When Al Roker welcomed the debut of a 56-foot-tall Goku balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2018, the Dragon Ball protagonist was introduced as “Earth’s mightiest warrior” with “blazing speed and powers of flight”.
However, the screaming fans Roker had speak over proved that Super Saiyan in the striking orange gi needed minimal introduction.
With a cheerful demeanor and power levels beyond human comprehension, Goku is really the only character who can claim regular cameos on Bathing Ape tees, drive millions of video game streams, and be the focal point of serious toy and manga archives while fueling a multimedia empire near four decades in the making.
Similar to the roots of streetwear and sneaker culture, Dragon Ball was originally part of a rather niche subculture composed of dedicated convention attendees and fervent fans hunting for the latest VHS tapes before it all erupted into the mainstream. According to Jason DeMarco, SVP and Creative Director, On-Air for Adult Swim, a major part of this evolution can be credited to the internet, which gave rise to these communities while blurring the lines between them.
“The internet is what allowed people in different fandoms that were far-flung across the country or the world, and especially in the case of street wear, to be able to have conversations and talk to one another about their obsessions in a way that was really hard before.
For anime fans, if you wanted to talk about anime, you had to go to an anime convention. That's it, that was your option. So now, if you like anime- even in the early days of the internet, you could go on a message board and start talking with other fans, you could go on lift serves or whatever. And now if you're an anime fan, you have an entire world of- the internet is your playground to go to any number of different places and see stuff, talk about stuff, see other people commenting on stuff.”
The sheer volume of “stuff” is impossible to keep up with nowadays. From collectible toys, an unending array of branded gear, and upcoming media like the Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot title, what’s clear is that Goku has been keen in his ability to grow with the audience. Director of Events at Crunchyroll, Adam Sheehan attributes this to Dragon Ball’s complete empire of products and experiences that engage OG fans while opening introductory channels for new ones outside of the anime world.
Sheehan recalls, “I remember in the 90s when Hot Topic had these anime shirts from a brand called Hook Ups. Just had a logo and a black shirt. That's all it was and it blew everyone's mind. Everyone knew I had a Hook Ups shirt because it was the coolest thing there was and that was just barely, you know, putting a toe in the water compared to what streetwear's doing with anime today. I think that when people think "What's that cool shirt you're wearing?" They'll have no idea what Dragon Ball is. It starts a conversation and they go, oh that sounds neat. Then they go online to find it and be able to watch it and they see hope for that and the cycle keeps going round and round the circle and create more anime fans and more Dragon Ball fans.”
When Akira Toriyama first created Dragon Ball in 1984, it’s hard to imagine that he had any clue that the baby faced Son Goku would grow into one of the most recognizable pop culture icons of our time rivaling the likes of Star Wars and Marvel Comics but DeMarco reminds just why Goku and his friends could have such a cultural impact and become such a global force:
“It's the hero's journey, which is an evergreen thing for a reason. Movies and video games and stories are still built around the hero's journey to this very day. Weirdly, a lot of kids cartoons weren't. They were built around jokes and simple concepts and teachable moments and things like that, but they weren't just like let's tell a cool story. I think that Dragon Ball was a breath of fresh air for kids to come home to, and be like this is the next episode of a soap opera- what's going to happen next?”
Listen to the full episode above for the full story and stay tuned for a new episode of Why It’s Cool next week.