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Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics | Rubin Museum of Art, 12.09.2011-06.11.2012

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Flying lamas, fierce abominable snowmen, and other mysteries are explored in this exhibit of comics artwork about the nation of Tibet.

 

 

Tibet has been an object of fascination for the West since the 17th century, but real information about the region has been hard to come by. In its place, we've gotten a lot of traveler's reports and legends about flying lamas, giant hairy beasts, and a hidden valley where no one grows old. Of course, that lack of information has aided in popularizing the legends—who’s to say that monks in some far-off land don't have a third eye in the center of their forehead, after all?
 
James Hilton and Madame Blavatsky did their part in spreading mythologies about Tibet, but for many a young person, their introduction to this far-off land came through comic books. That's the idea behind "Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics," an exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City that examines how Tibet has been treated in comic books from the 1940s to today.
 
It's amazing how many comics have featured Tibet over the years—of course we know about Tintin's adventures meeting the Yeti and rescuing his friend Chang, but Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Scrooge McDuck (with Donald and the nephews, of course), among others, also visited a thinly-disguised Tibet. Journeys to Tibet also figured in many adventure comics, from King Keller (Creepy #37), who becomes king of the Yetis (and finds the position to be a not unmixed blessing), to Paul and Harry Drum, the lead characters in "The Man Who Found Shangri-La" (Weird Wonder Tales #11). The association of Tibet with ancient wisdom may have contributed to the fact that many of these tales demonstrate a clear (in some cases one might say anvilicious) moral—for instance that "the secret of Shangri-La is that every person who discovers it, finds only what he deserves to find" according to Stan Lee in "The Man Who Found Shangri-La."
 
Jethro Dumont, a.k.a. the Green Lama, is almost certainly the first Buddhist superhero in Western comics. His modus operandi is similar to that of Superman and many other superheroes: Dumont spent most of his time passing unnoticed by living like an ordinary person. But when there was evil to be fought, he transformed himself into the Green Lama (who had superhuman strength and could fly) by chanting the "magic phrase" (in fact, it's a prayer) "Om Mani Padme Hum." Interestingly, the Green Lama is not Tibetan but Caucasian, a characteristic he shares with many "magical lamas" in other tales. 
 
Of course, comics aren't just for entertainment—they can also educate and argue for a point of view. "Mercy and Asura," a 1997 Japanese comic, portrays the devastation of Tibet at the hands of the Chinese, while "Settling the Dispute Between Birds and Monkeys," published in Tibetan and English, is meant to teach children the benefits of negotiating a peaceful solution to disputes. Biographies of Milarepa and the Buddha are also included in the exhibit, the former a particular eye-opener as it does not neglect his purported study of black magic nor his use of those powers to seek revenge.
 
If you're lucky enough to be in New York City between now and June 11, you can see "Hero, Villain, Yeti" in person. A dedicated comics fan could easily spend several hours perusing the displays and reading some of the comics available for your enjoyment (if you want to read all the comics, plan on a full day). There's an admission charge for the museum, but if you only want to see this exhibit, it's free, and that's a policy I wish more museums would adopt. If a trip to New York is not in your immediate future, you can learn more about the comics on the museum web site (http://www.rmanyc.org/comics). | Sarah Boslaugh
 
 
Bugs Bunny “Dangerous Venture”
Penciler, Inker: Carl Buettner, 1946
 
Creepy “King Keller”
By Nicola Cuti and Syd Shores, 1971
 
Green Lama (no. 1) page 3
Script by Richard Foster, art by Mac Raboy, 1944
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