Dr. Slump vol. 1
Chad Clayton rates it:
Author/Artist: Akira Toriyama
For better or worse, Akira Toriyama will always be best known in the West as the creator of Dragonball Z. There’s hardly any shame in that. After all, Dragonball Z has done more for anime’s recent recognition and success in the US than any other single anime or manga property. What I find most disappointing about DBZ‘s success, however, is that fans and dissenters alike keep getting so hung up on (or turned off by) the minutae of fights, techniques, power levels, and “who would win in a fight” debates that no one ever seems to acknowledge Toriyama’s talent as a humorist, which I personally feel was always his greatest asset. In fact, Toriyama’s uncanny knack for gag comedy was what first made him famous, in his first long-running manga series, Dr. Slump.
Dr. Slump, which ran in Shonen Jump from 1980 to 1984, is the polar opposite of Dragonball Z. It’s neither dramatic nor action-packed. It’s not epic in scope. It’s not serious, even tangentially. It makes no pretenses at all towards being ambitious or mature – in fact, it revels in its own childish immaturity more than any other manga in recent memory. It’s the story of the inventor Senbei Norimaki, his robotic “daughter” Arale, the rather odd inhabitants of Penguin Village, and the uproariously silly misadventures they manage to get themselves into. It’s a bizarre, hilarious little story that crosses the childlike goofiness of a Saturday morning cartoon with some of the smirking, adult-oriented humor of Mad Magazine’s early years.
Dr. Slump is an excellent example of why Akira Toriyama is one of manga’s best-loved creators: even at such an early stage in his career, he displays an uncanny command of the comics medium. His stories are wonderfully simple, yet they contain a variety of different styles of humor, from simple sight gags, to situational comedy, to gentle social satire, to out-and-out potty humor. He draws in a style that is distinctly his own, yet he shows his versatility by switching between different ways of rendering each character for comedic effect. He even uses the comic medium itself for the sake of humor; characters cover up word bubbles with their hands, grab onto panel dividers, and run the gamut of exaggerated facial expressions in just a few small panels. Little details like that are what make Dr. Slump so entertaining to read and read again. The characters aren’t just talking heads spitting jokes back and forth; there are many moments that would be funny even if there were no dialogue. It’s one thing to tell a joke, but it’s quite another to show a joke, a fact which is often sadly overlooked in such a highly visual medium.
With Dr. Slump, Toriyama has created something that we see very little of today. He’s created a manga that you don’t necessarily have to be an anime or manga fan to enjoy. You don’t have to be of a specific age, gender, culture or group to find it funny. Even though it was written for young boys in the early 80s, only the biggest prudes or the most ironclad snobs would have trouble finding something funny in this book. But it’s not only the gags and jokes that make Dr. Slump so fun to read. Toriyama infuses his little yarns with such an air of good-natured goofiness that you can’t help but smile when reading them. He not only tells jokes, he provides the entire comic with a humorous worldview that breathes life into gags that would otherwise seem old, tired, and laborious. It’s further proof of the idea that a truly talented storyteller can make the ridiculous seem plausible, the familiar seem magical, and the old seem new again.
It’s my firm belief that reviewers and fans alike tend to throw around superlatives where they’re not merited. I couldn’t even begin to number the times an anime, comic, CD, or movie was quickly dubbed a “classic” or “the best ever,” only to be all but forgotten after the next big thing comes around. In my view, the true “classics” are the titles that can stand the test of time, and will have people talking about them years or even decades after they were created. So you’ll have to excuse my reluctance to use such glowing language in reference to any title. Yet here I am, reading a manga that’s as old as I am, and still laughing at all the jokes and being impressed by how clever it all is. It’s rare that one finds a gag manga whose humor is fresher and more funny than just about any contemporary comic, a quarter-century after it was first drawn. If the most important measure of a comedy manga is how well its humor stands up over time, then Dr. Slump may very well be a classic. I may get taken to task by some for calling a manga like Dr. Slump a “classic,” but I can think of few humor comics more deserving of the honor.
Added: Monday, May 30, 2005
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