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DRAGON BALL Vol. 1 -- Retro Review

Goku was such a cheeky little chap before he started blowing up planets.

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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.

Tom Pinchuk’s the writer of HYBRID BASTARDS! & UNIMAGINABLE. Order them on Amazon here & here. Follow him on Twitter: @tompinchuk

zaldaron April 6, 2012 at 9:49 p.m.

Interesting as it seems I might like this one better as I LOVE Shrek. Not familiar with the Chinese folk tale. Any English translations of it?

finaldasaon April 6, 2012 at 10:14 p.m.

I've gotten pretty into the anime but never checked out any of the Dragon Ball manga, is it worth it?

FoxxFireArt moderator on April 6, 2012 at 10:29 p.m.

I'm interested if you are reviewing the censored or uncensored version of DRAGON BALL. When VIZ first published it the manga was censored. The fans cried foul and forced VIZ's hand to publish two versions of the book at the same time. Both censored and uncut. Not surprisingly, the uncut version sold better. Though, I have heard that in the recent republications of DRAGON BALL, VIZ is once again censoring the book.

I always wanted volume one for my manga collection, but didn't want the censored version. A couple of months back I was lucky enough to find the uncut version in stores. I bought that right up.

Early DRAGON BALL was very much a parody. It seems pretty obvious when your big villain is called Lord Picollo, and he was trapped inside a rice maker. That was the fun in it. I think the DRAGON BALL era is when the narrative was at it's strongest, because it was all just a fun adventure.

The series was originally suppose to have ended with the end of the Martial Arts Tournament. Toriyama never originally intended Goku to be an alien. The whole DBZ era was an artificial continuation. It sort of birthed the manga equivalent of "jumping the shark". It became that if you wanted to artificially extent your story. You took it into space.

The entire series was titled DRAGON BALL in Japan. The manga was only changed to DRAGON BALL Z for the English so not confuse US readers. That's because that era of the anime was changed in Japan. There was something similar with NARUTO and the anime NARUTO SHIPPUDEN. I was honestly shocked that the ONE PIECE anime didn't add a subtitle after it's time skip.

nocturne98on April 7, 2012 at 1:16 p.m.

I actually enjoyed Dragon Ball's immature humor more than I did Dragon Ball Z's kickass fight scenes. It seems like the author was asked to do a gritty reboot of his originally comedic manga.

Petiewon April 7, 2012 at 6:34 p.m.

I really prefer the early dragon ball to the later volumes of Z. It's actually pretty funny at times, and the crazy characters really add a lot to it. The president of the Earth is some blue furry animal dude and no one questions it in the slightest, its great.

@FoxxFireArt: Doesn't really matter which version it is. I have an uncensored voulme where Bulma is in the shower naked, and a later censored volume where Krillin pulls her top down and she's wearing a bra. I didn't even realise it had been censored until I saw some old fan translated scans online. The changes are so minor its not really an issue.

FoxxFireArt moderator on April 7, 2012 at 6:52 p.m.


Censorship always makes a product inferior to the original. No matter how minor. The removal of Sherlock Holmes' use of cocaine was a minor edit to the series, but took away from his character.

I want to read and see Toriyama's version of DRAGON BALL. Not the vision of some nameless dude working at VIZ thinks it should look like.

Petiewon April 7, 2012 at 7:03 p.m.

@FoxxFireArt: The only change in character what I described would be is that Krillin is less skilled in removing women's clothes, and Roshi's sexiness until nosebleed ratio has been lowered. Nothing even remotely worthwile.

I've read your thoughts about censorship before though in a different article, so I won't bother derailing the comments anymore.

On a related note, Yamcha is still useless even in the original dragon ball.

Dig Deeper into Dragon Ball

Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball franchise is about the adventures of Goku and his friends from his early childhood to his death and beyond. It begins with a young Saiyan boy named Goku after falling of a cliff and losing his memory, and leads on to an adventure of a lifetime!

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