One problem I have with recommending Akira Toriyama’s Dr Slump (Vizmanga with free preview, Amazon) to other people is that I always end up wanting to explain the jokes. I think it’s one of the most brutally funny comics ever made, so of course I want to focus on what I like: the jokes. But explaining jokes is for the birds. It never comes out right. I could talk about how funny it is that Arale, a little robot girl built by Dr Senbei Norimaki, wishes she had tummy missiles. It’s funny because girl robots tend to have breast missiles. Aphrodite A from Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z is the mother of mammary-based missiles systems (even though Diana A has a better design), and it’s a joke about how girl robots have to have boob missiles because the genre demands it. But by the time I get to this point, you’re bored, I’m in over my head, and we’re both suddenly very conscious of the fact that the joke is receding into the distance and nobody’s laughing.
Here’s the first two pages of Dr Slump:
One of the things I like about Dr Slump is its density. It’s a gag manga, and it packs a ton of jokes into its short chapters. It’s not a buckshot style, either, where Toriyama just throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. No, Toriyama has a very specific tone for Dr Slump, one that’s heavy on absurdity and irony. The thing is that Toriyama isn’t afraid to meander around inside of that tone. He’ll dedicate page space to rolling off joke after joke within that absurd/ironic framework, and when he’s emptied out that vein, he moves on to the next scene.
As a result of Toriyama’s willingness to blow real estate setting up and knocking down jokes, Dr Slump is leisurely paced. Things just sorta happen, characters move from room to room, and the book never really becomes tense, despite the density of the jokes per square inch. The plot of each chapter has room to breathe, but the jokes never stop. Toriyama uses establishing shots to display jokes, too, like dinosaurs who live in trees or idiot aliens. You’re guaranteed at least one solid joke per page, and sometimes six or more.
Dr Slump hits much more often than it misses. It’s a smart dumb comic, in fact, because you don’t get to make funny dumb jokes without being smart enough to think of them. The tummy missiles joke I talked about earlier is funny on the face of it. It’s an absurd request to begin with, since there’s no good reason for a little girl need missiles. It’s funny that she just assumes she needs to fight the forces of evil, too, and her nervous thought of using her “feminine charm” to fight evil is a good’un. But if you know a little manga history, the joke get even better. It works on a couple of different levels.
Part of the reason that Dr Slump is a smart dumb comic is the body language. Characters wipe their brow, rub their eyes, cock their heads, scream, and fliptake, and it all looks exactly like it’s supposed to. It’s just real enough to draw you in, despite the giant eyes and tiny noses. Look at that first page. Look at Arale’s bored yawn and bleary-eyed sniffles. That’s beautiful, and then Toriyama gives Senbei the full Looney Tunes on the very next page. He knows when to amp it up and when to tamp it down.
Most people know Toriyama’s work via Dragon Ball Z, if anything, but Dr Slump predates that. His style here is much more cartoony. Normal people have Krillin-style builds, at best, and everyone else is squat and deformed. Dr Slump is much cuter than Dragon Ball Z, and it’s for the best. Jokes this dumb and absurd just wouldn’t work if his art was more realistic. Suppaman, Toriyama’s Superman parody (also known as Sourman), would look ridiculous if he had Goku’s proportions. Instead, in Dr Slump, he’s another squat, ugly, dumpy-looking guy, the perfect contrast to Superman and full of comedic potential on first sight.
Toriyama is clearly a guy who put a lot of thought into his jokes. He employs a lot of really dumb premises in order to facilitate jokes. In the first chapter alone, Arale goes to a restaurant and orders engine oil, Dr. Norimaki has to wear a schoolgirl outfit in order to avoid being seen as a pervert when buying panties for Arale, and Arale takes an eye exam and spells out N-U-T-S. The first chapter is 14 pages long, and while other strips would thoroughly explore a specific joke like “Arale has bad eyesight” for a chapter’s worth of related gags, Toriyama hits you with one good one (two good ones in this specific instance, actually) and moves on.
But all of this is beside the point. I can’t hit on the sublime thrills found in Dr Slump because they’re so specific to the setting. Toriyama built a world that was the perfect delivery system for his jokes and sense of humor, and then he populated it with circus freaks and idiots. Everyone’s a little bit dumb, even the theoretically smart people. You have to read the comic to get the full effect. The first chapter is free on Vizmanga.com.
I’m a big Dr Slump fan, and I’m glad that Viz is finally putting it up on VizManga, since half the series is OOP and too expensive to buy used. I hope you like it as much as I did. At five bucks a volume, you’re getting more laughs per dollar than basically anything ever.