Hero, Villain, Yeti - Tibet in Comics


of an Exhibition

by Rachel Flax

Published on March 25, 2012, Modified on April 20, 2012

  • Description:

    HERO, VILLAIN, YETITIBET IN COMICS is on view through June 11, 2012 at The Rubin Museum. Approximately fifty objects—mostly books, comics, and figurines—make up the exhibition arranged around the museum’s theatre level gallery. The Big Idea here is: Comic books have long depicted Tibet as a land of mystery and fantasy, of the occult and “the other”. Secondary messages suggest that such depictions helped to form and perpetuate stereotypes about Tibet as the land of Shangri-la, of long lost people and objects, of the terrifying Yeti, and/or of plotting villains. Not surprisingly, such comics of the past 60+ years also took for granted or affirmed a White Westerner’s view of the exotic east. These big and secondary ideas contain many layers of interpretation and significance. They are complicated yet presented through a limited number of objects in a small space, they came across as straightforward matters-of-fact throughout exhibition.

    In addressing provocative issues, the exhibition could have taken a strong stance against glaring misrepresentations, or at least accentuated the stark contrast between Western portrayals of Tibet and contemporary life-lesson and moral-teaching Tibetan comics. Instead, the exhibition merely offers that many Western comic books portrayed Tibet in various, largely inaccurate ways. The content begs questions like, “What is ‘an accurate’ depiction?” “Who decides?” but such queries are nowhere to be seen. If a curatorial stance is implied, this viewer missed it.

    Perhaps I did not like the show because I viewed it on a Friday evening after a long week or because I am not a big fan of comic books, but in my defense, I ventured to see it because the concepts intrigued me! Sadly, I was disappointed. The exhibition seemed like a celebration of the preposterous stereotypes that comics propounded. Additionally, it left me wanting more from the objects themselves, less text, and more opinion from the curators

    Arranged in five main sections that focused on four comic genres—fantasy, biography, politics and education—and a full wall-length display of figurines, the objects offered little beyond illustration of extensive wall and label text. Despite their length, the text provided mere surface descriptions rather than rich contextual explanations of each genre. Could the objects (or a greater number of objects) have spoken more for themselves with less text? While a 21st century edition of a theosophy book by Madame Blavatsky implies a great many things about the woman, her influence and her theories, it does not tell me much about who she was and why her books are still being printed. Furthermore, the only direct visual link between her influences on comics is a fabricated comic wall panel full of text. In addition to the lengthy panels in each section, long-winded labels stifled any sense of flow from object to object. Finally, because the text seemed to be the main link between the objects, by the time I reached the second of the four genres, I was tired of reading!

    As I slogged through reading the exhibition, I found myself wanting a deeper contextual basis for how and why particular stereotypical depictions evolved. I would have loved a fuller analysis of their consequences too. While the exhibit touched on the influences of a few individuals and contemporary texts from the West, I wanted more background as to why these things were so influential in comics and in society at large. Out of what socio-political and entertainment climes did they evolve? Who were their followers? Why did comic books pick up on their ideas specifically?

    As I grew more and more tired of reading, I kept on because I really wanted to view the comics that the exhibition promised! Yes, the comics to which much of the text kept referring! Instead I felt stuck reading a bunch of information that failed to provide me with a viewpoint and left me wanting. To be fair, I should mention that full copies of many comic books were available for perusal at a table in the gallery. However, these books seemed like bonus rather than main components of the exhibition.

    The highlight of Hero, Villain, Yeti, was the fourth section—the educational genre of comics—that compared an ancient Tibetan thangka to a Tibetan comic. Both use similar iconography and symbols to tell an important moralistic or life-lesson tale. Unfortunately, seeing this single example of the Tibetan comic as an educational tool next to Western comics made for entertainment purposes deepened my disappointment in the exhibition. Instead of using this comparison as an opportunity to bring a Tibetan perspective into the conversation, the exhibition presented it and just left it dangling.

    At the end of the exhibition, before I thumbed through the comic books on the table, I viewed a 10-15 minute video created by The Rubin. It showed a montage of comic book depictions of Tibet while explaining the breadth of themes for which Western comic books appropriated such imagery. At the end, a quote from H. H. Dalai Lama explained that there is no single concept of Tibet. Tibet just is—it is both and neither an unchanging ideal land and an ever-changing land. I suppose this realization is one of the exhibition’s goals, although it was not clear. True, the multiple ways in which the comics presented Tibet suggest multiple interpretations. But with only a single Tibetan interpretation (and not even a contemporary one!), and multiple unchallenged Western views, the exhibition did not fully support the Dalai Lama’s quote.

    I’m not sure about any additional goals of the exhibition since clearly I failed to enjoy the ideal interpretive experience. I wish the exhibition had explicitly addressed the dense subtext of the comics (stereotypes, appropriation, socio-political complexity, allegory) that the label text glossed over. Instead, with too many loaded ideas crammed into too little space with too few objects, HERO, VILLAIN, YETITIBET IN COMICS fell flat.

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