Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, January 02, 2009
      ( 1/02/2009 11:34:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"NURTURE OVER NATURE, M'BOY! GOKU'S NOT JUST AN EARTHLING . . . HE'S THE BEST DANG EARTHLING I KNOW! Though many manga and anime lovers have long been ahead of me on this 'un, I've only just recently started to get into "the greatest fighting manga ever!" - Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball Z. A popular "All Ages" series, Toriyama's Dragon Ball books, have been divided into two sections for American audiences: the first, simply called Dragon Ball comprises sixteen volumes of story; the second, which has the "Z" attached to it, follows the series characters from volumes seventeen through forty-two. The break makes some conceptual sense as the first volume of Z opens with its hero, Son Goku, five years older than he was in the first books, though, in reality, the change in titles was more a marketing decision than anything. Viz Media reportedly imposed the title change on the series to match that of a then-running anime adaptation.

Initially packaged in the States in a tankobon format - the Japanese term for those digest-sized paperbacks you see in the manga sections of your chain bookstores - both the Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z books are presently being reissued by Viz in a hefty 5-½ x 8-¼ " pb format called VizBig Editions. Each volume collects three of the tankobon collections, a bargain at the bookstore price of $17.99 when you consider that single digest-sized books have an asking price of $7.95. With an eye toward sharp shopping, I recently picked up the first volume of Z and found myself enjoying the opening volley of this fighting manga. Series creator Toriyama has been a major influence on younger manga creators, most notably Naruto's Mahashi Kishimoto and One Piece's Eiichiro Oda (he's even done a collaboration with the latter), and you can see this in his high-energy action scenes, in particular.

The hero of Z is Son Goku, a wild-haired martial artist who is capable of producing energy blasts and riding through the air on a cloud. When the second series opens, Goku has withdrawn from hero-ing to raise his four-year-old child Son Gohan and enjoy wedded bliss with the outspoken Chi-Chi. But the appearance of an alien named Raditz forces our hero into once more training to don the mantle of world-saving good guy. Raditz (whose name I kept reading as "Radish") is one of the last surviving members of a race of galactic plunderers called the Saiyan: he's also - in a piece of character revelation largely meaningless to someone who hasn't read the first sixteen Dragonballs - Goku's brother. The monkey tail that used to be a part of his body is a sign of his alien birth; Son Gohan also has such a tail.

Our hero, then, was originally sent to Earth to conquer it, but a childhood incident of blunt head trauma turned him from a murderous destroyer of worlds into a good guy. He rejects Raditz's offer to return to the business of planet sacking and vows to protect his adopted planet ("Get the heck off my planet!" he tells his long-lost bro). In response, Raditz kidnaps Goku's son. Much fighting follows, of course.

Goku is rescued - with the aid of a pointy-eared archenemy named Piccolo - but the battle alerts two stronger Saiyans to Son Goku's presence on Earth. As they begin the year-long process of traveling to our planet, Piccolo takes the four-year-old Gohan away to school him in the art of combat, while Gohan's father travels to the underworld for even more intensive martial arts training by a round and jovial demon named Kami-Sama, the Lord of the Worlds. Their training takes up most of the second volume in this series, as Gohan's friends and former allies sit on the sidelines and fret about the impending invasion.

Since I didn't have a clue as to who most of these characters were, I was grateful to Toriyama for providing a two-page spread at the beginning of the book, describing his cast, though I have no doubt that when one of them falls in volume three's first big fight with the Saiyans, the moment has more impact to Dragon Ball aficionados than it did me. Still, Toriyama establishes his core three characters - father, son and demon former frenemy - so quickly and distinctly that they carried me through this VizBig collection. The training sequences, in particular, prove much more entertaining than usual scenes of this ilk: Piccolo's hardnosed handling of monkey-tailed innocent Gohan's survival training is especially effective.

Toriyama's art should appeal to those who enjoy the cartoonish work in a more current manga series like One Piece, though it also reminds me in places of Golden Age American comic book artists like Bill Everett, especially in his forties work on the Submariner: Dragon Ball's demon figures wouldn't look out of place in Marvel Mystery Comics' Atlantis. For all that some fuddy-duddy comic book readers may moan about the way that traditional manga may look, the fact remains that you can see a visual lineage between an action series like this (which debuted in 1984) and the slam-bang Golden Age fight comics between Submariner and the Human Torch.

VizBig's edition is advertised as containing new color artwork and "updated" content. In the case of the first, two chapters have been colorized, though outside of our learning that Piccolo is green, the new color doesn't add much. As far as I can determine, the primary updating has consisted of a few panels redrawn to eliminate images of characters giving each other the finger. (Clearly, Japanese publishers have a different take on "All Ages" comics than American.) It doesn't significantly hamper the story, even if the perpetual adolescent in me misses the casual obscenity. Tried to figure out which panels were censored, but I couldn't do it.

Viz is also reissuing the first Dragon Ball books in their new hefty format: a good way for latecomers like me to catch up on this seminal manga series. On the basis of this first omnibus, I've already been won over by Toriyama's appealing mash-up of emotion- and action-packed battle sequences with whimsical fantasy. The "Greatest Battle Manga Ever"? Maybe.


# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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