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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Dr. Slump

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CLX: Dr. Slump

In 2002 I met Akira Toriyama. He was in New York for the Shonen Jump magazine launch, signing autographs, and I was super eager to meet him; I had read all 38 volumes of Dragon Ball, from the beginning to the end, and it's one of my favorite manga. I told Toriyama this and his eyes brightened up. He asked me "Have you read Dr. Slump?"

I hadn't, and when I confessed this and Toriyama's disappointed eyes said Sigh, another poser, I've never felt more like an asshat. I'd been meaning to get around to reading it, but I just wasn't that interested: Dr. Slump is a kiddie manga and Dragon Ball…well, it's also a kiddie manga, but IT'S GOT PEOPLE DESTROYING PLANETS JUST BY POINTING AT THEM, DAMMIT! Dr. Slump is so unpopular in the USA that people here don't even pirate it.

But the truth is, Dr. Slump is much better drawn than Dragon Ball, has much more energy, much more creativity, is just much more TORIYAMA. Dragon Ball, although super fun and original in its own way, is a middle-aged Toriyama payin' the bills: Dr. Slump is a young Toriyama doing everything he can to impress us. When he started drawing Dr. Slump, in 1980, Toriyama was an unmarried 24-year-old living with his family. He didn't even have an assistant at first. Even if you don't like it despite everything I'm going to say about it, Dr. Slump should inspire all wanna-be manga artists: it's proof you can still make a million-copy bestselling comic, even if you're living at home with your parents.

Toriyama was living in the boondocks when he wrote it, so Dr. Slump is kind of a small-town manga. (Though it might just be because he hates drawing buildings: notice how all the fight scenes in Dragon Ball take place in the middle of nowhere?) Penguin Village, the setting, is an adorable land where anything can happen. A talking pig with a microphone announces the beginning of most chapters. The sun has a smiley face, complains about the heat, and waves goodbye at night. Penguin Village also contains flying lizards, talking dogs, talking birds, angry crayfish, storks who deliver the mail, Frankenstein's monster, Godzilla, Gamera, and a talking volcano named Mt. Flapflap (although usually not all in the same chapter). It is a wacky, wacky place, but most of the people are nice and everything is green and pleasant; the houses are cute and there's lots of grass and palm trees. The talking pigs need something to climb in, after all.

Dr. Slump (the guy, not the title of the manga) is a mad scientist. His real name is Senbei Norimaki, which is Japanese for a kind of rice crackers (everyone in this manga has pun names); people just call him "Dr. Slump" because his inventions suck. Actually, many of his inventions are pretty awesome, but Senbei himself is kind of a loser: he's 28 years old (four years older than Toriyama when he started the manga), in the market for a wife (also like Toriyama), and an avid reader of dirty magazines (no comment). His inventions over the course of the manga include:

* glasses that let you see through nonliving objects (like women's clothing)
* the Future Camera, that shows you what things will look like in the future (guess what happens when it's pointed at the reader)
* the Time Slipper, a time machine in the shape of a little clock with legs that must take a running start and literally slip in order to take you back in time
* the Reality Machine, which looks like a rice cooker and turns photos into real objects
* a plane that runs on a giant can of soda (until the fizz runs out)
* the Time Stopper, that stops time so you can do whatever you want (this invention was personally commissioned by Akira Toriyama)
* Housebot Akiko (which looks strangely like Akira Toriyama)
* and a variety of Rube Goldbergian devices invented to do things like see a girl's panties

Senbei is screwing around in the lab one day when he invents a robot girl. Not a grown woman: a little girl. And not a sexy little girl either: Toriyama isn't no Hideo Azuma. The robot girl, Arale (also a kind of rice cracker), isn't even fully assembled before her disconnected head starts making whimsical Yotsuba-like observations and her disconnected limbs start kicking around and breaking stuff. She has bad vision, so Senbei gives her a pair of glasses; then she puts on some suspenders, and she's good to go!

