The Notion of Canon in Fiction, Part 1: Dragon Ball & Superhero Comics

I recently happened upon a post an acquaintance of mine made on Facebook about the numerous Dragon Ball Z theatrical films, produced by Toei Animation throughout the late-1980’s and 1990’s. In the comments, someone brought up the question of whether or not any of the movies were canon, and if they were, which ones? There was a bit of back and forth; some said they were not, others said some were, and at least one person said that they did not like them because they were non-canonical.

For those uninformed, the term “canon”, when referring to fiction, pertains to works or events within a work which are valid or “actually happened” within the context of the work’s narrative. In the case of Dragon Ball as a franchise, particularly the movies, the subject of canon has been hotly debated in certain circles. For some hardcore purists, anything that is not from the original manga, written and illustrated by Akira Toriyama from 1984 to 1995 for the Japanese publication Weekly Shōnen Jump, is non-canonical or did not happen in the story. For others, anything that does not fit into the timeline of the anime, which is the most well-known version of the series, is not canon. And for more or less half of the fandom at large (or so it seems), Dragon Ball GT, the 1996 anime-only sequel series to Dragon Ball Z produced by Toei with minimal involvement from Toriyama, was never canon due to the author’s lack of involvement. GT‘s canonical merit has been placed further into question with 2015’s Dragon Ball Super, which will be coming to an end this Spring.

But when it comes to the original thirteen Dragon Ball Z movies, their canonical status was commented on briefly by Toriyama himself in the 1995 Japanese reference book Dragon Ball Daizenshuu 6: Movies & TV SpecialsIn an interview for the book, translated by Julian of Kanzenshuu, Toriyama expressed his view of the films as “stories in a different dimension” from his manga. His involvement in them was minimal; he would approve scripts, touch up some designs, and do some character art, but for the most part he sees himself as an audience member for these films based on his work.

However, some of these films can still easily be placed into the main timeline of the anime and manga with few to no discrepancies:

  • The first Dragon Ball Z film, Dead Zone (originally titled Return my Gohan!! in Japan), can easily be placed just before Raditz’s arrival on Earth at the beginning of Dragon Ball Z. The only minor discrepancy is Krillin meeting Gohan for the first time in both the movie and the series.
  • Cooler’s Revenge (The Incredible Mightiest vs. the Mightiest), the fifth film, can be slotted in during the three-year time skip between Future Trunks’ initial appearance and the coming of Androids 19 and 20 on South Island.
  • Broly – The Legendary Super Saiyan (Burn Up!! A Close, Intense, Super-Fierce Battle), the eighth film, could take place during the ten-day waiting period for the Cell Games. However, Goku and Gohan are not in their Super Saiyan states for most of the movie, as they were implied to have been during that period, but this is a minor detail which is easily overlooked.
  • Bojack Unbound (Galaxy at the Brink!! The Super Incredible Guy), film number nine, fits in during the earliest part of the seven-year time skip between the Cell Games and the Majin Buu arc with no issues.
  • Wrath of the Dragon (Dragon Fist Explosion!! If Goku Can’t Do It, Who Will), the thirteenth and final film in the original lineup, easily can be placed within the first year or so of the ten-year time skip between Kid Buu’s destruction and Goku meeting Uub at the World Martial Arts Tournament.

Despite some of these films being able to slot into continuity fairly smoothly, that does no necessarily make them canonical to the greater story of Dragon Ball. But does their collective status as being outside of canon or in an alternate universe diminish their quality? Are they worth watching despite the fact that they hold no bearing on the original work?

Based on numerous comments I have seen online about not only the Dragon Ball franchise, but also Doctor Who, Marvel and DC Comics, Star Wars, and others, it really just depends on who you are talking to about the idea of canon itself. While I could write entire articles on Doctor Who and Star Wars when it comes to their canons, I would rather use Marvel and DC as talking points herein beyond Dragon Ball so that I may actually explore the others in the future in their own ways.

Marvel and DC are the biggest comic book publishers in the world, or at the very least the most well-known. They both have their own gigantic, sprawling superhero universes and multiverse that they have been building ever since the 1930’s. Marvel has such iconic heroes as Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, and hundreds more. DC has more heroes who the public has known and loved since World War II, such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but also many who were well known in pop culture thanks to TV shows and movies beyond the main trio, including Aquaman, Green Lantern, the Teen Titans, the Flash, and hundreds beyond them.

After being in publication for several decades; having dozens or even hundreds of writers, artists, and editors come and go in that time; and society, culture, and readership changing over time, it really is no wonder that it became difficult to keep track of everything that these two companies were publishing. While Marvel has maintained some kind of plan or consistency for decades, DC would often see their universe grow to be so gargantuan and impenetrable to newcomers that they would find themselves “rebooting” everything every other decade or so through their massive crossovers called the Crises. A Crisis event would simplify the events of the DC Universe or even Multiverse and thus make their comics more accessible to newcomers. Some events of the past would be changed, others stricken from their canon, and others more left ambiguous as to whether or not they still mattered until the writing staff decided if they wanted to use it.

Outside of the main universe in DC comics, however, currently known as Prime Earth, there has been an incredible amount of material written in the context of an alternate reality as a “What If?” scenario. Examples of such stories include Superman: Red Son (Earth-30), Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Earth-31), Batman Beyond, and various TV shows and movies which have drawn upon the comics for reference. Many of these alternate universe stories, despite being non-canonical by their very nature, have been lauded by critics and readers for decades based on their own merits, and some of them, namely The Dark Knight Returns, are often regarded as some of the best comics of all time.

While Marvel also has a main comic canon, Earth-616, they have also published an incalculable number of alternate universe stories over the decades, such as Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe (Earth-12101), Spider-Gwen (Earth-65), Old Man Logan (Earth-807128), the Ultimate universe (Earth-1610), and, most notably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Earth-199999), which draws on the original comics for story material presented in new ways. While I do not often see Marvel Comics fans talk much about most alternate universe comics (save Spider-Gwen, which seems to be given near-unanimous praise), I do often see some fans criticize the MCU when given the opportunity.

The most consistent criticism I see raised against it by such fans is the films’ lack of faith to the original source material, despite using the original comics for inspiration and reference. What I find ironic about this point is that the MCU is not meant to be a one-to-one translation of the original Earth-616 stories, nor are these films made specifically for fans of the comics. Just as well, if the films were direct adaptations of these stories from the comics, then they would fail to be particularly interesting or worthwhile to see for someone who already has read the comics, not to mention that what may work as a serialized comic book may not translate well to film without changes. The MCU, just like the Ultimate universe and many others before it, is its own canon, separate from the rest. You do not need to read any of the comics, regardless of which universe they fall into, to understand the MCU, and vice-versa.

With the idea of “only the canon matters”, there may not be such a wealth of incredible stories in a franchise as there is today. There would be no “What If?” stories that would inspire the writers of the main canon or influence future works. There would be far less experimentation or risk taking with established characters and stories because there would be such a rigid focus on moving the story on a lateral timescale, rather than simply telling good stories.

In the future, I’ll follow-up on this with analyses and views of what constitutes the respective canons of Doctor Who and Star Wars, as the two of them are so vast and opinions so varied that they deserve their own articles. But until then, just read and watch what you like, regardless of its canonical status.

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