DRAWN & QUARTERED
No slump in energy here
Akira Toriyama's "Dr. Slump" is extreme and in-your-face comedy
There was once a time when manga author Akira Toriyama was not known for the "Dragon Ball" franchise.
Ponder that for a moment. The various "Dragon Ball" series arguably were what got many people in America interested in anime and manga for the first time. The anime, in particular, was known for its epic, multi-episode battles ("On THIS episode of 'Dragon Ball Z': GOKU THROWS A PUNCH! Tune in for the NEXT exciting episode, when VEGETA BLOCKS IT!")
There was just something captivating about the quest of Goku and his friends looking for the seven mystical Dragon Balls, fighting off various enemies, and often dying doing so. Many, many times.
But even if Toriyama had never created "Dragon Ball," his career still probably would have been deemed a success in the eyes of his Japanese audience. The reason: a pair of characters named after Japanese rice crackers, Dr. Senbei Norimaki and his robot girl, Arale Norimaki. (Yes, the name technically should be "AraRE," but Toriyama's drawings of her show her name written on her cap and bag in English with an "L" instead of the second "R.")
"Dr. Slump," which ran in Weekly Shonen Jump in Japan from 1980 to 1984 and now is being translated and released in America by Viz, was Toriyama's breakout hit. Unlike the harder-edged action/sci-fi tone that much of the "Dragon Ball" series takes, "Dr. Slump" has a much more lighthearted feel to it. When the first page shows Arale's head yawning while on the assembly table and saying "Bo-ring" as Senbei works on her, you know you're in for quite a ride.
It never is made clear why Senbei creates Arale. Maybe he just wanted company around the house; maybe it was to satisfy his continual cravings as an inventor to create stuff. Or maybe it's because he wanted some tool to spy on buxom junior high school teacher Ms. Yamabuki. In any case, what he ends up creating is a perfect humanoid robot ... to a certain extent. Once she's fully assembled, she immediately starts pointing out all of the good doctor's design flaws, like giving her a flat chest, leaving out the ability to fly and launch missiles from her stomach, and giving her blurry vision that requires glasses to correct.
ARALE IS also very human ... perhaps too human, given her naivete about her superhuman strength. Senbei tries his hardest to pass her off as his younger sister, which is a formidable task in itself considering he's 28, she's supposed to be around 13 and his parents died when he was much younger. But when his "younger sister" careens around town shouting "KIIIIIIIIIN," crashes into a car and leaves the car a mangled heap, people are bound to sit up and take notice.
Except this is Penguin Village, a place where everything -- animals, the sun and moon, the sky, toothpaste tubes, poop -- can talk, the mutant turtle Gamera stops by to play with children (he is a friend to all children, after all), and residents can ride around in hippopotamus-drawn carriages. So save for the occasional surprise over Arale's unintentional path of destruction -- usually registered more by visitors to the area than by the locals -- it's pretty much business as usual. Granted, it's a status quo teetering on the border of outright insanity, but it's a status quo nonetheless.
Forget about any sense of subtlety here -- "Dr. Slump" is to comedy manga what the "Dragon Ball" series is to kick-punch-chop action manga: extreme and in your face. It also means there's not much of a story, except for a few situations here and there where characters refer to past events (and shamelessly plug the volume in which the past event appeared in the process).
"If this manga had a story, he woulda died," one character comments after trying to blow up another character. "That's why I don't like gag manga. Nuh-uh."
INDEED, THE "fourth wall" between readers and characters isn't broken so much as it is pulverized into itty-bitty pieces. Characters frequently comment on how day can change into night in a matter of a few panels, or how certain things can happen only because they're in a manga. One of Arale's friends in school can pose as the spitting image of Ms. Yamabuki in a scheme that Toriyama admits takes advantage of his inability to draw more than one female face. Toriyama also frequently injects himself into the proceedings, drawing himself either as a man wearing a surgical mask or as a bird (the "tori" in "Toriyama" translating into "bird" in English).
And then there are the parodies, for which Toriyama draws equally from Japanese and American properties. The full name of Gatchan, Arale's and Senbei's winged companion, is Gajira, a combination of "Gamera" and "Godzilla." Another character eats umeboshi (pickled plum) and transforms into "Suppaman," "suppai" being the Japanese word for "sour"; instead of flying around, he's often seen riding around on his stomach on a skateboard. References to "Star Wars," "Star Trek" and "Ultraman" are also frequent.
For all its humor, though, American audiences are actually getting a toned-down version of the original. To appeal to a younger audience (and presumably to keep its "teen" rating, as well), Viz edited out numerous instances of nudity, sexual references, alcohol use and other alcoholic references. What remains, though -- a bunch of jokes often involving poop, one of Arale's favorite things -- can be pretty raunchy on its own.