“From the creator of Dragon Ball Z!” proudly proclaims the blurb on the cover of Cowa!. Not being a DBZ fan, I wasn’t sure how much of a selling point this was going to be for me. But what a pleasure and a surprise — Cowa! (as in, maybe, “Cowabunga!”?) is a downright charming story, a single-volume standalone adventure that’s nothing like the work Akira Toriyama’s more famous for. It’s billed on the back cover as a “spooktacular manga for kids”, the sort of thing you can snap up as a Halloween-themed goodie, but this is one of those cases where all ages really does mean all ages. Adults who’re in the know can savor this one right along with the young ‘uns, and not feel guilty about it.
Cowa! reminded me a bit of the kind of cheerfully jumbled, mix-and-match mythology of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas — or, closer to home, Toriyama’s own good-natured and often royally funny series Dr. Slump, also for a relatively young audience. The story’s hero is Paifu, a kid who’s half-vampire and half-were-koala (yes, half-were-koala), whose hobbies include every conceivable variety of mischief. That includes everything from blowing off school to boosting neighbor’s watermelons to sneaking into un-haunted houses with his buddy José the ghost. They also end up making an enemy out of a grumpy human in the area, Mr. Maruyama — an ex-sumo wrestler with a troubled past, a cigarette always in his mouth and a perennially foul attitude, especially where children are involved. (I suspect a prerequisite for growing up in any culture is the presence of a Grouchy Neighbor Who Hates Kids.)
Before long, an actual plot accrues. One by one, the monster adults in the area all contract a vicious new strain of the flu that is inevitably lethal. Worse, there’s no vaccine available: the only place they can get anything like that is Horned-Owl Mountain. And the only one who’s capable of doing the job is, you guessed it, Maruyama … although when Paifu tells this to the other villagers, he leaves out the little detail that Maruyama’s asking for a cool ten thou in cash to do the job.
That’s only the beginning of how many things go wrong. Paifu’s buddy / rival Arpon (whose character design is a sly jab at Toriyama’s own DBZ creations) invites himself along for the trip. Now Maruyama has to deal with three kids riding along with him in the backseat, all of whom mangle his name — in fact, they end up dubbing him “Makoleen” when they can’t pronounce Maruyama properly. This is not what he needs. But he rises to their defense when a couple of no-goods (one of whom, hilariously enough, resembles DBZ’s own Hercule/Mr. Satan) threaten them, and soon an unexpected bond begins forming between them.
The kids are more than capable of defending themselves — Arpon, for instance, takes a bullet through the hand and doesn’t do more than wince — but they need someone like Maruyama to tame and direct them as much as Maruyama needs them to put his past behind him. Gradually, through one adventure after another (a mix-up with some gangsters, a sword-wielding monster in a forest) Maruyama’s sense of honor is roused once more.
Obviously there’s not a whole lot of plot, but I’d still be doing people a massive disservice if I ruined it. I will say that there is a happy ending, and mixed in with the fun and games is a gentle dose of morality: your friends are your friends because you stick up for them, not because you say they’re your friends. Hard to go wrong with something like that, no matter what your age.
Art: Toriyama’s distilled his style down to the bare essentials for Cowa! as a way to match the material. Here he uses thick, basic lines, uncomplicated character designs, and a fair amount of screentone to give the whole thing a look that stands all the more apart from his more teen- and adult-oriented work. To be honest, without Toriyama’s name on the cover, I would never have associated this comic with him directly; that to me is a sign that the man’s more versatile than the DB/DBZ franchise would allow most people to believe.
Translation: Despite this being aimed at younger readers, Viz/Shonen Jump decided to publish Cowa! with the original right-to-left layout, but I think we’re getting to the point where even younger readers are no longer being thrown by this sort of thing. The first installment’s also been published in color, although the colors used for that segment are fairly muted and dark so it ends up looking a bit on the muddy side. The rest of the repro quality is great, though — despite much use of screentone, there’s no problems with moiré or hazy line edges. Effects and text have been completely retouched, but the retouch is pretty much seamless.
One thing that does come to mind is whether some might question Viz’s branding of this as an all-ages title. There is some violence and tobacco use, but the former is largely bloodless fisticuffs (barring the thing with the gun) and the latter is nothing more than a characterization device. (Even though I’m a nonsmoker myself, I’m not one for the idea of having the mere depiction of smoking as an adults-only concept.)
The Bottom Line: If you’ve got a young manga fan in the family or know someone who does, snap this up for them. And for those of you whose entire experiences with Toriyama begin and end with the Dragonball franchise — if even that — it’s a neat diversion from the rest of his work.