Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Dragon Ball

by Jason Thompson, Mar 10th 2011

Episode XLII: Dragon Ball
Or: 5 Reasons Why Dragon Ball is Great

For a little while, from 1995 to 1998, it looked like Dragon Ball Z would be a failure in America. That was the time when FUNimation tried releasing Dragon Ball in syndication, found out it was a flop, skipped ahead to Dragon Ball Z, which didn't do much better. Showing Dragon Ball Z on syndicated American TV required lots of censorship, it didn't get good timeslots, and when I tried to show it to my jaded hipster friends they just made a lot of jokes about sweaty men and muscles and "buffalo shots." Then, in 1998, Dragon Ball Z moved to cable TV, to Cartoon Network's Toonami block, and ratings shot up. In the less uptight environment of cable, the censorship gradually went away. In the same year, VIZ started publishing the manga, and Dragon Ball Z started appearing on tattoos, T-shirts, skateboards and wallscrolls in people's dorm rooms. Today, I say to you; if your heart doesn't race with excitement when Goku shows up at the last minute to save the heroes from Vegeta and Nappa, you're not human.

Or at least, you're a human who doesn't like modern shonen manga. Dragon Ball is by far the most influential shonen manga of the last 30 years, and today, almost every Shonen Jump artist lists it as one of their favorites and lifts from it in various ways. To take a particularly blatant example, the scene in Bleach when Yammy and Ulquiorra show up in the human world to scout it out is a total ripoff (they'd probably call it a "homage") of the first appearance of the evil Saiyans in Dragon Ball. It also influenced art styles; when Dragon Ball came out, a fair number of shonen manga starred manly, built heroes, like City Hunter and Fist of the North Star, but Dragon Ball started a trend towards cartoonishness that continues to this day. When I first saw Dragon Ball I actually didn't like the art - I thought it looked too cartoony - but I could see that it had incredible cliffhangers and action scenes, almost like animation storyboards on paper. Another reason it's popular is the extremely personal and recognizable style of Akira Toriyama's artwork. If, like me, you've seen a ton of bad Dragon Ball fan art and manga which rip off the style of Dragon Ball and Dragon Quest (not naming any names), it's easy to forget that once, only Akira Toriyama drew like this. And if it doesn't look like an appropriate art style for a gritty action series, that's because it isn't. The first great thing about Dragon Ball is that it's an action manga drawn by a gag manga artist. Maybe even drawn reluctantly, against his will.

Which leads me to Reason #1 Why Dragon Ball is Great: The art is really unique, half gag manga and half science fiction. Before Dragon Ball, when Akira Toriyama started his first hit manga, Dr. Slump (1980-1984), he was a 25-year-old living with his parents in a small town far away from Tokyo. Dr. Slump, the story of a lecherous professor and the teeny but super-strong android girl he invents, was a strange mix of things: a wacky science fiction comedy with lots of Star Wars and Star Trek and Godzilla references, and a cute little girl. Dr. Slump had everything Toriyama loved writing: poo jokes and sex jokes and silly kids running around and complicated sci-fi ideas (like the storyline where the professor invents a machine that can stop time, but he uses it so much he ages at an accelerated rate according to everybody else's timeline). It had everything that Toriyama loved drawing: weird guns and cars and flying machines, dinosaurs and aliens and animal-headed people, palm trees and tropical plants. He used no assistants at first, and only one regular assistant towards the end of the series. Miraculously, it was super-popular, and Akira Toriyama became a manga superstar. And it had a lot of pure Toriyama personality; it's still Toriyama's personal favorite manga out of all the series he's drawn.

By the time Toriyama finally ended Dr. Slump, it must have seemed like he couldn't get any more successful… or maybe he just wondered what he would do next. Enter the manga editor. The fundamental clash in every manga artist's life is between the artist and their editor, who is sometimes the artist's friend but also has the job of keeping them on schedule and pressuring them to take the more commercial path. Toriyama's editor was Kazuhiko Torishima, who was immortalized as the evil Dr. Mashirito in Dr. Slump; Torishima is still in the industry today and even appears under his own name in Bakuman., in which he is depicted ripping an artist's original artwork to shreds just to shock them into producing better work. Another editor who was at Shueisha at the time of Dragon Ball was Nobuhiko Horie, editor of Fist of the North Star. Torishima is sometimes credited with being the driving force behind Dragon Ball. On the other hand, at a press conference for the American Raijin Comics re-release of Fist in 2002, Horie claimed that he was really the one behind the success of Dragon Ball. Horie said it was all his idea deep down; taking the Fist of the North Star fighting formula but basing the main character on Jackie Chan (i.e. Goku) instead of Bruce Lee (i.e. Ken from Fist of the North Star). Battle manga was the big thing then, and what could be more awesome than taking their best gag manga artist, Toriyama, and making him do a battle manga?

