I've now officially begun my duties as editor of Modern Tales. ARRRGH MOMMY MAKE THE BAD MEN STOP. My new workload has not, however, prevented me from continuing to read and report on underappreciated manga. Click through the cut for the latest installment of the Overlooked Manga Festival!
Looking back over previous entries, I can't help noticing that three-quarters of my Overlooked Manga picks are shojo (girls') manga. Sure, I could take the tack of the American comics industry, blink confusedly in the sunlight, and say, "What? Boys don't read manga. Or if they really want to, they can just read the girls' manga. Ain't nothing stopping them. And if there aren't any male creators on my list, it's because the men haven't done anything good enough. You don't want me to give them special treatment just because they're men, do you? That would be a far worse form of sexism than excluding and ignoring them!"
Ahem. But I won't do that. Instead, I'll try to tip the balance a little by talking about a shonen (boys') manga. And not just any shonen manga, but a manga that shaped the face of Japan's biggest and boy-iest manga magazine, Shonen Jump itself!
No, Jason, not Knights of the Zodiac. Not yet.
A little background. Remember a few years ago, when Dragonball Z was the biggest damn thing in America? Well, when the Dragon Ball manga originally ran in Japan, it was a million times bigger than that. It was hella big. So big that it pushed the circulation of Shonen Jump to its all-time highest level, SIX MILLION COPIES A WEEK. (To keep this in perspective, remember that DC and Marvel currently put out excited press releases if one of their titles tops 100,000 copies a month.) So big that the editors of Shonen Jump forced creator Akira Toriyama to hold to his contract and keep drawing the manga long after he originally wanted it to end. So big that, when it finally did end, the entire manga industry in Japan fell into a slump from which it has yet to fully recover. Sure, there were other economic factors. But the ending of Dragon Ball was major enough to send tremors across the entire Japanese archipelago. (Still, you should be kind of glad that shit went down. The manga slump forced publishers to seek new international markets, which is one reason we now have over 1,000 manga series available in English translation. No joke.)
Basically, Dragon Ball was the biggest manga ever. But it wasn't Akira Toriyama's first hit. Before Dragon Ball, Toriyama wowed Shonen Jump readers with the anarchic comedy and nonstop poop jokes of Dr. Slump, which is a million billion trillion times better. So let's start talking it up!
Dr. Slump takes place in Penguin Village, a town populated by dinosaurs, space aliens, magic foxes, superheroes, crooks, and kids. Among the residents is Senbei Norimaki, a mad inventor and constantly-frustrated horndog. Taking a break from skirt-chasing, Norimaki does one of the things instinctive to mad scientists in manga: builds himself a super-strong little robot kid.
Seriously, I don't know why manga scientists want to do this at all, beyond the fact that it happened in Astro Boy. I guess if an Osamu Tezuka character jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, they'd all jump too. Anyway, Norimaki's creation is named Arale. She's supposed to pass for a preteen but acts like an hyperactive preschooler, and she's incredibly strong. Also, her head is removable.
Dr. Slump is basically a string of extremely silly episodic adventures for young readers. The humor is frequently dirty in an innocent little-kid way: there are jokes about Norimaki's lecherous behavior, chapters about Arale trying to figure out human-girl concepts like vaginas and bras, and lots and lots and LOTS of poop. Little kids love poop; I learned that from Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga.
Please note that nobody freaks out about there being a T-Rex cage in the first place. That's just what you get at the zoo in Penguin Village. T-Rexes.
The overall tone is manic, random, and cute as hell. I think you can get a feel for the illogical thrust of the action with this sequence, in which the characters meet an actual, actual, actual vampire.
Why do I love this ridiculous manga? Well, I'm crazy about the art, for one thing. This round, thick-lined, super-cute look is Toriyama's usual style, and it's a long way from the scratchy superhero-realistic style he developed for the later volumes of Dragon Ball. He's an amazing artist. He's also a funny artist. Check out Penguin Village's resident superhero, Suppaman:
Something about that face coming at you on the skateboard cracks my shit up every time.
But can Suppaman best Arale in the Feats of Strength?
I say thee nay!
Anyway, Dr. Slump is friggin' hilarious, and any random volume is packed with joy. Hell yeah!