Batman, Buddhism, and the trajectory of pop ideas

In a previous post I mentioned going to a talk by Ian “Cat” Vincent at Treadwell’s Books about popular culture and occultism. During this talk, he mentioned a point about the idea of the tulpa in Tibetan Buddhism, a point I’ll return to later, and I mentioned that there was actually a Batman villain in the late 1980s who was a tulpa. I mentioned it briefly in the last post, but yesterday I found 20 issues of the Grant/Breyfogle run on Detective Comics for a quarter each, so now I can talk about it in a little more detail.

Our story runs from Detective Comics 601 to 603 and, as I mentioned before, is written by Alan Grant, pencilled by Norm Breyfogle and inked by Steve Mitchell. In it, we start out with a mysterious robbery committed by a young man who crumbles to bits when Batman catches him. Later, an identical-looking young man tries to rob Wayne Manor. Batman investigates and discovers that these are tulpas or thought-projections sent out by Tenzin, a young Tibetan man who is desperate for money to repay the gangsters his father owed $5,000 to.


Worried that the gangsters are going to kill him, Tenzin creates yet another tulpa, drawing on his own anger and resentment at the criminals and gives it the form of Mahakala, the protector of the faith. Mahakala is an emanation or projection of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who has a frightening, demon-like appearance but is actually a good guy (a letter in the letter column of issue 604, complaining about the comics’ misrepresentation of Tibetan Buddhism, points out that in this respect Mahakala is actually similar to Batman). However, the comic is quick to point out that this is not the Mahakala, but merely a physical representation of Tensin’s negative emotions in the form of Mahakala.


This is comics, of course, so Mahakala gets a slight redesign, complete with a bitchin’ huge axe.


Anyway, the gangsters shoot Tenzin, then run off, pursued by Mahakala, while Batman tends to the injured youth. Cue a load of Batman running around Gotham trying to stop the crooks from being murdered by the tulpa. Since this is a mystical matter, Bats tries to enlist the help of Jason Blood, the human host of the Demon, Etrigan, but Blood, who as we all know hates Etrigan, is having none of it. Breyfogle gets to draw some angry-ass Batman eyes.


Blood’s psychic sidekick Randu goes along with Batman, though. Batman hits Mahakala with a wrecking ball.


But the tulpa ain’t dead, and when Randu gets in trouble, Blood has to overcome his reservations and intervene as Etrigan. Grant loves writing Etrigan and Breyfogle draws the hell out of him, so this is pretty good news.


Anyway, Etrigan takes out the tulpa, then decides he’s going to kill the gangsters, but Batman tries to intervene. Etrigan whups him too, but then lets him win in one of his fits of demonic whimsy. The End.

So, other than that I got a chunk of my childhood for $5.00, which is a pretty great deal at today’s prices, what’s the relevance of this story? I think the point that Vincent was making in his talk was that the popular conception of a tulpa, shared by occultists and comic fans alike, is of a sort of physical manifestation of a concept, and that this conception originally derives from the work of Alexandra David-Neel.


However, David-Neel’s description of the tulpa seems to be not quite right in Buddhist terms; they’re not really imagined going around smashing stuff and cutting off one of Batman’s ears with a big damn bronze axe. Instead, they’re a sort of tool for thinking about things, and it’s all much more complicated, which may make for great meditative practices but not such good comics. I know next to nothing about Buddhism, so I’ve read this big summary of what a tulpa actually is, but I’m afraid I’ve just come away with “not like in the book; much more complicated.” If I’ve got a detail wrong, please forgive me.

But that’s always the way: the reality of a cultural or religious practice is always much more complicated than the summary of it — just look at the difference between the popular conception and actual practice of “selling indulgences,” for instance — but it’s the popular conception that stays with you. These ideas take on a life of their own, regardless of the original intent, and often outlast their originators.

seriously didn’t intend for that paragraph to say that Alexandra David-Neel’s interpretation of the tulpa is kind of like a tulpa, but it’s worked out that way a bit, hasn’t it?

Anyway, I just thought I’d expand on a point of trivia from an earlier post at great length because I do like talking about Batman.


On a sadder note, the artist who drew this issue and so many other great comics, Norm Breyfogle, recently suffered a stroke, leaving him partly paralysed, including his dominant left hand. A fundraiser raised $100,000 to cover his medical bills, but sadly that’s only half of the needed total (my non-US readers are reminded to be appreciative of our health care systems). However, apparently the Hero Initiative are also getting involved, and DC Comics are releasing a hardcover of his work earlier than scheduled. Breyfogle is posting messages to Facebook and seems to be on the path to recovery, so that’s all good news. But this just demonstrates how precarious the existence of an artist can be; that’s why the work of the Hero Initiative and others is so important.