For whatever reason (considering that this is a world full of space aliens, dinosaurs and gorillas in bancho uniforms), Senbei wants people to think Arale is normal, so he sends her to junior high school like she was an ordinary girl. There she meets her friends Akane (a tomboy), Taro (a wannabe cool kid with a pompodour and shades) and Peasuke (Taro's little brother who wears hats with animal ears on them). They're all pretty cool, although not so smart, since they never really figure out that Arale is a robot, despite the fact that she is always ripping buildings out of the ground and throwing them, or running at mach speed, things like that. Arale is crazy strong: she's so strong that she can stomp on the planet Earth and knock it into Mercury. She's so strong that when she jumps up in the air in P.E. class, she jumps out of her own shorts, up past the clouds, through the wings of a passing airplane, up past the thunder god Raijin, and finally down to Earth. She's so strong that for flower arrangement, she arranges a tree. Akira Toriyama never gets tired of little kids like Arale kicking the asses of big adult bad guys; it's just like Dragon Ball that way.

Admittedly, this is a gag manga, so everyone is sort of superhuman. When Arale wants to wake up Senbei when he's sleeping, she just shoots him with a rocket launcher, or tosses a grenade in his mouth and closes his jaw. ("Ow! Ow! Ow! If this wasn't a gag manga, we'd be dead!") Dr. Slump is blatantly silly, if the talking sun didn't warn you of that already. Characters play around with the panel borders. The Fourth Wall is broken, knocked down, bulldozed. Akane shouts at a character, then grabs her own "shout" sound effect and beats the character with it. Akira Toriyama himself (a young, mustache-free Toriyama!) shows up in the manga, talks to the characters, and interferes with the story. When the characters compete in the Penguin Grand Prix, the prize is only $30, since Akira Toriyama has to put up the money himself.

Is there anyone who wouldn't find this manga incredibly adorable? Why isn't his manga a bigger hit in America? Who is the parent so heartless they wouldn't let their 10-year-old kids read a manga with a little grenade-play? Well, in addition to the occasional guns and panties, which you could almost censor out (although thankfully, the Viz manga didn't censor anything), there's also the matter of ALL THE TOILET HUMOR.

This manga loves poop. Specifically, Arale loves poop. Maybe it's because, as a robot, she can't eat or poo; in one chapter she decides to eat lunch when she's at school, and she has a tummy ache until Senbei disassembles her later and takes the food out (and then he eats it himself). In volume 1, Arale mistakes poop for a person and tries to talk to it. Her poop obsession really begins in volume 2, when she finds a random "lost" poop and delivers it to the policemen in the hopes its owner will come to claim it. Then comes the talking poop ("I love being poop!"), the little anthromorphized poops with arms and legs, and the scenes when Arale carries a poop around on a stick. In one scene the characters are racing, and Arale wins by a poop, since her poop on a stick crosses the finishing line before anyone else. In an omake midway through the series, Toriyama charts all the poop appearances so far in the series ("After a peak poop in volumes 6 & 7, we've had kind of a lull…but I think that's changing! I feel a lot of poop coming on!")

American parents hate this kind of stuff, so rather than becoming a mainstream kiddie delight, Dr. Slump in America is forced to be the province of tankobon-reading, champagne-sipping manga intellectuals like you and I, gentle reader. (Be warned, it's a slippery slope: make excuses for poop manga now and you'll be making excuses for Kodomo no Jikanin a fortnight.) Everybody Poops may be a bestselling children's book (P.S.: it, too, is Japanese) but this kind of stuff isn't accepted in Western comics or animation: PBS Kids never shows the Cat in the Hat squatting over the litter box, and the Wonder Pets never leave behind pellets. The FCC would probably also frown on King Nikochan, the alien with a butt for a head (apparently Toriyama's editor also hated the character), or Bubibinman, the fly-like alien who is delighted to discover the delicacies of earthly dung. Toriyama's super-cute, colorful art makes all of this more bearable even for the poop-shy; it'd be a lot grosser (and would never have become an 18-volume megahit) if Toriyama drew like, say, Takashi Nemoto. Poop is only the tip of the iceberg. There is also a lot of nose-picking, and the sound effect "PA-POOOOP!", and Chivil, the cute little devil with a bladder problem who goes around trying to kill people and take souls. ("Care to die?") Also, God appears. 

