963. The character, a talent and renowned neurosurgeon, damages his hands in an horrific car accident. Failed by western medicine, he sets out around the globe in search of a cure. While wandering through the Himalayas, he meets “The Ancient One”, a 500 year old sorcerer from a mysterious enclave somewhere in Tibet known as Kamar-Taj who has dedicated himself to defending Planet Earth from evil mystic forces. Dr. Strange becomes an apprentice of the Ancient One, learning from him how to use black magic to protect humankind from evil villains. More recently, Dr. Strange has become embroiled in the latest Hollywood whitewashing controversy, which you can read more about here.
Dr. Strange was really a reworking of an earlier character named Dr. Droom (also known as Dr. Druid), another American doctor who traveled to the mountains of Tibet to study magic from an ancient sorcerer. Dr. Droom debuted in Amazing Adventures #1 in June 1961. Among his many adventures, Dr. Droom once encountered a Gorlion (a gorilla-lion hybrid) at the Ancient One’s Monastery in Tibet.
Dr. Droom/Druid appeared again in a new science-fiction/horror comic series by marvel in the 1970s called “Weird Wonderful Tales”, and so too did Tibet. In Issue #11 in 1973, a western man follows his stepbrother to Shangri-La with the secret intention of robbing as much treasure as possible. In a curious plot-twist, the evil stepbrother arrives in Shangri-La to find the place completely in ruins and inhabited by dishevelled and mean locals. He immediately flees, leaving behind his stepbrother in Shangri-La wondering why his stepbrother was not as enamoured by the beautiful scenery and people as he was. The locals respond “Every man who finds Shangri-La finds exactly what he deserves. Come and enjoy with us the greatest treasure of all. The treasure of eternal happiness.”
Another in the white male superhero escapades in Tibet series is the White Lama. First published in 2014, the White Lama is “a Tibetan-set mystical adventure of treachery, martial arts, and spiritual redemption”. The comic tells the story of Gabriel, an orphan raised by white explorers and raised by locals in late 19th century Tibet. Following the death of the Grand Lama Mipam, Gabriel is chosen as his reincarnation. Then, in a race against time, Gabriel, aided by warrior monks and yetis, works to save his adopted homeland from devastation and downfall… and defeat his own personal demons, of course.
It wasn’t just the white guys dominating the stories of Tibet across the comics. In 1946, the Looney Tunes got in on the action.
Even Mickey Mouse and Goofy went to the Tibet in 1952.
Mickey Mouse in High Tibet, 1952. Source
And so too did Donald Duck in 1954 when, sick of the rampant materialism of western civilization, he goes in search of “the perfect calm” from a mountain guru in a mythical village called Xanadu, a lost land in the Himalayan valleys. James Hilton would be proud… or angry at copyright infringement.
Spoiler alert: comic may include duck-eating yetis.
In 1990 Uncle Scrooge (also known as Scrooge McDuck) a distant Scottish relative of Donald’s also went looking for Xanadu.
Not to be outdone by ducks, the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles also went to Tibet to visit their Sensei’s old teacher, Charlie Lama. Along the way, they meet a tiger named Catmandu. A parody of the Turtles, the Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, followed suit in 1986. The Hamsters were on a NASA mission in space when the vessel they were travelling in crash landed in Tibet. They were soon taken in by monks and trained in martial arts.
You’ve probably noticed a pretty standard thread running through most of the comics presented so far – Tibet as a playground for western adventures and a place for white (and sometimes green) western men to study Tibetan Buddhism, acquire supernatural powers.
In the world of superhero comic books, this is sadly not at all surprising. White male characters dominate.
When non-Western cultures crop up in the pages of comics, we often see the intersection of Orientalism and white patriarchy.
Tibetans themselves, if they feature at all, tend to be monks relegated to a supporting role, essentially there to nurture and nourish the white western male protagonist’s desires to master magic, conquer personal demons, achieve self-realization, and fight yetis.
Perhaps we might think about a Bechdel Test-like approach to evaluating the ways Tibetans are represented in western comic books and the extent to which they are subjects with their own stories rather than side-kicks and objects of ancient wisdom to be consumed by western superheros.
Thankfully, there are also some examples of comics that center on Tibetan experiences outside of their encounters with western superheros, explorers etc.
The two comics above focus on the life of Milarepa, tellings the story of one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most renowned yogis and poets. They follows Milarepa’s transformation from an avenging black magician to a powerful yogi on the quest for mystic truth and liberation.
There are also a few comic books chronicling the life and work of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
The 14th Dalai Lama (2011) by Japanese manga artist Tetsu Saiwai is an illustrated biography of the Dalai Lama. It traces the Tibetan monks search for the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama, Sino-Tibetan relations, and China’s invasion and occupation of Tibet, as well as the Dalai Lama’s escape into exile. It also describes the Dalai Lama’s continuing importance today. Dalai Lama: the Solider of Peace (2013) tells a similar story.
The above is by no means a definitive collection of appearances of Tibet and Tibetans in western comics. I will likely continue to add and edit this post as time goes on. At the very least, hopefully it offers an overview of sorts into the ways Tibet and Tibetans have been represented across different comic book genres.
In the meantime, it might interest some to check out a previous post I wrote on representations of Tibet in Chinese ‘lianhuanhua’ or illustrated story books. It might be worth thinking about some of the similarities and differences that crop up between Chinese and western visual depictions of Tibet in a future blog.
A good place to end would be to quickly note that while this blog focuses on representations of Tibet in western comic books, it isn’t all one way. It isn’t all about how Tibet has featured in western comic books, but also it can be worth thinking about how aspects of western comic books travel to Tibet and get appropriated by Tibetans. And on that point, I’ll leave you with some work by contemporary Tibetan artist, Gade.
A few others not mentioned above