Since the release of a certain 3DS game last week, Pokémon Fever has reached pandemic levels once again. It seems like every marketable surface is covered with the adorable faces of this latest batch of Pocket Monsters. This overwhelming cross-media promotion is nothing new for Pokémon. With each fresh entry of the beloved game series there comes a flood of toys, television shows, and comic books. Most of these products are safe, cookie-cutter creations; all sharing the exact same art style and purpose of cashing in on the Pokémon frenzy. But every so often, a piece of media will come along and portray the familiar characters and creatures in a different light.
The Electric Tale of Pikachu was first published in the Japanese monthly magazine CoroCoro Comics in October 1997. Artist Toshihiro Ono was asked by his editor to draw a manga to accompany the new anime series that was about to release. Interested in themes surrounding a boy’s travels, Ono decided to approach the Pokémon manga from a more serious angle than the other media at the time. For each issue, Ono would receive the script of an upcoming anime episode, and he would adapt the story for the printed page. This led to many of the general plot points within the comic being similar to the anime, but the two are quite different in art style, tone, and details.
For starters, the various Pokémon drawings are not based on the official artwork of Ken Sugimori. Many of the creatures take on a more realistic look when compared to their anime counterparts, particularly the fearsome Pokémon like Onix and Gyrados, who look quite feral and dangerous in the manga. Most of the human characters have a more “shojo” look to their designs, with slender proportions and very emotive facial expressions. The artwork on a whole is a nice blend of clean and simple backgrounds against highly detailed characters. This design choice suits the stories well, since most of the action in Pokémon revolves around the trainers and their monsters as opposed to the locations they inhabit.
The main plot still concerns trainer Ash Ketchum and his Pikachu on their journey to compete in the Pokémon League. Unlike the anime, where Ash travels with Brock and Misty on most of his journey, the manga features Ash traveling on his own for a significant amount of time. Our hero falls into many of the same situations as in the anime (the Ponyta Races, the Eevee Trainer’s conundrum, and plenty of Team Rocket shenanigans), but there are standalone stories which are quite engaging. My particular favorite revolves around Ash’s arrival in Saffron City. After an unsuccessful battle against the psychic gym leader Sabrina, Ash learns of a massive ghost-type Pokémon that has been terrorizing the area for years. With the help of Brock and the residents of Saffron City, Ash manages to defeat the monstrous Haunter and free the city from the soul-crushing grip of the gaseous giant. It was so interesting to see a Pokémon like Haunter turned into something truly horrible as opposed to its sort of Three-Stooges-goofball portrayal in the anime.
An interesting side-effect of the Ono’s more serious design choices is plenty of censorship when the comic was published in America. In the original release, many of the female characters are drawn in revealing clothing or swimwear, all of which was altered or covered up. One scene in particular, in which Misty is bathing at a hot springs only to be spied on by Ash and Brock, was removed entirely from the Viz Media release, as it was deemed too controversial for American readers. Other changes include some reframing of panels to hide other naughty bits, and the entire comic was flipped from the original format to be read from left-to-right instead.
Over the last few weeks, my wife and I have spent our evenings watching old episodes of the Pokémon anime through an app on the iPad. We will view an episode each night, have a good laugh at the silliness of the show, and share in a nostalgic experience. A strange bi-product of this nightly ritual has been frequent discussions of Pokémon biology and real-life applications (read: a lot of conversations beginning with, “Well if I had a Pikachu…”). Both of us also realized that the anime is full of obvious marketing moments and plenty of plot-holes. This makes the whole show seem like a half-hour commercial instead of stepping into a fantastic world quite unlike our own. As I read through the Electric Tale of Pikachu once more, I longed for more serious representations of these interesting and adorable creatures. I guess I will just have to hold out for the Pokémon Origins anime and hope for the best.