In the fall of my fifth year, I spent several months in Tibet without my parents even knowing it. That summer, they an-nounced that the family was moving from Philadelphia to Montreal, and gave me a French copy of the comic Tintin in Tibet—a random choice, I guess, to ease my transition to the French culture of Quebec. I pored over the book, and when we arrived at our new home in “Quebet,” as I thought of it, I was disappointed not to find the great mountains, abominable snowmen, or levitating lamas that it had seemed to promise. (The book’s snowdrifts did come, eventually—which only increased my frustration that it didn’t deliver on the rest.)
Already at 5, I had plugged into the powerful myth of Tibet that Westerners have created. Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics, an exhibition now at the lovely little Rubin Museum of Art in New York, shows I wasn’t the only kid who feasted on that myth. Martin Brauen, curator emeritus at the Rubin, has assembled 48 comic books built around Tibet, presenting some originals in cases on the wall but all 48 as reading copies out on open desks.
There’s the famous Tintin book, of course, in both English and Tibetan editions. (The French original appeared in 1960.) Nearby is the “origins” volume of the Marvel comic Dr. Strange, from 1968, which shows that “Master of the Mystic Arts” acquiring his magic powers from a Himalayan sage. Uncle Scrooge, in a Donald Duck comic, as well as Bugs Bunny in his own, are given zany adventures set at the Top of the World, while Lara Croft, the Tomb Raider herself, also spends time there. During World War II there was even one American action comic, titled The Green Lama, that pretended to ground its superhero deep in Tibetan culture. (Its author cared enough to dig up an actual Buddhist prayer, Om Mani Padme Hum, as the magic phrase his hero utters to change from civilian clothes into cape and tights.)
There can’t be many other foreign countries and cultures that Westerners have mythologized as deeply as Tibet. The romance began early: in the 17th century, Catholic missionaries were caught up in the idea that there might be parallels between their own religion, hierarchical and highly ritualized, and the religion of a wildly remote land they were eager to get to.
The following century, there’s a good chance that David Hume, the great empiricist philosopher, saw Tibetan Buddhism as foreign support for his own atheism. Then, toward the close of the 19th century, as the exhibition reveals, Madame Blavatsky and her theosophists took up Tibet and re-created it in their own mysticizing, occultist image. (Without Madame herself having ever visited the place, the evidence now proves—except maybe by telekinesis.) The Rubin doesn’t mention it, but by the 1920s one of Blavatsky’s most prominent followers, the Tibeto-philic mystic and painter Nicholas Roerich, was grabbing headlines as one of the greatest artists working in the U.S.—and more of them later when scandal engulfed his American disciples and he retreated to the Himalayas. Roerich’s famous pictures of mountains and sages could have been bold and colorful enough to catch the eye of early comic-book artists, and to help boost Tibet’s pop-culture profile. That got even more substantial help in 1933 from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon and its Shangri-La. And then, in the 1950s, the region got another massive dose of attention, and romanticizing, with the conquest of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guides. Brauen told me the myth of Tibet was once so strong that both Camp David and a World War II aircraft carrier were christened Shangri-La. Unlike many other foreign peoples, Brauen points out, “Tibetans are spoiled in a way by the West, because they are always represented in a positive way.” (In 1960, his native Switzerland welcomed Tibetan refugees with open arms, he says, comparing their fate with later arrivals in his coun-try.) Brauen says that for a long time Tibetans barely even knew about their fortunate image abroad, and have only recently begun to worry about the stereotypes they’ve been stuck with. They need not worry too much: the Tibet of the comics and the country now occupied by the Chinese are essentially two different places, even in the Western mind.
“You must know, noble stranger, that many things occur here in Tibet which seem unbelievable to you men of the West,” says a sage to Tintin. As I discovered early on, the “here” he’s talking about exists only between the comic’s covers.