With the possible exception of Bouncer, which I haven't read, The White Lama is the friendliest of all the Jodorowsky comics that DC/Humanoids released. It's a welcoming book, one with quite a few happy characters, friendships that last, a funny cat, and very few sacrifices made on the part of its leads that aren't with a sense of satisfied completion. But really, the thing that makes White Lama a more welcoming book than the intimidating sci-fi omniverse of The Incal and its spin-offs, or Son of the Gun's brutality, is K-Mart's answer to Stanley Kubrick, motherfucking George Lucas. Like Star Wars and Orson "I hate gay people" Scott Card before them, Lama is another glossy Hero's Journey, property of Joe Campbell. It doesn't meat all the beats, but there's enough for it to have that "This reminds me of Star Wars except I miss Han Solo" You've got an orphan, the mysterious prophecy, the takeover by evil empire, the always-awesome training sequences, the first guardian, the so on, the so forth...you know this stuff, you can't not at this point. It's the easiest thing in the world to remember as soon as you learn the terms, because so many different stories use it as the framework. Jodorowsky plays with the structure some, but mostly relies on it as a frame for him to embellish with his story, which incorporates a version of Tibetan Buddhism that plays the specifics of the faith loosely and fractures the timeline enough so it can incorporate the first Jesuits, the non-music related British Invasion and still climax with the Chinese takeover of 1950. Jodorowsky's hero--a white boy named Gabriel who is raised by native Tibetans after his own parents are slaughtered by a hired killer pretending to be a "god of death"--holds the primary point of engagement for the story throughout, growing and changing until he embraces his destiny as the Grand Lama who will prepare the Tibetans for the Chinese invasion that will scatter their faith across the world, as well as leave many of them dead.
Using the "Hero's Journey" carries the same problem that super-hero comic writers run into when it's time to tell a story about Batman punching muggers. See, there's a metric ton of mugger-punching stories, and most of the time people who have any history with the character are just going to come in with their jaw stuck out: "What you got for me? Right cross or uppercut?" It's up to the creative crew to figure out a way to make the staid fresh again, and if they just count on a mechanical paint job, it's not going be enough. (In a perfect world, obviously, this couldn't be less true in the real one.) With comics, with the Joey Campbell ideas, you're struggling with "Jedi's are way cooler than this shit. Next!" (Hell, Pootie Tang follows the Hero's Journey even more closely than Luke Skywalker did, and except for the part where he smears cherry pie all over his face, Pootie Tang isn't a very good movie. A classic, yes, but good? Not really.) It's up to Jodorowsky, along with Georges Bess, to come up with a way to make a story that everybody already knows into something that they want to read all over again.
That's exactly what they did. They made it look easy.
White Lama opens with the Grand Lama dreaming of death, a dream that foretells the coming attacks that will split Tibet apart, and a dream that tells him he cannot be the one to lead the people through what is to come. He decides that it is high time for him to attain Buddhahood, which--as it's loosely explained here--will give him a chance to hide the knowledge that will be necessary to keep the faith alive after the attacks begin. It's an interesting, smart take on Jodorowsky's treatment of Buddhism--juxtaposing the clearness that the Lama has already attained Arahant, and therefore is choosing to return in human form solely to help other sentient beings attain enlightenment, with the later transition, where Gabriel will have surpassed even that when he chooses to incorporate the Grand Lama's personage, and relinquish what might be called the Grand Lama's "soul" for him. The choice, a sort of ingenious one that you have to work your back to the beginning of the story to grasp makes the early passages--where the Grand Lama's Buddhahood seems to be fully completed--inaccurate. The Grand Lama hasn't attained Buddhahood, at least not in the fullest sense as Jodorowsky defines it, not only because he's reincarnated (Tibetan Buddhism usually believe that true Arahant involves the end of the reincarnation cycle), but because Gabriel shows that the Grand Lama's Buddhahood can be taken even further, that it quite clearly wasn't "ultimate". It points to an interesting direction, not one that is clear enough to be defined as "this is what the story is about" kind of stuff, but still, the idea that the journey towards enlightenment is an unending one, that the self can't be fully actualized when there's still a future to be had, as the mortals involved will always die with some kind of future left to come. Of course, portions of the story point to it being one of completion--Gabriel's later savior/protector and first disciple is the last (due to a lack of potential mate) yeti on Earth, and the yeti is clearly aware that rescuing Gabriel serves as his cue that his time is soon to be over. (Jodorowsky also throws an interesting tweak into the story, making the yeti also the stand in for Sujata, the village girl who convinced Gautama Buddha to eat some milk & honey before he withered away and died. Since this isn't Tezuko telling the story, the sustenence provided by the yeti is, of course, raw meat. Compare and contrast, to follow.)
Osama Tezuka's take on Sujata
Jodorowsky's and George Bess go another direction with her
Jodorowsky's decision to include a yeti as an active character isn't just a choice made to be weird for weirdness sake, it's also because he knew that Georges Bess could draw the hell out of an abominable snowman. It's also because Jodorowsky isn't telling the story of Tibetan Buddhism, and he's not telling the story of Buddha. He's telling a boy's adventure story, and that's why he's so willing to allow his Gabriel--who Jodorowsky and Bess do frequently depict as a saint--to do things like violate the Four Noble Truths and play crazy with the Golden Rule. Gabriel kills people with his Buddhahood powers, first at his mother's crazed requests, and later--in a sequence that can really only be responded to with a sort of eye-goggled "Damn, dude", he tricks all of the evil monks into believing that they see him before them, and when they pull their weapons to strike, they strike themselves. It's bone-chilling stuff, and Gabriel's answer for it, that "It wasn't I who destroyed you..rather it was your own destructive souls!" is a base exaggeration of the ethic of reciprocity. Nasty business. (It does lead to the most kicksplode line of the volume, however: "...swords can no longer cut me. It is I who have become the blade.")
When White Lama nears its conclusion, Bess draws a two page sequence depicting what will happen to the Tibetans and their land at the hands of China's military forces, choosing to tightly place the boxes with no gutters in between, an extreme design for extreme pain, drawn in reds and blacks--angry, bloody colors for angry, bloody acts. Before they go out to face their likely mortal deaths, Gabriel has one final, Whitesnake style order:
White Lama ends with a promise, a punchline repeated twice, and that's it. There aren't any sequels, because the story it's involved with is never going to end. We'll fly as high as we can, knowing that somewhere, someday, someone else will fly just a bit further.
-Tucker Stone, 2009
T1 Introductions & Miss: Better Living Through Crime by Joe McCulloch
T2 Fragile & The Horde here at TFO
T3 Sanctum & Transgenesis 2025 Vol 1: The Ancestor here at TFO
T4 The Incal (Preparations by Joe McCulloch
T5 Son Of The Gun here at TFO
T6 The Incal (Execution) by Joe McCulloch
T7 White Lama here at TFO
T8 The Technopriest here at TFO
T9 Bouncer, Megalex & Metal Hurlant by Joe McCulloch
T10 The Metabarons by Joe McCulloch
T11 Memories here at TFO
T12 The Chaos Effect here at TFO
T13 The Bilal Trilogy here at TFO