I don't really believe Horie, because Dragon Ball and Fist of the North Star have almost nothing in common, but the point is, a lot of people obviously had their hands in Dragon Ball. They knew Toriyama was a great artist, and they felt that if he followed the formula for success more closely, they might make something even more popular than Dr. Slump. In his book Manga Zombie, manga critic Takeo Udagawa explained the formula of Shonen Jump manga like this: "From the start, Shonen Jump's strength lay in what was known as its 'Great Two' system. Pillar One was watertight contracts binding artists exclusively to the publication. Pillar Two was comprehensive reader surveys; the artists had to keep high ratings in them or face the ax." Needless to say, Udagawa isn't a fan. "Shonen Jump succeeded -- in selling manga as a commercial product. And that's all," Udagawa said with scorn. "Their system has leeched the art out of manga. The artists are interchangeable, like spare parts in a machine." To Udagawa, manga like Dragon Ball are a sign of all that's wrong with modern manga.

But whatever - it worked. Dragon Ball may not be as crazy as Dr. Slump, it may not be as full of detailed artwork, you may even call it Drag-On Ball, but people still loved it. Its success is particularly amazing considering how hard it is to explain. Of course, you can say "It's about unbelievably superpowered martial artists who can blow up stuff with their ki power," and you kind of get the idea across, but that still leaves a thousand questions for people jumping on in the middle. Why does Goku's hair look like that? Who are all these excess characters who just hang around and don't do anything? What's up with the monkey tails? Why is it called Dragon Ball when the Dragon Balls are hardly even important?

Reason #2: Dragon Ball has all kinds of weird details that fans can latch onto and wonder about and build mythologies around. If Toriyama had planned everything out from the beginning, Dragon Ball would probably have been pretty dull. Instead, as Toriyama has often said in interviews, he didn't really plot very far in advance, and so the plot has a sort of leisurely flow, like a tree that changes into a boat so slowly you just accept it. It started out as an adventure/gag manga vaguely inspired by Journey to the West (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journey_to_the_West), as well as Toriyama's enjoyment of Chinese martial arts movies. The two heroes are Bulma, a brainy, sneaky girl with blue hair and lots of high-tech gadgets of the kind Toriyama likes, and Goku, a really dumb, honest little kid with a monkey's tail and incredible strength. On their quest for the seven magic Dragon Balls that grant any wish, the heroes - dumb and strong plus sexy and crafty - travel over a cartoon landscape, a world of talking animals and man-eating dinosaurs, dirty old martial arts masters and magic spells. Along the way, they go from village to village saving the innocent villagers from various bad guys - kind of like the primitive monocellular version of One Piece. Anything can happen in the early Dragon Ball, but it's all pretty silly, the characters' names are silly, and it's kind of like an 8-Bit video game. (Speaking of which, I have traumatic memories of playing the American port of Dragon Power, in which the panties that old lech Kame-Sen'nin negotiates from Bulma are censored into sandwiches.) Goku's big innocent eyes and one-to-one head-body ratio make him look remarkably like Linus from Peanuts, but unlike Linus, he has the ability to transform into a giant ape and go into a mad smashing rampage when he sees the full moon. Eventually the heroes make some friends, they find the Dragon Balls, Goku transforms and smashes everything, and they summon the magic dragon and get their wish. Ta-daaa!

It seems like the manga could end right then, but instead, it's just getting started. Goku goes to Kame-Sen'nin and asks him for martial arts training, and they're soon joined by Goku's fellow student Kuririn, a sneaky little Shaolin monk. Kame-Sen'nin manages to pull himself away from his Jane Fonda "Jazzercise" videos long enough to train the two kids in some particularly awesome training sequences. He makes them deliver milk, plow fields with their bare hands, swim with sharks, do construction work, and stay tied to a tree while they're attacked by swarms of bees. Furthermore, they must do it all while wearing a 50-pound turtle shell strapped to their backs. When Goku and Kuririn finally take off the turtle shells after months of training, they find out that they've gotten so strong they can leap hundreds of feet in the air. Then they head off to the Tenka'ichi Budôkai martial arts tournament to kick some butt with their training and see the world!

