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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

Comics!
Comics!

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.

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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.

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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.

Additional:

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.

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Batman, Buddhism, and the trajectory of pop ideas