Batman, Buddhism, and the trajectory of pop ideas

9 thoughts on “Batman, Buddhism, and the trajectory of pop ideas

  1. ash says:

    Excellent article and filled with many interesting points. In particular the issue of myths regarding certain religious aspects creating a life of their own thanks to widespread misconceptions shared by society and the mass media. I do remember this story quite well.batman’s faces are priceless during the fantastic fighting sequences. Mahakalas design was freaking hot as well and the climax with batman and etrigan sharing a goodbye kiss is unforgettable. Batman was a mess but still looking great all the way to the end. Too bad the tulpa got destroyed. It would look fantastic in the batcave. I certainly would like to have one like that from the cover all for myself

    1. Breyfogle was great at making Batman’s masked face expressive — there’s a panel from one of the Anarky issues that has to be one of my favourite comic images, where he’s knocked down with a guy on his back and he’s just so frustrated but bemused by it.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. ash says:

    In detective comics 612 he makes very weird faces while being mauled by a beast. Norm seemed to love to rip off his uniform. In dc 590 The same thing happens. But 602 and 603 remain The Best ones for me. His frustrated look while accepting to take randu along. His angry look while mahakala cut his ear (leaving him looking silly with Just one for The rest of The story). His frightened helpless look when etrigan finally decided to join the fight. His shocked expression with his hand burning. His terrified face while being strangled os one of the Best. His hilarious surprise when etrigan suddently becomes all friendly and spares him. And the kiss. Oh the kiss… The arch even closes with Batman looking totally wasted and depressed. Alan and norm really created classical moments.

    Too bad about norm. I hope he can recover but I’m afraid that his career as an illustrator may be over.

    I wonder if they will republish this story. It alone would totally justify the price of a hardcover collectors edition. Too bad there’s no chance of an extended edition with longer action sequences. I don’t think I will ever get enough of these 3 characters. It was epic while it lasted.

    1. ash says:

      I’m so excited. This story will be republished. Probably with better colors. The Italian Spanish and Argentinian versions all had better colors. Can’t wait to see the hero’s look deteriorating, mahakalas impressive visual with six arms and the astonishing conclusion with etrigan and bat making out in public in the middle of the night . I would never guess that it would end in such a way with bat all embarrassed and sad at the end.

      1. I’m very pleased about the upcoming reprints as well; I really think this period of the book has been neglected too long. In my mind, Breyfogle is one of the classic Bat-artists (although maybe that just means the “golden age” of Batman is always whatever was running when you were 12).

  3. ash says:

    While i do respect jim aparo he did play safe. Norm was much more daring in his approach. His action sequences are more fluid. There’s a certain feeling of motion and impact to his sequences that no other artist seems to match. The only one that comes close to it is an old jli crossover with the suicide squad when batman had a hard but memorable time fighting flag. He even lost a ear again and decided to forfeit the match.

    Btw during another story with etrigan batman has a flashback of the kiss they shared. But etrigan does not look as cool. Mahakala returned during a nightmare story that paid homage to grant’s run but he looked silly. He wasn’t menacing and only had four arms. Too bad they simply can’t release extended versions of dc 603s fight scenes. The tulpa certainly deserved a bigger role.

  4. ash says:

    It’s finally out. The new colors are great but the images at least on the digital version are lacking definition. One clear example is in 602 when the tulpa says that there’s no escape. His face isvtotally weird in the new version. His body on the other hand was as good as ever. I’m glad they did not mess with batman’s and etrigans faces. Their bodies are as awesome as I remember from childhood. Witnessing the kiss and batman’s face on the last page makes everything alright again. Etrigan all over bat is a really shocking scene. But I think my favorite is mahakala with the armpit view when he’s just about to kill batman. Fantastic anatomy and it can totally rival batman’s armpit at the end of 590 also republished in this collection.

  5. ash says:

    It’s been over a year but there was a new development. The cover of dc 602 featuring batman grabbed by that awesome mahakala was remade in the new dc50 issue. They paid homage to several illustrious covers over the decades. Not as cool as the original nor as my dream of an extended version of the story but better than nothing after all these years. There’s also in another story featuring etrigan and batman a remake/flashback of the kiss. Sadly not in the mouth and even sadder excluding mahakala. You may want to check it out.

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