Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of giving a presentation at Hsi Lai Temple upon the last-minute-but-always-welcome invitation of my friend and past blog interviewee the Venerable Dr. Yifa.
I was part of a group of guest speakers at the temple’s “Be Awesome and Be Free” youth workshop, which included numerous Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Eagle Scouts. The other speakers included the New York City Coalition Against Hunger’s Michael Paone, who presented on the subject of “Eco-Food and Buddhism,” and the University of Wisconsin’s Peck School of the Arts’ Dr. Vicki Callahan and the USC School of the Cinematic Arts’ Dr. Bill Whittington, who presented on “Cinema and Buddhism.”
At the suggestion of the Ven. Dr. Yifa, who told me that the kids were all huge fans of the film Bulletproof Monk (which is based on a comic book), I presented on Buddhism and comic books. My presentation, entitled Bulletproof Monks, Green Lamas, and Thunderlords: Images of Buddhism in Popular Comic Books, was thrown together rather quickly (with invaluable assists from the super-fun website Comic Book Religion Database), but I think I still able to start an interesting conversation with the kids and parents.
I might make a real paper out of this material some day, but I’ll tell you a little bit about it now (with a few examples).
Of course, I started by talking about The Green Lama, which I’ve previously blogged about here. A prototypical 1940s comic hero, the character stood alone in his socially enlightened, politically progressive messages, however. The comics also went to somewhat greater pains to get Buddhism right (though much of it is still kind of ridiculous) than other comics. Here are a couple of images:
The Green Lama is an example of a relatively respectful, somewhat thoughtful representation of Buddhism in a comic book. Others include the DC Comics heroes Thunderlord (below, left) and Thundermind (below, right). Thunderlord, one of the “Global Guardians,” is DC’s one and only Taiwanese Buddhist super-hero. His super-power is the ability to impersonate anyone’s voice and “shatter mountains” with his own. Thundermind, a Tibetan bodhisattva with powers comparable to the siddhis, is a member of the “Great Ten,” DC’s team of Central and East Asian heroes who are sponsored by the People’s Republic of China.
Of course, comic are often guilty of exoticism and Orientalism, as in the cases of Marvel Comics’ X-Men (below, left) and Red Wolf (below, right). In the X-Men comics, the character Wolverine is frequently depicted visiting various Buddhist, Taoist, and Shinto temples. This seems to be only for the purpose of adding some kind of exotic and mystic element to the character, as these traditions are not really engaged in any substantive way. Red Wolf features a Buddhist villain named King Cycle, whose motorcycle gang lives in a lair that is supposed to look like a dharma hall. Here, Buddhism only really serves to add to the character’s strangeness and otherworldliness.
In other cases, the images take on a much more offensive edge. During the Second World War, for example, Marvel’s Captain America battled “evil Japanese Buddhists.” A product of its time, the book, the cover of which is shown below and to the left, has obvious and ugly xenophobic overtones. In addition, Marvel’s Spider-Man miniseries “Monks of the Hidden Temple”, which came out during the Vietnam War, featured Spidey’s friend Flash befriending a group of Southeast Asian Buddhist monks whose village is later bombed by Americans, turning the venerables and locals vengeful. In the frame below and to the left, the monks appear to force Flash to venerate a Buddha, and he refuses to “look at an idol” (which seems to equate Buddhism, or at least some aspects of it, with idolatry).
There are also some pretty neat odds-and-ends, like Theory of Everything Comics’ The Devil and the Monk (all of which you can read online here). The protagonist is a humble Buddhist monk who dies, is sent to the Christian Hell, and ends up teaching the Devil the wisdom of the Buddha.
All in all, I think the presentation went well, and I really appreciated the response of the kids and parents. I was also really interested in and excited by the presentations of my fellow panelists.
And, as always, it was great fun to spend a day with the Ven. Dr. Yifa…