The Comics Connection III: The Green Lama (and I don’t mean Milarepa)

click to enlarge
A while back I wrote a couple of posts about how Batman and Dr Strange both received their training among the magical monks of Tibet. Once they each returned stateside, however, their Tibet connections become a footnote; a quaint piece of backstory, but not much more. Not so for The Green Lama, who not only studied in Tibet, but who wraps his whole identity around the place. When he gets in trouble, he chants Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ, and the power of that mantra resonates with a monastery in Tibet and transforms him into a unstoppable crime-fighting force (image 1). Needless to say, this is a fairly unprecedented use of the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion (click here for some previous posts featuring authentic uses of the maṇi). On the upside, they did get the Tibetan spelling of the mantra right, which is no small feat for 1945 (see the center panel in image 1). Besides his unconventional use of the maṇi, he has a Tibetan servant named Tsarong who calls him 'tulku' and he even works the term 'lama' into his crime-fighting name. Surely this must be the most Tibet-centric superhero ever.

click to enlarge
Ok, so he’s wrapped himself in all this Tibetan imagery. But what about all the violence? When he first returns to the US after ten years in Tibet, The Green Lama wants to teach Americans to meditate. He is barely off the ship, however, before he witnesses a murder and becomes convinced that Americans are not ready to meditate. So instead he becomes a superhero, punching out bad guys’ lights left and right. this may not accord with our notions of peaceful Buddhists, but I can’t help feel it resonates with some of the ideas surrounding Tibetan protector deities, or the legends about figures such as Gesar. So maybe we’re not so far off here…. I have no idea what kind of research The Green Lama’s writers did, but it would be really neat to know if these resonances were intentional, or purely coincidence.

click to enlarge
Other than its Tibet connection, perhaps the most striking thing about this comic series is the explicit anti-racism stance it takes. The Green Lama was published from 1944-1946, and in one issue, The Green Lama picks up a racist soldier and carries him to Nazi Germany, where he sees the impact of racism and learns the error of his ways. In another issue, The Green Lama travels to Texas in order to expose and shame an anti-semite. To be fair, the writers of this comic clearly supported the war effort, and their characterization of German and, particularly, Japanese soldiers is anything but sympathetic. Still, arguing against racism so strongly seems pretty remarkable for this time. If anyone reading this has studied pop culture of this period, please feel free to add your two cents in the comments box below. I’d be really curious to know how common this was.

So there you have it: the most Tibet-centric comic superhero of all time. As always, we can see the same old stereotypes of Tibet as a land of mysterious enchantments and power, and, as always, the hero is a caucasian male and actual Tibetans are relegated to minor roles. Still, the fact that a comic like this could appear in the forties, and assume that young readers would already be familiar with terms like ‘lama’ and ‘tulku’ speaks to a pretty remarkable level of knowledge and interest in Tibet at the time.

_____________________________________

If you want to read more about The Green Lama, the entire run is contained in the following two books:

  • The Complete Green Lama: Featuring the Art of Mac Raboy. Vol. 1. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Archives, 2008.
  • The Complete Green Lama: Featuring the Art of Mac Raboy. Vol. 2. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Archives, 2008.
  • Advertisements

    The Comics Connection II: Dr Strange Goes to Tibet (and Greenwich Village too)

    When I wrote about Batman’s tögal practice (click here for that post), several people wrote to tell me about Dr Strange, a Marvel Comics character from the sixties who also studied esoteric practices in Tibet. So I ordered it up through inter-library loan and waited. For a while. Finally, a copy of The Essential Doctor Strange arrived, having come all the way from Fairbanks, Alaska. This is, I think, the farthest distance from which I’ve ever received an inter-library loan book. Now that the book has arrived, however, I must confess to being a little disappointed. The plots are, well, a little strange, even by comic book standards. But no matter, Dr Strange has studied in Tibet, and that makes him interesting to me.

    Dr Strange is a master of black magic, but he uses the dark arts to protect mankind, warding off villains such as Baron Mordo and Nightmare (a character who bears a striking resemblance to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman). He learned these skills studying at the feet of The Ancient One, at a hermitage deep in the mountains of Tibet. If it weren’t for the repeated references to Tibet, however, it would be impossible to tell where these classes take place. Neither the setting nor the practices these figures engage in bear any resemblance to anything you might actually find in Tibet. Even the mystic writing in Dr Strange’s books is just some odd circles. At least when The Green Lama chants his mantras, the artists take the trouble to get the script right (I’ll be posting about the Green Lama just as soon as inter-library loan gets the book to me). For Stan Lee, Doctor Strange’s main author, Tibet seems to be nothing more than an exotic location in which an American hero can learn about black magic. Not much new here.

