BioGraphic Novel: The 14th Dalai Lama

Review by Ed Sizemore

The Dalai Lama has been one of the most prominent religious leaders of the last hundred years. His quest to restore Tibet to an independent nation has inspired concerts, films, books, and the founding of several non-profit organizations. Emotional Content has now given us our first comic biography of the Dalai Lama.

BioGraphic Novel: The 14th Dalai Lama cover
BioGraphic Novel: The 14th Dalai Lama
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I should be the perfect audience for this book. I don’t know much about the Dalai Lama, his life, or the Tibetan struggle for autonomy. However, I found the book a disappointing read. At the core of my frustrations is the lack of insight into the thoughts and beliefs of the Dalai Lama as events are unfolding around him. For example, as the Chinese invade Tibet and gradually take control of the country, I don’t understand why Kundun (a term of endearment for the Dalai Lama) and his advisors feel that they’ll be able to negotiate a peace settlement with China, much less convince the communist leaders to withdraw their troops and respect the sovereignty of Tibet. Was this optimism a result of his faith, his youth, or just naivete regarding international politics?

We are told that after a visit to India and the place where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated, Kundun decides to embrace the doctrine of non-violent resistance in his struggle with China. However, we’re not told how he reconciles this doctrine with his responsibilities as the political leader of Tibet. He never disbanded the Tibetan army or called for the independent freedom fighters to lay down their weapons. So what does the Dalai Lama mean by non-violent resistance? I constantly wanted more information to better understand his decisions and actions.

On several occasions, the Dalai Lama speaks of his desire to preserve Tibetan culture. This is one of motivations behind reestablishing Tibetan autonomy. However, we are never exposed to Tibetan Buddhism or culture in this book. It’s hard to sympathize with Kundun when we don’t really understand or appreciate what is being lost. I’m not expecting a full exposition of all the doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism or a detailed explanation of all the traditions of Tibet. What I would have liked is a brief summary of one or two elements that make Tibet’s Buddhism distinctive and some discussion of the major holidays or cultural celebrations. Instead, all we have is a black box labeled Tibetan Buddhism and culture. The Tibet we encounter in this book is fairly generic and could be one of any number of Asian countries.

I wasn’t very pleased with Saiwai’s art either. His style reminded me of the art from the 1960s Alvin and the Chipmunk cartoons. It’s serviceable but fails to convey any deep emotions. The facial features are too basic and plain for any subtlety. For example, the Dalai Lama in deep thought and the Dalai Lama confused are the same expression. Thankfully, the context informs the reader how to interpret the faces. Also, the figures and the backgrounds all have a flatness to them. There is very little shading or shadows used in the book. The tone work is mostly reserved for fabric patterns or for giving texture to the ground and rocks.

I’m very disappointed in the print quality of the book. The pages look like photocopies. This does a great disservice to the art. The lines aren’t as crisp and sharp as they should be. The blacks aren’t dark and rich. The tones are muted. The book includes photographs, and their reproduction suffers too. There really is no excuse for such poor quality, since even the smallest manga publishers are putting out books of much higher caliber.

The book has an End Note by the author that includes his thoughts on protests at the Beijing Olympics. There is a bibliography page with a list of books, movies, and websites. Also, there’s a page with information about the author and the publisher.

You can sum up my critique by saying the book is too simplistic, both in the narrative and the art. The lack of details in both make this book unsatisfying. Saiwai would have done better to focus on half-a-dozen formative events in the Dalai Lama’s life, using these key moments to give us perspective on his life and better insight into the man. Readers would do best to avoid this book and instead either visit the Dalai Lama’s website or read one of his books.

The publisher has made preview pages available online. You can learn more about Emotional Content and other BioGraphic novels at their website. (A complimentary copy was provided by the publisher for this review.)

Update: The publisher has since notified us that the review copy was a galley (although not labeled as such, not the actual book, which explains the print quality.


  1. Hi there, just wanted to say I thought this was a really insightful review. It makes me, y’know, not want to read the book (heh), but I *really* appreciated your thoughts on why you were disappointed with it. It does make me wish for one that would do the job better. I too would be the perfect audience for a book like this.

  2. Melinda,

    It was disappointing given I had read a good Mother Teresa manga last year. So you can do a good biography of a religious figure and include their beleifs in comic form. Hopefully, someone will do a good Dalai Lama manga.

  3. […] Worth Reading read a biography about the 14th Dalai Lama. – OK going off topic.  In one of my classes in college (OCU), the professor was talking about the […]

  4. Ed, I hope u can take criticism positively when it comes to you.

    I have never read the comic or seen it. So I cant comment on it. But I can surely point out few misconceptions that u are willing to accept as truth. Firstly His Holiness in approval with the majority of the Tibetan people has been asking for genuine autonomy of Tibet and not Independence. Your version is the one put by the Chinese govt. Tibet was an independent country but since ages it has compromised to resolve the issue peacefully and no longer seek for independence. Secondly His Holiness never raised an army to fight off the Chinese govt. So there is no question of him asking to give up the army. His Holiness is not permitted to engage in anything political in India forget about raising an army. Yes there are some Tibetan people who want complete Independence but they dont have an army. These people are in the minority and they may have valid reason to go for independence but for the goodness of all the middle way is adopted by the general people. Cant remember who else has taken such a bold major step for the promotion of peace in the recent history. How can a person run an army for Independence and also vigorously campaign for a genuine autonomy within the govt. of China. Have u ever heard of Tibetan suicide bomber or preach of hatred especially in the holy places so common else where. His Holiness has always advocated for Peace. The world knows it and recognized his life long commitment to it…remember he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Its time u should know it too and accept it with an open heart. No excuses on ignorance.

    You may be right on the caricature, presentations of the story, etc… I have nothing to say on it.

    Lastly, if u dont know much of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Tibet then how can you come to a conclusion and feel qualified to pass such an erroneous judgement in the concerned matters. I want you to be honest with yourself.

    with all earnestness

  5. You seem to be responding to something other than what Ed wrote. Also, you seem to be confusing Ed’s statement of what the book says for his personal opinions.

  6. Frank,

    Thanks for your comments. I don’t mind criticism. I openly welcome it.

    Just a few points. I use independence and autonomy interchangably in this review. I’m using both to mean true national sovereignty for Tibet.

    It’s the comic, not I, that states Tibet had a standing army at the time China seized control. Whether that is true or not, I don’t know. My reactions are to the information presented in the comic. If you believe the comic to have factual errors, then you should address your concerns to the publisher.

    I appreciate your committment to the Dali Lama, but understand my review is a reaction to the comic and it’s presentation of his life.

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