Previous Retro Reviews...
- MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO *** KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE *** PRINCESS MONONOKE
- HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE *** NAUSICAA *** CASTLE IN THE SKY *** PORCO ROSSO
- AKIRA Vol. 1 *** Vol. 2 *** Vol. 3 *** Vol. 4 *** Vol. 5 *** Vol. 6 *** TRIGUN Vol. 1
- LITTLE NORSE PRINCE VALIANT
That’d have to be the last word I’d ever expect to fit the first installment of a series that became so notorious for ceaselessly violent hyper-masculinity. Yet, fit it does.
In the lofty annals of pop culture, the route from DRAGON BALL to its follow-up, DRAGONBALL Z, must rank as the most outright baffling path ever taken by a franchise. Perhaps it isn’t too dissimilar (in the wider, international view) from Western heroes like Batman going from rasslin’ clownish troublemakers on giant typewriters to shutting down international child prostitution rings, but the rapidity of the evolution is nevertheless head spinning.
Batman went back and forth between camp and “grim ‘n gritty” over several decades. Goku goes from this Picaresque adventuring to galactic brawling in the space of just a few years.
This first installment of the massive epic introduces us to Son Goku as a young, careless and uncommonly strong little scamp. His “call to adventure” isn't anything grand, as far as such heroic quests go - - he just happens to cross paths with a teenager, Bulma, who’s using her spring break to collect some wish-granting Dragon Balls.
If you’re tee-hee-hee-ing about how these two kids are looking to grab some balls, the book (or this particular translation, at least) is already well ahead of you, friend. Nearly every single page has some joke about private parts, and at least half of them involve Bulma’s panties.
Cheeky fantasy, most certainly. Maybe even a little Freudian at times, too. Though this particular part of the series gets called children’s adventure and it packs enough concentrated whimsy to fuel an endless Sunday drive, it earns its “TEEN +” rating but good. Taking that in mind, it maybe isn’t even as far removed from DBZ as appearances would portend. This is still a hormone-powered adolescent boy’s fever dream; the hormones are just those more concerned with girls than with rough housing.
Toriyama makes no secret in the forward of his preference for making stories up on the fly, and the book certainly reads like the product of some free association game he played immediately after waking up. The ad hoc plotting isn’t bad, actually. Nonsense like capsule-cased houses and shape-shifting pigs have a wonderful sense of manic spontaneity that you really wouldn’t appreciate as much as a kid in the presumable target demographic.
To wit, the story’s actually more enjoyable to me as an adult than the cartoon ever was when I was lad, precisely because I can’t help but snicker at how inappropriate it is. I’ve always known that Toriyama intended this as a none-too-subtle retelling of JOURNEY TO THE WEST, the classic Chinese novel. What I didn’t realize until now is that it’s meant to skewer the folk epic in the same fashion that the SHREK flicks do with our quaint fairy tales.
That’s an old revelation, of course, but it’s still worth reasserting since DBZ travels so many light years away from this. Hell, for another demonstration point, there's the thieving prince Yamcha. He’s just a supporting character in DBZ; one of the less flashy members of Goku’s Z-Fighters. Here, he’s the main heel (for as mean and nasty as any of the heels ever get) with a scheme that honestly breaks down to him seeking the Balls so he can finally wish his fear of cooties away.
To a kid taking all this at face value, that’s just stupid. To “big kids” like me and assorted arrested adolescents, it’s delightfully hilarious in its stupidity.
While not necessarily great pin-up material, Toriyama's art already shows off a proper cartoonist’s versatility that actually makes the larger series’ shifting moods easier to understand. Some pages have elegant and gentle water color brushstrokes, some have bold and manly lines, and others have the squiggly grotesqueness of a naughty Tijuana Bible.
Even when the style sometimes shifts from panel to panel, there’s no feeling of the disjointedness you’d expect from such an artistic round robin. Sure, there aren't too many hot and flashy images to bowl you over, but the comic earns kudos for telling such an instantly understandable story through the antics of body language alone.
As I've expressed on many occasions, DBZ is so identifiable with my own adolescence that I literally can't view any part of it today without cracking up. Vivid memories of powering up and flinging Spirit Bombs at my pals on the playground flash in my head immediately. As such, it's honestly a joy to finally experience this portion of the mythos for myself, as it's intended to induce such juvenile tittering. Maybe the humor will eventually wear thin, but this is a #1 installment of a mammoth, classic series that hasn't left me feeling daunted about catching up on the dozens of subsequent volumes.