Years and years ago, I read Tintin in Tibet, but I had no idea that, since the 1940s, all sorts of comic book characters have been visiting this far-off land of snow-capped mountains. This is what a show at the Rubin Museum of Art explores, and after I had read comic after comic after comic, I found myself thinking of other incarnations Tibet has had.
The Tibetan community in exile still speaks very much in terms of someday returning to its homeland, and for these Tibetans ‘Tibet’ is a concrete geographic place and culture. But to us outsiders, ‘Tibet’ is getting more and more narrowly defined. Whenever I see Tibetan monks creating sand mandalas in a museum, Tibetan embroidery and brassware for sale, or a stupa rising on the Costa del Sol, I wonder whether ‘Tibet’ may not be reincarnating as an increasingly rarefied collection of objects, rituals, and religious practices that floats around the world.
When we think of Tibet, don’t most of us flash to robed lamas and deep-throated chants…tangkhas and bronzes and the Dalai Lama advocating non-violence…windswept mountainscapes where smiling children scamper and old women look out from wrinkled faces…? It is a ‘Tibet’ not far removed from the 2-D Tibet of comics, when you get right down to it. Which makes this following bit all the more relevant (and poignant): in writing my review, I learned that some young Tibetans living in exile are launching a Comics Workshop. Why? To make sure that ‘real Tibetans’ start inhabiting comic book Tibet, just the way they long to inhabit the land of their forefathers.