I have embarked on an epic quest in my eternal journey as a pop culture nerd: absorb all of Dragon Ball. My game plan is to read all the manga and watch all the anime and movies by the end of this year.
Now let me say this: Going into one of the biggest franchises ever is certainly going to be one epic pilgrimage as far as study of pop culture goes, but I must say that it is disappointing to have known so many spoilers before I read the first page. While it would have been fun to have been born a decade or two earlier and have grown up on it, I have arrived extremely late to the party. For reference on how late, the Dragon Ball manga began in late 1984, and Dragon Ball GT (the last breath of the anime tv show) ended in 1997, while my eyes graced the first panel of volume 1 roughly a month ago.
Seeing as it’s a huge franchise, and the fact that I have studied Dragon Ball on wikis, message boards, and TV Tropes long before I even thought of reading or watching it, I just know so many things that would have been cool to not know that they’re coming up. To recap some of the biggies: Krillian dies, Vegeta performs a heel face turn and Bulma marries him, Chi Chi marries Goku, Goku gets turned into a kid in GT, and on and on.
However, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it; in fact, for many works of fiction, it’s the fact that I have all the awesome stuffed spoiled and want to see it in person that even gets me interested in the first place. But regardless of how being spoiled reflects back on my journey, it’s time to get down to business.
A few weeks ago as previously mentioned I acquired volume 1 of Dragon Ball from my local library. I was quite confused at first; never before had I even heard of a book that requires one to go from right to left, let alone be faced with one. However, I’m not an idiot, and figured out everything quickly. Seeing as Dragon Ball is essentially a comic book, I was unusually enthusiastic about the whole ordeal, seeing as the awkward (to me at least) style of comic books is what led to the abortion of a previous nerdspedition to read Watchmen.
I was also surprised to see that Goku was a kid; I watched the first episode of the anime at an anime club and was confused. However, all it took was a few google searches to discover that Akira split the manga into two parts: Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, and that I had watched not the first episode period, but the first episode of the second part of the series (in which Goku is an adult).
It’s amusing to say the least, seeing as how I began in the middle, my exploration of all things Dragon Ball will be done in media res.
Anyway, I have to say this about my first impression of Goku, the first character introduced in the series: He. Is. Naïve. Truly, he is. Also, he kicks a ton of ass; one of the very first thing he does is deliver a tap on the head to a fish twice his size, then happily drags it out of the water and walks toward home like it’s weightless.
As he’s dragging this fish along a road, a car almost hits him. He begins to freak out, and lifts the car over his head and throws it to the ground. The occupant pulls out a gun and shoot him, but it only makes him pissed off. This altercation is eventually resolved peacefully, however, and Goku invites the driver, a girl named Bulma, into his house.
Bulma reveals to Goku that the reason why she’s off all alone in the wilderness is that she’s looking for the seven Dragon Balls, which if gathered will summon a wish granting dragon. Seeing as Goku has one, she tries to exchange the dragon ball he has for getting a peek at her panties.
Now let me say this about that scene. Seeing as we saw Goku’s gentials within the first few pages, added on with the fact that now a teenaged girl is selling out her body (and this does not happen “off screen” either, we see her underwear and butt), I was uncomfortable at the idea that maybe the Japanese have looser morals and values when it comes to sexuality and nudity.
However, I reassured myself on a simple regard: Maybe it was just Akira as a creator. After all, how would I feel if a Japanese person based their entire understanding of Americans on an episode of South Park? Granted, South Park is way worse in the political correctness department than Dragon Ball, but you get my point.
Anyway, Bulma, thinking she could use a bodyguard on her journey, recruits Goku to help her find the Dragon Balls. They go off, encounter a random giant mook and a…pterodactyl? Goku and Bulma later set up camp with pill-sized capsules that can contain entire vehicles and buildings (hmm…I can feel my “Incredibly practical sci-fi technology that would solve almost any conflict, but will be forgotten at a critical moment to facilitate the plot” senses tingling…) and encounter a huge talking turtle. They bring it to the shore, where an old man shows up.
This old man, out of all the people in the world that could meet our protagonists, has a Dragon Ball and a magical fliyng cloud. The flying cloud is given as a gift for guiding the turtle back to the ocean, while the Dragon Ball is traded in exchange for Bulma flashing her genitals at the old man…twice. Fortunately we see the scene from behind and only see her rear end; seeing her front would have gone too far and been disturbing and offensive to some readers.
With flying cloud and Macguffin in hand, they go off to a town in which, what do ya know, there’s another Dragon Ball in! However, it’s marauded by the demon Oolong, who can shape-shift into anything. However, Goku finds out that Oolong is really just a weakling who merely looks tough, and Bulma forces him to help them on their quest by drugging him with candy that makes him lose bowel control whenever Bulma whistles (yeah, Bulma's kind of a manipulative psychopath the way I see her). They go off to find the sixth ball, but a bandit named Yamcha attacks them. With Yamcha following them, the group eventually goes to a mountain that is on fire, where they are confronted by the Ox King. Roll last cover.
This first volume is very good at establishing what the focus of the franchise will be: Goku’s life of combat and the quest for the Dragon Balls. As for the qualities of the manga, the artwork is impressive, and the characters are memorable, but there are some flaws…
First of all, Akira does a terrible job of world building. We have yet to see an adequate explanation for Goku’s super strength (even though I know full well why because it’s been spoiled), and certain aspects of the world, such as why some people have capsules that can hold anything while others still live in farming villages.
On a side note, Akira also seems to be more of a “show, don’t tell” kind of writer, seeing as he’ll throw a talking turtle at you and expect you to catch on. And I have; I now know that talking animals are a regular part of the universe.
Another flaw is the somewhat unnerving amount of sexual humor, particularly the gags centered around Master Roshi. Granted, sexual humor can be hilarious when well done, even if it's a little offensive, but when you get pedophilia thrown into the mix, YMMV applies more than ever. What do I think of it? Well, if I had been in charge of writing it would have been left out, but at least it's only fiction.
But regardless of the somewhat bad writing, Akira is very good at fight scenes. They really keep me guessing at who will win, and of course look awesome. My favorite so far is the one with Yamcha. Up until that point, Goku had blasted any obstacle in his way. He shattered a piece of wood within the first few pages, and even gunfire at close range only made him pissed off. The fight with Yamcha did a very good job of conveying that yes, there are some people who Goku will fail against. In case you were wondering, Yamcha was "defeated" when he saw Bulma because of his weaksauce weakness: Yamcha is afraid of women. Bulma reacted to seeing Yamcha by falling in love at literally first sight, although the desert bandit made a quick retreat away from her.
Overall though, I have enjoyed the first toe in the water. I will expect the unexpected to cushion the mental shock and frustration when a new element appears in a cloud of bad writing, enjoy the fight scenes and artful panels, and I will try to look past Roshi’s (and to an extent, Oolong’s as well) perverted ways and not make a big deal of it because it’s fiction. A good installment when all is said and done.