In 1996, a little series by the name of Pokémon first hit stores in Japan. Two years later, Pokémon Red and Blue hit North America and from there, the series became an international hit. It spawned animes, movies, spin-off games, comics, a card game, tons of merchandize, books, and even concerts where symphonies perform music from the games. It’s a juggernaut of a franchise and looking back, it still amuses me to this very day that my 1st grade teacher said it would be a fad that would simply fade away like Pogs.
We are upon the 20th anniversary of the franchise and I’ve been there since the beginning, playing the games and watching the show (well at least when they first hit the U.S.). So in honor of this momentous anniversary, I’m going to look at the first volumes of the two Pokémon mangas that hit America in in 1999. We start with Pokémon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu! Is it good?
Pokémon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu! (Viz Media)
Written and drawn by: Toshihiro Ono
Translated by: William Flanagan
In Pallet Town, a young boy by the name of Ash Ketchum finds an odd little creature rummaging through the walls of his home. It’s a Pikachu! When planning on taking it out into the woods to release it, he runs into his rival, Gary, who has just gotten his official Pokémon Trainer’s license. Not wanting to be outdone, Ash decides to obtain a license himself and head out into the world to become a Pokémon Master, bringing that troublesome Pikachu with him. From there, fun, inspirational, and sometimes downright horrific adventures await the 10 year old.
Story-wise, The Electric Tale of Pikachu! is an interesting one. Instead of the games, the manga is based more on the first season of the anime. It takes many cues from the show, such as Misty getting her bike destroyed by Pikachu or her stepping up to fight Ash for the Cascade Badge, though it does adapt some of the episodes (more noticeable in future volumes). However, the manga shines in its fun spins and twists on the existing material that gives its own unique and enjoyable flavor.
Each chapter feels like its own separate little episode of the show, telling a complete story with its own tone and focus. For instance, the second chapter is about a gym battle while the fourth chapter focuses on this huge, threatening Haunter that is attacking people. Though unlike the show, especially in the later seasons, each chapter actually contributes to the overall plot or development of the characters. As such, the story isn’t as dragged out and the chapters that do focus on plot points from the anime are given nice twists or tweaks to them, such as the Cascade Badge gym battle being more of a challenge of skill than a normal fight. Overall, the story here is a lot of fun and for fans of the old show, it’s really worth looking into to seeing a different creator’s spin on the material.
Stealing people’s souls? Are we really sure ten year olds should catch these kinds of Pokemon?
Toshihiro Ono is fairly good adapting other parts of the show and series in general. His characterization is similar, but can also feel different at times. For instance, Ash Ketchum is much more into girls than he ever was in the show and he seems to be more actively trying to catch Pokémon (he always seems to stumble into them in the show). Meanwhile, Sabrina is actually portrayed as being friendly and warm in comparison to both her anime and game counterparts. While this stuff is different, it does keep things from being boring and predictable for fans. Ono also actually fills in some plot holes from the series, like answering whether or not regular school exists in this universe, and adds some things to the lore that are kind of neat for the time, like people worshipping Pokémon as gods and showing how some Pokémon even have their own mini-cultures and rituals. This is a pretty interesting interpretation of the show and games.
But moving beyond the adaption of the material, how does the rest of the manga hold up? Looking at the story first, it’s pretty loose and rushed honestly. Besides Ash trying to get into the Pokémon League and becoming a master, there’s no other real story going on in the tale. It’s just a very simple collection of stories with a small thread connecting them all together (very much like the show mind you, but still). Also, the story tends to rush over some points that might be interesting to see or could add more to the mythos of the story. For example, the story points out that there are several different levels when you are a trainer, which all categorized by your gym badges. We see Ash fight all the way up to Cascade Level, which is level 2, but then the last chapter of the book puts him fighting Sabrina, which is Marsh Level (Level 5). The story glanced over two levels, Thunder and Rainbow, and in the show, those were some interesting fights. It’s a shame the story skipped over them and it feels like we missed part of the story.
Ono’s writing here is good as well, but not without some small hiccups. His characterization for everyone is consistent and no one ever really acts too out of character from what was established in the manga. The dialogue is good and works perfectly well, but there are some moments where the volume will just drop a ton of exposition on you (mostly in the first chapter at least) that drags the pacing down. Speaking of which, the pacing is good, though there are some awkward transitions and fades that come across as abrupt or don’t make the scene flow all that well. The manga can be pretty funny, playing off of points from the show to amusing sight gags. Heck, the humor can be even a little risqué at times, which can be surprising given that it’s a series for kids.
Last, but certainly not least, is the artwork, where there is quite a bit to discuss. Toshihiro Ono’s storytelling and panel layouts are iffy at times. While it is fairly easy to read, there are abrupt cuts in scenes and some of the action doesn’t flow too well (most noticeable in the fourth chapter). It doesn’t hurt the experience all that much, but it can be noticeable. Otherwise, Ono does a fantastic job here. He’s really great with drawing and adapting the characters from the show and games with his own style (I like how Professor Oak is scruffier and younger looking), while also making them very expressive with their faces and body language. The locations are very well detailed and the action, even if a little static, looks intense and exciting. I especially like how he drew a lot of the Pokémon. While some of them look very similar to how they are portrayed in the show and games, like Clefairy, some look different or incredibly imposing with extra bits of detail or changes in their designs (Onix and Gyarados in particular standout).
The last thing to point out about this series, and also artwork, is that this series has a bit of a history with censorship. This manga’s creator is known for drawing hentai, aka manga porn for those who do not know, and there was a bit of sexual content in this manga: oversized breasts on characters, including Misty who is 12; really skimpy or odd outfits, and even a scene that had to be cut because it was too adult. As such, there was quite a bit of editing of the artwork done with the manga so it could be more marketable to younger kids. Whether or not you agree with the editing (I know a lot of people get mad over censorship), it’s done pretty seamlessly here and if you did not know about this series’ history, you would probably not even notice any of the edits. Personally, I only noticed one inconsistency with Misty’s outfit initially (it goes from being white and low-cut to suddenly being a black tank top), but that’s pretty much it.
Outfit changes weren’t the only things that were edited.
Pokémon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu! is a treat for fans of the series and anime. While the story is rushed and loose, it’s an enjoyable adaption of the material. It adds its own fun spins on the show, adds its own ideas to the series to make it unique, the writing is pretty good overall, and the artwork is great. It does feel inaccessible for people not familiar with the show though, so only big fans of Pokémon are probably only going to get the most out of it. Still, if you are a fan and can find a copy, it’s worth a look.