Reason #3 for Dragon Ball's popularity: the world of Dragon Ball is a completely original made-up world and not in a vague "ancient China" or "somewhere in Japan" or something. Although Toriyama, of course, basically made it all up on the fly - fans have spent much more time analyzing Dragon Ball than Toriyama ever spent in designing it - this gives the world of Dragon Ball its unique style. In addition to the original story arc's Chinese flavor, there's lots of South Asian and Central Asian designs, such as all the vaguely Arabian clothing worn by characters like Majin Boo, Mr. Popo, and especially Piccolo and the Namekians. (The costume designers for Dragonball: Evolution said they removed Piccolo's trademark cape and turban because it "wasn't interesting," but they probably just didn't want people to think they were racist.) Toriyama said he chose an Asian setting to get away from the Western sci-fi feeling of Dr. Slump, but there's plenty of Western elements in Dragon Ball too, particularly in the later parts: the Great Saiyaman superhero/sentai parody, all the cheesy scenes with Hercule/Mr. Satan, all the science fiction stuff involving Capsule Corp. and Bulma's family in the aptly-named City of the West. Even Goku's retconned origin story introduced in Dragon Ball Z - the idea that he's an alien Saiyan who was sent to Earth as a baby - was fairly obviously inspired by Superman. Despite this, Goku is obviously more 'original' than pretty much any American superhero character, but if you have several days to kill reading people argue about who is a ripoff of who, with lines like "HELL I WOULD LOVE TO SEE SUPES HIT WITH VEGETAS FINAL FLASH," the argument is here, so go for it.

Goku fights bad guys, he trains more, he fights increasingly evil bad guys, and eventually he grows up and turns from a little tiny dumb kid to a normal-sized, slightly less dumb adult. At the beginning, Dragon Ball is a parody of martial arts. It's full of martial arts jokes, like the scene in the first Tenka'ichi Budôkai when Kuririn and “Jackie Chun” clash in a blinding burst of speed that no one else can see, but then, at the judge's request, they explain what happened and replay everything in slow motion. ("First off, I started like this…then I went to kick him…then I tried a left jab, but he snorted boogers at me, so I pulled back. Then I decided to change tactics. Kuririn also pondered strategy. Everything to this point took about 0.2 seconds.") But, Reason #4 for its success: it's simply got great action scenes, with amazing timing that Toriyama apparently got from watching lots and lots of martial arts movies in his studio. There's a primal satisfaction in seeing the characters fight each other and get stronger, like watching Goku survive ridiculous amounts of damage without a scratch (hey, he's immune to bullets right from the very first chapter!). And there's satisfaction in trying to keep track of who's stronger than who, not just by stuff like the power levels in the Vegeta arc ("it's over 9,000!"), but by actually watching them fight. Showing is better than telling. Goku kills Drum, who was kicking Tenshinhan's ass, in one blow. Trunks easily kills Freeza, who Super Saiyan Goku had to work to defeat. Freeza's finger beam is powerful enough to split an entire planet in half…but Super Saiyan Goku is so strong that when the beam hits him right between the eyes all it does is leave a little bruise! Somehow, whether the characters are training under 50 times Earth's gravity, or running a million kilometers, Toriyama manages to make all these insanely high-powered antics feel believable.

Like any martial arts manga, Dragon Ball has its share of violence, but it's actually pretty tame for a battle manga. Only the most humorless censors could complain about the violence (of course they complain anyway); although tons of people die, most of them come back to life thanks to the Dragon Balls, and Toriyama doesn't show them dying in gory ways, with a few notable exceptions. Toriyama isn't an artist like Hirohiko Araki or Yoshihiro Togashi who loves horror movies and gore, and his battles don't look as painfully brutal as Eiichiro Oda's. Some of the few scenes censored in the Viz edition were scenes with guns in the Boo and Cell story arcs; according to Viz's internal manga rating system, people blowing up cities with fireballs or punching holes in people's chests is 'fantasy violence,' but shooting someone with a gun is 'violence,' and that's forbidden. (Maybe it's a cultural thing; guns are more like 'fantasy violence' in Japan, where it's almost impossible to get permission to own a real handgun.) Even if you buy the whole bogus idea that little kids will imitate what they see in manga and video games, though, Dragon Ball is pretty harmless. The best battle moves in Dragon Ball are just people posing, doing moves like the kamehameha, which look cool but don't actually do anything in real life. One of the greatest scenes in early Dragon Ball is when Piccolo destroys a city by simply flexing his bicep. I can totally imagine a kid trying to do this at home, but it's not the sort of thing that would make their parents angry, as it might if Piccolo destroyed a city by stabbing his little sister with a pencil.

