NOTE - This comic also comes with two free stickers, which may have warranted its shrinkwrap; I'd just hoped it was dirty.

Slam Dunk Vol. 1 (of 31)

This is some wonderful shit right here. I've read Real, the later, 'mature' Takehiko Inoue sports manga VIZ is also putting out these days, and I wasn't impressed much at all. It had the sheen of a serious thing, and the evident desire to be serious, and some technical skill behind it, but its substance was lacking, and its lack was annoying.

Now this -- the guy's original, 1990-96 boys' comics megahit -- this is unapologetic shōnen manga at peak caffinated vitality; put it to your ear and you may hear it hum. Publisher VIZ seems to share the feeling - despite this book's 200+ pages being priced at $7.99, the entire first chapter is presented in its original new-series-launch partial color, with a short, glossy full-color bonus section included in back. The material is also serialized in VIZ's monthly Shonen Jump anthology.

And yes, I'm fully aware that I'm not inoculated against a lot of (possibly storied) sports manga tricks and tropes. Certainly Slam Dunk wasn't the first basketball manga in the world, and it's obviously the beneficiary of several lines of genre development. As Jason Thompson noted in his Manga: The Complete Guide, the '60s sports style exemplified by Tetsuya Chiba (artist of Tomorrow's Joe) formed the bedrock of the modern friendship-perseverance-triumph shōnen aesthetic; Inoue's work headlined the ultra-mainstream Weekly Shōnen Jump at the five million-plus height of its weekly circulation might, so it's not out of order to suspect that some canny use of traditional mechanics is likely at work, along with heavy editorial vetting.

Add in the fact that the story also taps into the iconographic tradition of yankii youth gangs, an authentic social phenomenon long ago transformed into the stuff of funnybook shorthand, all pompadours and attitude, running screaming through manga hits from the '70s on -- it's the stuff Cromartie High School took as its model, to give you an idea of how ingrained the visual cues have gotten -- and there's clearly a lot of history at work. Indeed, the breeziness of Inoue's storytelling suggests a sort of abridged interfacing with clichés his readership would surely be close to, an exceedingly light touch that might register to a less acclimated reader as more comedic than perhaps it was meant to.

(sfx are in english in the VIZ edition)

All that said, I'm the reader I am, and this comic entertained the hell out of me. Like a million popular works, it supercharges aspects of a very recognizable youth experience to the point of sheer fantasy. But Inoue's take on high school seems especially prone to vivifying the base stuff, the fights and horniness and grudges and competition - it's not dourly realistic enough to lapse into the pretension of Real, but it is an awfully authentic fantasy, one I can recall experiencing somewhere in the back of my head.

The star of our saga is Hanamichi, high school first-year and rising star among Japan's youth gangs. His talents include kicking the shit out of motherfuckers, while giving lie to the notion that tough guys are great with the ladies. Actually, Hanamichi has been rejected by the last 50 girls he's asked out; he'd be thrilled just to walk someone home from school. So it's no surprise that an encounter with lovely classmate and basketball otaku Haruko prompts him to turn those street fight-toned muscles toward the court, even after learning that Haruko has (OMG) a big crush on fellow first-year Rukawa: a former junior high hoops star; a veritable tree trunk of a kid with a pretty boy's head on top; and also prone to handing out beatings left and right when his all-important schooltime nap is bothered.

No doubt you can sense where this is going - the transition of a 'troubled' young person to a fine adult through sportsmanship is an old arc, and it's not hard to imagine all the interpersonal or romantic complications that might play out over the next 6,000 pages; a few twists pop up even here in the debut. But Inoue jumps on the stuff like it could make him rich (which it did); testosterone rules everything. Gangs apparently run the school, with kids bursting into classrooms to challenge others to fights. It's all good fun, like witnessing fights often is when you're 14 (er, which I was 14). Inoue even gets detailed enough to depict some students' blasé reaction to their environment, which strikes me as especially thoughtful. I don't think two male characters meet in this comic without punching each other in the face - it may have been a traditional greeting in 1990.

Of course, basketball games are the greatest thing in the world. Inoue himself played in high school, although the sport wasn't all that popular in Japan - as such, he uses Hanamichi's inexperience as a means of explaining the game to the reader as well, which I found charming. It's all blown up very big -- in good sports manga style, an important one-on-one match takes up two and a half chapters -- but it's the artist's obvious enthusiasm for the game that powers his storytelling, beyond the more obvious power at work in his drawings.

This is still an early work of Inoue's; only two years prior he'd won the Shōnen Jump-sponsored Tezuka Award -- a break-in opportunity for new artists, not to be confused with the Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize, a year's best merit award sponsored by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper that Inoue also won in 2002 for his series Vagabond -- for his basketball-themed short Kaede Purple. His first continuing series, the fantastical crime comic Chameleon Jail (story by Kazuhiko Watanabe - it opens with characters playing basketball!), had come and gone in '89. His 1990 visual style is still somewhat reminiscent of Tsukasa Hojo, whose popular City Hunter (1985-91) provided his apprenticeship, though Inoue is a bit more inclined toward the looming musculature of Hojo peer Tetsuo Hara (of Fist of the North Star).

In practice, that means lots of ripped, adult-looking kids lunging around, a young boy's idea of powerful maturity fulfilled and exceeded, nearly pushed into parody whenever Hanamichi encounters third-year badasses that look like they just stepped off an oil rig. Hey, in movies, it's annoying; in comics, where your imperative controls how your 'actors' look, it's kind of awesome. Even the obligatory superdeformed comedy bits never quite get squat; the implication is that comedy exists on a similar level to pain and competition, as good an aspect as any for a comic obsessed with teenagers screaming and grimacing and running with the ball.

It's fine, satisfying work on the whole, one of the few comics pitched below my age group that actually made me feel a bit younger reading it. And I've never been much into basketball; I think it was Inoue's tone that did it, consolidating a lot of anxiousness and near-uncontrolled activity into his pages, tapping into something latent about being a teenager, as I remember it. I'm sure other comics (especially other manga) do that for different readers. This one was mine.