In the United States, comic books tend to be dismissed as something for children. In places like Belgium, France, and Italy, however, the medium plays an important role in the culture and is enjoyed by people of all ages and from all walks of life. The Japanese have embraced comics even more than Europeans, creating their own style of graphic storytelling called manga. Over the last twenty years, manga has grown increasingly popular in the U.S. as well. As part of that surge of interest, Penguin launched a line of manga biographies last fall, the first volume of which tells the story of the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama of Tibet.
As you might imagine, The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography (written and illustrated by Tetsu Saiwai) details the life of Nobel Peace Prize winner Tenzin Gyatso. Selected as the rebirth of the 13th Dalai Lama at the age of two, Tenzin is whisked away from his tiny village and taken to Lhasa to begin his training. This section of the book—which shows the selection process and Tenzin’s acclimation to the idea that he has been declared Tibet’s spiritual and political leader—was my favorite part. The notions of reincarnation and child leaders may seem odd to Westerners, but their oddness just makes them all the more intriguing. Given the responsibilities set at his young feet, Tenzin is unable to have a normal childhood; the closest he can get to other children is watching them play through his telescope. Soon, his life takes a dire turn when China invades Tibet, forcing the young leader to flee his country and begin an exile that lasts to this day.
In the book, the story of the 14th Dalai Lama’s life is related in a surprisingly light and entertaining way—despite the presence of violence and oppression. Part of that can be put down to the art, which is crisp and clean, utilizing the seemingly simplistic and open style that is characteristic of most Japanese comics. Characters tend to overact for emphasis, which is also a staple of manga.
As a primer for the life of the Dalai Lama and the recent history of Tibet, the book succeeded for me. I didn’t really feel like I got to know the Dalai Lama on a personal level by the end of the book, although I did come to understand a bit of the history of Tibet and the position in which the country now finds itself. Still, I never felt emotionally invested in the story, which is surprising given the tragic and dramatic events covered. The book also presents a rather one-sided take on the Tibet/China relationship. Given the confines of the work as a high-level biography of the Dalai Lama, however, that didn’t really bother me; the purpose of the book wasn’t to present a balanced view of history, but to show how one man weathered those historical events.
The book is appropriate for kids, but just as educational and enjoyable for adults—at least this adult. If you haven’t read a comic book since you were 10 years old, don’t let that stop you from giving the book a read. If you’ve never read manga before, you’ll find the experience easy to fall into—and being seen reading Japanese comics might just make you look cool to the kids in your life!
The 14th Dalai Lama, a 224-page, black-and-white, soft-cover book is available now from Penguin at a cover price of $15.00. Other books in the Manga Biography series cover Che Guevara (available now) and Mahatma Gandhi (available September 27, 2011).