Ever so slowly, Dragon Ball turns from a gag/adventure manga to an nearly-pure fighting manga, and by the time the series becomes Dragon Ball Z, it's pretty much all-intensity. (At least until the very end of Dragon Ball Z, in which Toriyama reverts to gag manga.) Pretty soon, the early funny characters like Pu'ar and Lunch and Oolong and even Kame-Sen'nin became increasingly irrelevant, until finally they just show up for group shots. (Or, like Yamcha in all his later battles, they get wiped out on the first page they show up. Harsh.) Occasionally, due to forgetting something from the earlier part of the manga, Toriyama writes himself into a hole and has to get out of it. The fact that Toriyama plotted Dragon Ball pretty much on the fly is one of its charms; there's so many retcons it becomes a game to spot them. What's that, the Dragon Balls can only bring someone back to life once? Not the Namekian Dragon Balls! What's that, Goku said he's 12 years old? No, that was because he didn't know how to count, he's actually 14! What's that, there's only one Super Saiyan? Not true! What's that, there's no way to remove the Fusion Earrings, so whoever puts them on will be permanently fused into one being? Also not true, for no apparent reason!

Unless that reason is Reason #5: in countless little ways, Toriyama plays with the reader's expectations about battle manga. He loves to be a "mean author" and make Goku lose battles, even if it's just by a technicality. He loves to draw scenes where there's a lot of buildup to a fight, only to have that fight end in one blow, or never happen. At the beginning of the Cell saga, when the heroes are expecting Goku to come and save them from Freeza and King Cold, it seems like Toriyama is going to regurgitate the exact same plot twists he used in the Vegeta-Nappa saga, but then - surprise! - Trunks shows up before Goku and kills everybody. As for myself, I realized that Akira Toriyama was a genius during the scene in the Cell saga when Trunks transforms into his new "Ultra Super Saiyan" form in an attempt to defeat Cell. His already spiky hair shoots out into spikes so big it's ridiculous, and his muscles swell up so much it looks like he shouldn't be able to move. This was a popular character design, but the people who loved "Ultra Super Saiyan" obviously weren't reading very closely, because as soon as Trunks transforms into Ultra Super Saiyan, the form turns out to be useless. Cell scoffs at him. "All those extra muscles just diminish your speed and wear you out faster! What good is extra power if you can't hit your opponent?" Yes - Ultra Super Saiyan ACTUALLY IS A PARODY of all that crappy overmuscled, overhaired Super Saiyan fanart! In Toriyama's universe, the strongest fighters are often the littlest and wimpiest-looking: young Goku, young Goten, Freeza and Boo in their final forms. Despite all the added beefcake, the same aesthetic that worked at the beginning of Dragon Ball still applies at the end of Dragon Ball Z - it's fun to watch little kids hold their own against big burly guys.

Unless, of course, the big guys are Super Saiyans, the ultimate form of Goku and his fellow Saiyans. In typical Dragon Ball Z retcon fashion, there was originally only supposed to be one Super Saiyan, but by the end of the series there's a whole bunch of them, and frankly, they're hard to tell apart. In an interview in the old kanzenban art books, Toriyama mentioned that the Super Saiyans look a bit more like villains than heroes. Toriyama says - although he might have been joking - was that the Super Saiyans have light hair because he forgot to fill in the blacks, and my personal guess is that Toriyama didn't really think about what color the Super Saiyans were supposed to be - manga is in black and white, after all. Their blonde hair and light-colored eyes also make them look suspiciously Caucasian and sinister, something Hideki Ohwada also apparently noticed, judging from his parody manga Mudazumo Naki Kaikaku: The Legend of Koizumi, in which Adolph Hitler power-ups by transforming into "the legendary Super Aryan". Fun fact: the Super Aryan Stage 2 has hair shaped like a swastika!

In an interview with the German manga magazine Banzai!, Toriyama said that he picked the name Dragon Ball Z for the second half of the anime series because Z was the last letter in the alphabet and he wanted to make people think it was about to end. But no such luck for Toriyama; the DBZ part was even more popular than the early Dragon Ball part, and so the series kept going and going. Apparently Toriyama wanted to end the story after the Freeza arc, and probably at other times as well, but his editors forced him to keep going because the series was so successful. (And admittedly, Toriyama was getting his share of that money as well, so I doubt they had to twist his arm too much.) Possibly as a result of Toriyama getting burnt out, Dragon Ball changes a lot over the course of the series. Toriyama hired more assistants, and the detail level in the art dips towards the end. It also gets a little talky; some parts of the Boo saga are nothing but the characters (or Toriyama himself) trying to explain away holes in the plot. And the ending is more of an "I just couldn't keep drawing any longer" than a natural point to end the series. But drawing 8000 pages over the course of 11 years (1984-1995) is an impressive achievement for any mangaka.

