Searching for Shangri La: Tibet in Comics

by Geoffrey Clarfield (April 2012)

Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics is the latest free exhibit on display at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. Curator Martin Brauen has presented more than fifty comics from the early 1940s to the present for our contemplation and enlightenment. The exhibit presents Western comics like Tin Tin in Tibet beside more recently produced comics made by Tibetans, that encourage living according to Buddhist principles. The comics are attached to an extended two-sided reading lectern where you can read many of them from cover to cover, if you have the time.

It is a delightful, exciting and paradoxical exhibit (but wonderfully evocative) for it only mentions in passing that many of the spectacular powers and phenomena described in these comics have a basis in Tibetan culture and a strange, yet recurring but unexplained connection to New York City itself.

So that we may better understand how Westerners have transmitted, distorted and transformed Tibetan culture through comics and popular culture let us list a few traditional Tibetan beliefs and see how they fare in the comic book world and the related world of films, novels, and popular American religion, for the exhibit opens this wider door by also highlighting the work of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (founder of Theosophy), the reincarnated Tibetan monk, Lobsang Rampa and James Hilton (author of the novel Lost Horizon).

Finally, there is the less popular, but ever recurring non Tibetan, Western invention of Tibet as a land of evil, the source or refuge of evil and for some Neo Nazis, a place that promises a second chance at world domination.

Although Blavatsky and her colleagues moved against the Social Darwinism of her times by allowing for the fact that Hindu Aryans and Tibetans were only a tad inferior to white Europeans but not substantially so, this left a doorway of opportunity open for later Nazi pseudo science. Just before the outbreak of WWII, Heinrich Himmler sponsored a research expedition to Tibet to study the racial profiles of the Tibetans. Influenced by various mystical pseudo sciences that had a partial source in the Theosophy of Blavatsky, many Nazis believed that the Aryans (Germans) might have originated in Tibet. We can deduce therefore that the Nazis would not have earmarked the Tibetans for annihilation had they conquered the world, whereas Jews, Gypsies and Slavs just had to go.

And so was born the Nazi and the later ongoing neo Nazi fascination with Tibet, an inverted Shangri La, whose growing number of comics and novels often place Nazi survivors in underground caves (shades of Valhalla?) in Tibet, just waiting to dominate the world once again. Given the traditional non antisemitism of the Tibetans and the Chinese we can feel relieved that life will not imitate art in this instance. Yet these themes are shown very clearly in the comics on display at the exhibit.

Jack Pettigrew is an Australian neuroscientist who wanted to find out if Tibetan Buddhist monks who had spent decades mastering the art of meditation would be able to focus more effectively on positive, as opposed to negative images, when given equal exposure to both. Not surprisingly the monks passed his tests with flying colours. Under laboratory conditions it could be demonstrated that their attention was consciously focused on the positive aspects of the positive image. This was neither random nor accidental and clearly a function of their spiritual training.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.

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