Whether you love it or hate it, Dragonball is the most successful creator owned comic property of all time. Over 150 million Tankōbon(graphic novels) sold around the world. Not just Japan, Asia and the US but also countries like Mexico, UK, Italy, Hungary and more. The anime series was once hailed by Cartoon Network as having over one hundred million fans(or was that six hundred million?) worldwide. Dozens of animated movies, tons of video games, lots and lots of merchandise. A few live action moves. One unofficial one in China thats a remake of one of the earlier animated movies and a crappy one here in the US by Fox.
So... why is it popular? Because its fun.
I just finished rereading the entire series(okay, I flipped through the final books but I didn't like those stories) and Dragonball is a fun little book. Thats it. There's no deep meaning. No complex narrative.
Inspired by Journey to the West, Dragonball follows Son Gokuh, a young boy with a tail living on his own in the woods. He encounters a spunky teen girl named Bulma tracking down the Dragon Balls. A group of mystic balls that when gathered can summon a dragon to grant a wish. Gokuh has one that his deceased grandfather left him. Bulma and Gokuh go on an adventure to the find the balls.
Along the way on the first saga they encounter the shape shifting pig Oolong, the bandits Yamcha and Pu'Ur, Turtle Hermit Master Roshi and his talking Turtle, and the Ox King and his daughter Chi Chi. Eventually ending up duking it out with Emperor Pilaf and his minions who want he Dragon Balls to take over the world.
The series for the next several volumes finds Gokuh training under Roshi, who trained his grandfather, with Krillin. Fighitng, tournaments, svaing the world, etc. until the series jumps years into the future for what many int he world know as Dragonball Z. Gokuhs married with a child and soon discovers he himself is an alien of the Saiyan race. Once again we go into action and adventure with an added sci-fi slant.
All in all, a rather simple series though repetitive. But having reread the book... its incredibly fun. The early stories are fun watching Gokuh, a country bumpking, see the world outside and go on wild adventures. He strives to be a great fighter, a fair person, and just never quits. Even when going up against the Red Ribbon army when everyone around him stresses the danger. The DBZ stuff losses some of the humor but the first three "sagas" are some of the best action comics you could get.
It's refreshing to see Gokuh not have some identity complex about being an alien. He's an earthling and Earth is his home. He strives to be the hero but at the same time his natural instinct to fight makes you question his decisions. He doesn't want the Dragon Balls interrupting what could be a an entertaining fight.
The supporting cast is always fun. Its great to see that Krillin hold his own while other fighters stronger than him seem to slowly drift into the background like Yamcha or Tian. Krillin tries to assist in anyway possible even after he knows that he can't keep up as a fighter.
Watching the villain Piccolo turn to good is interesting though I became more familiar with DBZ first. The story behind Vegeta is what drives a lot of the series. The once Prince of a dead race who becomes envious of Gokuhs abilities drive him. You watch him from villain to... well... less of a villain. Him and Bulmas relationship is a twist as you always expect her to get with one again/off again boyfriend Yamcha.
One of the main reasons I pulled out my books was my feelings after the live action film. I could tell they were familiar with the material but the execution was awful on so many levels. Streamlining the series into a two hour lfick is definitely a challenge but the decisions they made didn't work.
The first Piccolo story happens deeper in the first portion of Dragonball. Right after the second tournament. By that time Toriyama established most of his cast at the time. But the glaring problems are the cast.
Gokuh isn't introduced as a young boy int he woods but an 18 year old high school. The personalities are different with Gokuh lusting after Chi Chi. Justin Chatwick also lacked the look of the character. Which is ahrd to get over. I mean, Gokuh as a teen wasn't super buff yet but he was bigger than Chatwick. Gokuh is arguably the most popualr manga character in Japan. Really, the Superman of Japan and Fox failed. Think about it, both aliens. Both have stories of their youths and adulthood. Both incredibly powerful. Both don't like to kill(though Gokuh will when it needs to be done but prefers mercy). Both upstanding men.
Bulmas selfishness and temperamental attitude is missing. The way her and Gokuh meet is so classic but the flick doesn't do it. She actually explains the Dragon Balls to Gokuh as she seeks her wish of a good looking boyfriend. Bulma is more noble in the movie and isn't quite sure what to think about Gokuhs story of the Dragonballs.
Matser Roshi is more of a perv in the book. Yeah...
All in all... a failure as a film. Butt he comics are fun. Entertaining. Their light reading action comics and I whole heartily suggest them to anyone. Plus their easy to find. Viz is re-releasing them in Viz Big editions. I found them all prior to this in the shonen jump editions. The books still sell and the anime series is still a huge success. Funimations DVD box sets were blazing up DVD sales charts last year and the new Dragonball Kai series in Japan, which is simply a more streamline cut of the anime series without all the filler, is making big ratings number. Yes, repeats of an old anime series with all the filler material taken out(and its a lot, believe me) is a hit.
Dragonball is a billion dollar franchise and it makes sense. Fun, escapism sells. And Dragonball is one of the standards.