    But Tibet is not the only place mentioned repeatedly in the Dr Strange comics. The other is Greenwich Village, New York City. This is where Dr Strange himself resides (at least, when he’s not traveling through other dimensions in a ethereal body). Dr Strange’s house also bears a certain resemblance to The Ancient One’s Tibetan hermitage, particularly in its odd spider web windows. The implication seems to be that Greenwich Village is the new Tibet, home of oddball mystics and the occult. Dr Strange was first published in 1963, and at that time Greenwich Village must have seemed remote and exotic to many Americans. It had beatniks, Bob Dylan and LSD. What better place to imagine as the American abode for the mysteries of Tibet?

    The Comics Connection I: Batman does Tögal!

    As we know, Batman is a man of many talents. Among his lesser know skills is a mastery of esoteric Tibetan meditation practices. Yes, Batman does tögal. His mastery of this technique is revealed in the R.I.P. series of comics, where he uses tögal to experience death, overcoming his last shred of fear. Pretty neat. For those of you who are unfamiliar with tögal (tib: ཐོད་རྒལ།), it is a Dzokchen practice where a practitioner allows their pure nature to shine forth in the form of luminous Buddha images. Rather than being intentionally visualized, these forms appear spontaneously to a practitioner’s visual consciousness. Last time I checked (and I’m hardly an expert on this), tögal is not usually presented as a rehearsal for dying.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we dismiss the Dark Knight as an impostor, we should take a look at how he describes the practice he’s doing. In Robin 175, we learn that the tögal ritual Batman performs (and it is consistently called a ritual, rather than a practice, but let’s not get hung up on semantics) involves staying shut in a Nepali cave for forty-nine days. The goal, we are told, is to simulate death and rebirth. This does not give us much to go on, even though tögal can be performed in a sealed and darkened room, and forty-nine days is the traditional length for the period between death and re-birth.

    For more detail, we need to turn to the opening pages of Batman 681. Here we find Bruce Wayne relaying his tögal experiences to a monk. “As I lay in the darkness,” he says, “I began to experience vivid hallucinations of the past and present, even the future. But then I came to the end of even that. I found myself in a place that’s not a place.” “In tögal,” the monk replies, “the initiate learns what the dead know. The self is peeled back to its black, radiant core.”

    Now we’ve got something to compare with traditional understandings of tögal. First off, we have visions. Check. So far so good. Then the visions stop. In traditional tögal, the final stage of the practice is when all of the visions collapse back in on themselves. Again, check. Finally, we learn that the point of the practice is to reveal the radiant core of the self. In traditional presentations, it is a person’s pure, radiant nature that is the source of tögal’s visionary experiences. So actually, we’re not too far off here. I don’t think many tögal practitioners would describe this radiant core as black, but then again this monk has just tried to murder Batman, so perhaps he was only referring to himself. Again then, check. If Bruce only stopped here, we could say that he actually does a halfway decent job of sticking to themes found in real-world tögal.

    Instead, however, Bruce brings things back to death. A few pages later, he reveals to the monk why he undertook the tögal ritual, “I wanted to taste the flavor of death. I wanted to know that I had experienced every eventuality.” Again, we’re back to the idea that tögal somehow simulates the death and re-birth process. Now, to be fair, texts such as the Bardo Tödröl (popularly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a text which hails from the same practice tradition that gives us tögal) claim that after death, one experiences spontaneous visions of Buddhist deities. Further, these visions are projections of an individual’s radiant core, just as in tögal. So it might not be too far fetched to see tögal as something of a rehearsal for the events that occur during the death process.

    Traditionally, however, tögal is not usually presented in this way. Instead, it is a practice for revealing the pure, radiant nature of everything someone experiences, with death being just one experience among many. This may not seem like much of a shift, but it goes to the heart of the practice. Tögal is a practice concerned with experiencing primordial purity in the present moment, rather than a means to prepare for a future event. For an accomplished practitioner of tögal, the death process should be just as radiant and pure as every other moment of their life. So, no, Batman doesn’t quite have his heart in the right place when he undertakes this practice.

    Still, we have to give DC Comics’ writers some credit here. Despite not quite getting the overall intent of the practice, they came pretty close on lots of the details. Others they missed, such as the ‘Tibetan’ monastery that looks strikingly Japanese, or the cave that looks more like depictions of Jesus’ sepulcher than any Tibetan retreat cave I’ve ever seen. Clearly, however, someone on their staff was into researching obscure Tibetan practices, and we should applaud them for not just making things up, even if the final product is a little off.

    Thanks to David Germano for bringing Batman’s tögal mastery to my attention.