A few months ago my roommate Pete borrowed the first three volumes of Dragon Ball from a friend and I read them. I checked out the remainder of the 24-volume series from Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library, and what fun I had!
This series is pure lighthearted puerile joy and a real achievement of fantasy storytelling. Unlike most other manga and anime I’m familiar with, there is almost no melodrama, little or no engagement with the emotional lives or inner struggles of the main characters (see Naruto or Fullmetal Alchemist, where the young male protagonists have dark, agonizing pasts.) Not that there’s anything wrong with all that, but here you get a story of great levity, of pure high-flying cartoon fun.
The tale follows the boy Goku and his friends as they search for the seven Dragon Balls that, once obtained, grant a wish by the magical dragon Shenlong. I liked the DBZ show in middle school so I was familiar with all this. One thing I enjoyed about this manga’s storytelling is the way it cycled through a few different scenarios over and over while always remaining exciting: they search for the Dragon Balls, a threat appears, they battle, they meet a new ally, they go to the Tenkaichi Budokai martial arts tournament, they battle, they go to some cool new location (a futuristic city, an underwater cave), they battle, there’s a comic relief moment, a new threat appears, they reunite with an old character, and on and on.
So the moment-to-moment action of the story keeps your interest more than the plot’s long-term reach toward some conclusion (the Dragon Balls zip away to the far corners of the Earth after one makes a wish, so then they have to be sought out over and over again). I guess this “cycling” is a reflection of the comic’s original serial format in Shonen Jump magazine. I had the same feeling when reading the big Dark Horse volumes of Akira (though the larger, overarching plot is more prominent there) and of course serialized American superhero comics often work this in this cyclical way: the “plot” being a conglomeration of shorter scenarios strung together without end.
Dragon Ball is also really funny. A quirky, silly sexual humor pervades, centering around Goku’s boyish curiosity and the elderly Master Roshi’s creepy lechery (he hangs out alone and watches women’s exercise tapes). The characters also poke fun at the comic's very title.
And Toriyama’s character designs and draftsmanship are just awesome. Everything is scratched out in a loose, economical line and the characters often have a similar basic appearance (same eyes for instance) but with endless variations of costume, etc. and are often part human, part animal (Emperor Pilaf’s ninja dog sidekick is my favorite). The battle scenes are tense, over-the-top, and hard-hitting.
Yeah, just a super-fun series.
ATTN: Will the 12-year-old or whoever has had Death Note #5 checked out for the last three months please return that shit so I can read it? It's the only volume not on the library shelves!