by Tetsu Saiwai
published by Emotional Content; $15.95 US
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.
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.