VIZ translated the Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z manga in 1998, which was the perfect time to do it, as the anime version was starting to pick up speed. It was one of the first Viz Manga released unflopped, due to Toriyama and Shueisha's insistence that it be published no other way. When VIZ first released the manga it was uncensored, but they soon got in trouble when parents complained about Dragon Ball after buying it at Toys 'R' Us. VIZ then changed their minds and censored the manga, drawing foam on Bulma's breasts when she's in the shower, etc. However, parents still complained about the partially censored edition (it was hard to censor out all the dirty plot points), and now fans were mad too, so when the graphic novels finally came out, one of the managers at VIZ decided that they might as well just uncensor everything again. However - and here's a secret of the manga industry for you - VIZ didn't have a consistent censorship policy, so new managers undid that manager's decision, and so now the current, VizBig edition of Dragon Ball is still partially censored. (But not censored enough to please everybody; some libraries in Maryland removed Dragon Ball from their shelves in 2009.) On the upside, Gerard Jones did a good job as the English edition rewriter . (Kame-Sen'nin to Goku: "Bring me another little hotty! Then you'll get all the training you can take!" Goku: "What do you want with another potty?" Kame-Sen'nin: "A 'hotty', you idiot! A girl! A chick!")

Dragon Ball is still popular today, partly because it's very well-done and justly famous, and partly due to its corporate co-owners pumping a lot of money into it to keep it popular with 'relaunches'.  Like G.I. Joe and Transformers, it's a franchise whose original fans from the '80s and '90s have grown up and gotten nostalgic while at the same time as a new generation has risen up. The difference is, unlike Hasbro toys and American superheroes, Dragon Ball is still partly owned by Akira Toriyama. When I was working at Viz and tried to hook up a crossover between Dragon Ball and Superman (don't ask), DC was sort of interested, but Shueisha replied "You can't have Dragon Ball unless Akira Toriyama draws it." Instead of ending Dragon Ball in 1995, it would have been easy for Shueisha and Toriyama to keep the manga running forever, and just hire more assistants to do all the artwork and run it into the ground like Garfield, but to their credit, they decided to give the manga an actual ending (sort of). Things like Dragon Ball Kai, the reissued version of the anime which eliminates all the filler arcs and sticks more closely to Toriyama's original manga, show that Shueisha really does respect Toriyama as a creator and thinks of the manga as the "real" Dragon Ball.

For this, no matter how much I make fun of Shonen Jump for churning out formulaic manga, I'll always respect them more than American superhero comics with their work-for-hire contracts. Shueisha may be a big corporation run by evil editor overlords, like Takeo Udagawa says, and they may not always treat their creators well (ask Yukito Kishiro), but in general, they certainly have more respect for creators' rights than Hollywood or the superhero comics industry. It's a grand irony, as someone who had to deal with Shueisha's sometimes odd requests while working on the American Shonen Jump, to imagine how furiously Shueisha must have clashed with the equally control-freaky 20th Century Fox execs when making Dragonball: Evolution. (Fox won; they had the home court advantage.) But the truth is, of course, that Dragon Ball is such a cartoon, it's almost impossible to imagine it in live action. Like Shueisha always insisted, it's all about the artist, and it isn't Dragon Ball if Akira Toriyama doesn't draw it.


Speaking of fan art and people continually fighting, to celebrate the launch of my new book with Victor Hao, King of RPGs volume 2 on May 24, we're announcing a contest for the greatest King of RPGs fan art! These are the five big prizes:



GRAND PRIZE: A limited edition, full-color King of RPGs t-shirt designed by Victor Hao! Available in M, L and XL. Plus a signed and sketched-in copy of King of RPGs volume 2!
1ST AND 2ND PLACE PRIZES: A signed & sketched-in copy of King of RPGs volume 2!
3RD AND 4TH PLACE PRIZES: A signed King of RPGs minicomic, plus a fully playable copy of "The Siege of Gharazak," the climactic adventure of Theodore Dudek's Neo-Pegana Mages & Monsters campaign!

For a chance to win some of this stuff, submit your fan art of the King of RPGs characters to jason (at kingofrpgs.com) by April 15. I'm looking forward to seeing some really weird and beautiful stuff, so please do your best to do some psychic damage on me with your insanely great drawings!



Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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