Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 11th 2013
Dragon Ball [3-in-1 Edition]
Son Goku is a mischievous boy living out in the wilderness—until the day he meets Bulma, a young lady on an ambitious quest. Bulma is searching for the Dragon Balls, seven mystical spheres that, when brought together, will summon a wish-granting dragon. The two of them join forces, encountering strange people and creatures along the way: a lecherous "turtle master," a shapeshifting pig, a bandit and his pet cat, a mountain-dwelling demon lord ... some of them are happy to help, but others just get in the way! Eventually, Goku and Bulma locate all the Dragon Balls, but a nefarious alien tries to steal them, and it's up to Goku to save the day. Then he returns to his mentor to train for future challenges—and with a new rival and a tournament lined up, Goku's powers will be pushed harder than they've ever been!
Holding the first Dragon Ball omnibus is like holding a piece of history. After all, this is the most influential shonen manga of the last 30 years—if not the most influential manga, period. An entire generation of artists has grown up citing Dragon Ball as their inspiration, and even the next generation after them would probably say the same. In this three-volume set, Akira Toriyama's talents are clear to see, with the ever-growing roster of characters, a joyful sense of adventure, and visuals that are cuddly and cute yet action-packed. However, some of the genre's pitfalls also find their way into this book, with a monotonous training arc and the beginnings of a fighting tournament. But it still stands a major landmark in manga history.
The setting of the series may be disorienting at first—a melting pot of sci-fi, fantasy, and folklore. This is a world modern enough to accommodate Bulma's fancy gadgets, but also includes magical spells and transformations, and as many fans know, the whole thing is loosely derived from the Chinese legend of the Monkey King. Yet it takes only a few chapters to show why Toriyama's anything-and-everything concept works: from the simple concept of Goku and Bulma going on a journey, the story unfolds in various directions, some more effective than others. Through much of Volume 1, Toriyama seems to be almost improvising, trying out different characters and scenarios, seeing which ones work and having fun along the way. Sometimes he has a little too much fun, though, with crude (and often sexist) humor used as a stand-in for actual ingenuity.
The second volume in the set is where the story really starts to evolve. The next few encounters involve characters with ties to Goku's past, either through his grandfather Son Gohan, or the man who trained his grandfather, the "turtle master" Kame-Sen'nin. By filling out the back-story, and having the protagonists to revisit characters from previous chapters, the series becomes more substantial—not just a parade of random encounters, but a quest where certain events connect to each other with purpose. (Of course, introducing the legendary "Kamehameha" attack is also a big attention-grabber.) Even the part where Goku saves the day stems from a revelation about his past—and turns out to be the most exciting moment yet.
The third volume is a letdown after the climax that closes out Volume 2. Here is where we see that dreaded cliché of shonen action manga: a training sequence, followed by a martial arts tournament. Toriyama tries to make it funny, with Goku and uptight shaolin monk Kuririn competing for Kame-Sen'nin's favor, but again the sleazebag humor creeps in with the old master demanding that the two boys bring him a lovely lady. At least the tournament gets through its preliminary stages quickly—Goku and Kuririn are so fierce that they can dispense of their opponents in less than half a chapter—but after an opening story arc that involved traveling the world on an epic quest, the idea of battling random fighters in an enclosed space feels like a step back.
No matter which way the story turns, though, the artwork shows plenty of inventiveness. Toriyama's genre-spanning approach allows space aliens, anthropomorphic animals, spirits and demons, and the occasional human to all coexist among each other. They may not be as stylish-looking as today's shonen adventure protagonists, but every character has a distinctive set of physical features, making them identifiable at any moment. The backgrounds, too, show plenty of variety as the heroes travel through locales that include forests, seashores, mountains, and deserts. However, the crowning artistic achievement of Dragon Ball isn't simply character design or setting, but the dynamic fight scenes that Goku and his friends get into. Familiar techniques, like speedlines and tilted perspective, create an irresistable sense of movement and power. On the other hand, dialogue and transitional scenes betray a lack of creativity, with page layouts defaulting to dull rectangular grids during those moments.
As expected for a youthful adventure, most of the dialogue is easy to read through, almost bordering on childish. Blame it on simple-minded Goku, who is enough of a pervert to refer to certain parts of the human anatomy—but doesn't know the proper words for them. The other characters, of course, have to talk to him in those simple terms as well. However, the writing is also witty enough to include some dialogue inflections, like Kuririn's formal speech, or the country twang of mountain dwellers Gyû-Maô and his daughter Chi-Chi. A couple of puns also find their way into the script, and if the gag requires a certain knowledge of Japanese, the editor's notes in the margins help to clarify matters. Sound effects in this translation are edited from Japanese into English, using blocky letters that are well-suited to the visual style.
Dragon Ball may seem like just a cute little jaunt—boy heads out on a journey, fights monsters, masters his abilities—but the speed at which this universe expands is the true testament to Akira Toriyama's imagination. New characters and new storylines pop up at every turn, back-stories and connections fill out the plot, and the artwork comes alive with varied designs and dynamic fight scenes. Of course, not every part of it is perfect: a training segment and fighting tournament take the momentum out of the story, and the lowbrow humor can be cringe-inducing. But the spirit of adventure is something that trumps these flaws, and is the reason why Dragon Ball is still relevant after all this time.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B
+ A grand flight of the imagination with new characters at every turn, an ever-expanding universe, and lively, fast-paced action scenes.
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