Buy This BOO! Akira Toriyama’s ‘Cowa’ Is The Vampire Wrestler Road Comedy You Need
Akira Toriyama might be the most famous comics creator that I have the least familiarity with, but I'm trying to remedy that. Slowly but surely, I'm making my way through a few of the pieces of his back catalog that aren't necessarily about Goku charging up to Super-Saiyan, and with Halloween on the horizon, I thought it was finally time to sit down with Cowa, the 1997 comedy manga about a little kid vampire on a mission to save his village from the ravages of the monster flu.
I picked it up during Viz's last big digital manga sale and I've been saving it for the one month where I want to read about Draculas slightly more than I do for the rest of the year. Now that I've read it, I can highly, and probably unsurprisingly, recommend it. It's funny, it's adventurous, and it's not at all the story that it looks like at first glance.
For the first few chapters, Cowa appears to be something almost completely different than what it eventually becomes. There's a series of escalating turning points that change it from a simple comedy about ghost farts to a classic road adventure with wrestlers and vampires, which might be my ideal story.
Our main character is Paifu, a young vampire with a talent for getting into mischief. Actually, that's not entirely true --- not the thing about the mischief, that's definitely the case, the thing about Paifu being a vampire. He's half vampire, and the other half is were-koala, because, as I'm quickly coming to understand, Akira Toriyama isn't really up for not going all the way over the top whenever he can.
Paifu has a couple of friends, including a ghost named José Rodriguez, and Arpon, a monster of indeterminate creature type who really wants to challenge Paifu to a kung fu battle to determine schoolyard monster supremacy, and for the first few stories, we follow them through some pretty traditional cartoonish hijinx. The first story is literally about Paifu being sent by his mom to buy a watermelon, and spending the money on toys instead, then trying to steal one and being foiled when José toots at the wrong time, so really, that's what I was expecting from the rest of the story, too. Slapstick, fart-based fun with kid monsters committing petty crimes.
But then the story reaches its first big turning point. It starts off with a simple pun, with Paifu and José deciding to go to an "unhaunted house" where a living human lives, because what else would a ghost and a vampire dare each other to do? What makes this particular unhaunted house so scary is that it's inhabited by a murderer.
Based on the jokes about vampires living in houses shaped like pumpkins and human children with paper routes cheerfully greeting the monsters on their way home from night school, I was expecting a gag about a horror movie slasher, but that's not what we got, nor is it something that's quite as pedestrian as it seems either. He actually is a murderer, but that's another thing that only turns out to be half true. The human resident, former sumo wrestler Mako Maruyama, has gone to live a solitary life near a village of monsters because he is a killer, albeit an accidental one.
It's the first time that we're dealing with something that's not just an all-ages comedy book, and it's not a particularly subtle one.
The second shift happens in the next story, when a joke about the monsters' teacher falling ill and having to be replaced by a human substitute pulling double duty slowly turns into the foundation of the ongoing comic, as the village gets hit with an epidemic of the Monster Flu. It turns out to be a pretty serious problem --- serious enough that the whole town is going to die within a month if they don't get medicine from a witch who lives on a mountain 750 miles away.
Through it all, though, including some pretty dire threats about José's dad being one of the monsters with the flu --- which raises some theological questions about what happens to a ghost that dies of an illness --- Toriyama keeps it cartoony and light. The bit where the doctor looks through his microscope and finds viruses shaped like tiny little ghosts is one of my favorite sight gag in the book:
That's where the real story begins: With the adult monsters incapacitated, Maruyama agrees to make the long drive to get the medicine, taking the three young monsters with him and kicking off a pretty amazing journey with great action and fantastic gags.
The best bits of it are the parts where Toriyama goes cheerfully dark. There's a scene where the group stops at a gas station, and while Maruyama's in the bathroom, Arpon and Paifu crash his truck, with the noise summoning a gang of toughs with switchblades and broken bottles who want to steal their supplies. The thing is, the monster kids are stoked about it, to the point of quite literally thanking Satan:
The implication that these kids are totally cool with stealing their car and mayyyyyyybe murdering them because they're bad people is just goofy and slapstick enough to not be horrifying. And it's also the first moment where we see Maruyama himself start to step up in terms of action.
Over the course of their journey, there's a fantastic slow reveal about Maruyama, and how he's still famous for his time as Volcano, the Strongest Man in the World, and unsurprisingly, that's where Toriyama shines. I've skipped out on so much of his work because I've never really seen anything that made me want to go back and read Dragon Ball, but the action here is clever, fun, and beautifully well-staged.
Dragon Ball is a party that I could not be more late to, but even Jaco the Galactic Patrolman, a book that I really enjoyed that was set in the same universe, didn't spark an interest as much as the fight scenes in a comedy manga about monsters trying to cure the Monster Flu with a disgraced sumo wrestler.
It might not be the spooky fun that I was hoping for --- if there's a big flaw in Cowa, it's that the monster element that provided the hook is the least necessary element of the entire story, to the point where Paifu and José could be almost anything else, from ninjas to superheroes --- but it is a solid read. And there's just enough Halloween in there to make it worth checking out, assuming that your spooky reading can stand to have fewer scares and a few more fistfights.
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