Anything you can imagine happening in Dr. Slump, happens. There is an incredibly large cast of characters, some of them just weird, some of them references to other shows and movies. Kurikinton Soramame, the town barber, looks like Clint Eastwood. Fearless reporter Kura'aku Kenta is secretly Suppaman, an incredibly incompetent, and, in fact, villainous Superman parody who gets his (nonexistent) strength from sour plums (suppai=sour). Other pop culture icons who get taken down by Arale include Parzan, the wild man of the jungle who rides around on a frog, and Miyamoto Musashi, who unlike the others, isn't quite bad but just out of his league.

When the characters go back in time, they find an egg which hatches into Gatchan, a mysterious flying baby with green hair, antennae and super powers. (Gatchan actually won the "coolest character" poll in volume 8, beating Arale.) Around the time real-world Akira Toriyama got his motorcycle license, Toriyama introduces Biker Boy, a motorcyclist who has a rare medical condition meaning he must ride his bike constantly or die. (His bike pants have no butt so he can poop without stopping.) Volume 10 introduces the Tsuns, a friendly-but-totally-stereotypical kung-fu-fighting Chinese family who took off from China in their spaceship but crashlanded in Penguin Village. The daughter of the family, Tsun Tsuru-rin, has psychic powers, which almost makes her stronger than Arale and Gatchan, although Gatchan beats her at the High Jump Contest with 1,200,000km because Tsun Tsuru-rin can't breathe in outer space. The biggest recurring bad guy is the evil mad scientist Dr. Mashirito, a not-at-all-disguised parody of Kazuhiko Torishima, the longstanding Shonen Jump editor. "I'll reject this week's manga!" he often threatens, when not trying to defeat Arale with bigger and bigger giant robots. Eventually, however, he invents the lovable Obotchaman, who looks like Astro Boy, and ends up becoming our heroes' friend.

There isn't any real plot to all this, but once happened, things tend to stay happened. The feeling of continuity is nice. When the manga begins, Senbei has no experience with women. ("I'm not married…I-I haven't even held hands!" he sobs.) Eventually, he marries Ms. Yamabuki, Arale's teacher, although even when they have a son he continues to be a pervy lecher who acts like panties are a rare sacred object. Tsukutsun Tsun, the son of the Tsun family, falls in love with Akane. The teenagers grow up from age 13 to age 17, although Arale, being a robot, never gets bigger. Even when the other characters are growing up and getting jobs (albeit silly jobs), Arale is still running around poking poo and saying her catchphrases "Ho-yo-yo!" and "N'cha!" and "Bye-cha!" and "KIIIIIN" (the latter when she's pretending to be an airplane).

It's common talk in the manga industry in Japan that Dr. Slump was "the last non-manufactured hit", at least among Shonen Jump titles. This is an unprovable claim, but definitely, Dr. Slump feels more loose and organic than Dragon Ball, a series Toriyama wanted to stop drawing repeatedly over its run but which was too popular so it just kept going. The seeds of Dragon Ball are visible in Dr. Slump, firstly in the character designs: Tsukutsun Tsun looks like Yamcha, all the pig characters look like Oolong, the various Dr. Slump female cast members look a bit like Android #18 and Bulma and Lunch. There's also tons of martial arts battles and races, particularly towards the end of the manga. The manga ends with the Penguin Valley Grand Prix #2, going out with a bang. (Too bad Cart Racing video games didn't exist back in 1985, or it'd have made a fun one.)

I love Dragon Ball, but Dr. Slump may be the best manga Toriyama ever made. The beginning of the manga in 1980 is very different from the ending in 1985; in the beginning, both the art and story are much denser than later on. The early parts have a greater density of lines-per-square-cm, a greater number of gags-per-page, a greater sense of freedom. When Toriyama tries to be funny in his later series (like the later parts of Dragon Ball, with the Great Saiyaman), frankly, it usually isn't that funny. It's like a sense of realism holds him back, making the art more geometric and predictable, the jokes more tame.

But Dr. Slump never gets tame. It's always good, always goofy, always Axecop crazy, even when Toriyama's gas-mask-robot alter ego persona is complaining he can't take it any more. ("This manga's going on its fifth year, and I'm completely out of ideas," Toriyama confesses to the characters in volume 18, just before the ending.) It's got everything a kid could want: robots and dinosaurs and giant monsters and spaceships and Dracula and talking animals and mad scientists and kids beating up mean adults and time travel and poop. Lots of poop. Touch the computer screen now, and your hand will get sticky. I swear.

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