Tin Tin did it, Lara Croft did it, and even Donald, Bugs, and Mickey did it. Travel to Tibet, that is—not the actual Himalayan country (since 1951 a part of the People’s Republic of China) but the mythical place that has existed in the Western popular imagination since Europeans first arrived there 800 years ago.
This gap between reality and illusion is the very Buddhist focus of Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics, at the Rubin Museum of Art, an exhibition that examines Western projections and fantasies about Tibet through comic books that feature it as a locale or a story element. The show—organized by the museum’s former chief curator, Martin Brauen—includes over 50 comics from the United States, Europe, India, and Japan dating from the 1940s to last year. In them, Tibet is depicted variously as a seat of ancient wisdom, a political cause, and, more recently, as a region grappling with 21st-century problems, which are often exacerbated by the stereotyping of its culture and inhabitants by the rest of the world.
Exotic descriptions of Tibet’s folk customs and unique form of esoteric Buddhism have filtered back to the West since the time of Marco Polo. Describing the denizens of the Chinese province of Tibet, Polo wrote in the 13th century, “Among this people, too, you find the best enchanters and astrologers that exist in all that quarter of the world; they perform such extraordinary marvels and sorceries by diabolic art that it astounds one to see or even hear of them.”
The relatively recent conception of Tibet as a peaceful realm ruled by benevolent spiritual masters can be traced to the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), cofounder of the Theosophical Society. Blavatsky—who claimed she was a Tibetan Buddhist, although she had never been to Tibet— believed she was in psychic communication with a race of living Tibetan mahatmas, whose revelations formed the basis of her teachings.
This image was reinforced by books like James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, which describes a brotherhood of white sages living in a Himalayan paradise called Shangri-La, and by the 1956 publication of The Third Eye, which purported to be the autobiography of a Tibetan called T. Lobsang Rampa but in fact had been penned by an Englishman, Cyril Henry Hoskin.
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