Slam Dunk Vol. 12

By Takehiko Inoue
192 pages, black and white
Published by Viz

I am rapidly running out of comics by Takehiko Inoue to read. When the next volume of Real is published in November, the translations will have caught up to the series in Japan. And while I have the last couple volumes of Vagabond stashed in reserve for a rainy day, once again the series in English is about to catch up to the series in Japanese. So, after quite a few years, it seemed like a good a time as any to read an older series from Inoue that’s being translated, his other basketball comic: Slam Dunk. Having read his more recent works as of late, going back to Slam Dunk feels a little surprising in places.

Viz’s translations of Slam Dunk are actually the second time that Inoue’s first basketball comic was translated for North America. Gutsoon Publishing had the license back in 2002, publishing it first as individual chapters in their weekly Raijin Comics and then in collected editions starting in 2003. I’d read the first five volumes, but when Gutsoon went under soon after, I figured I’d never see any more of the series and gave my copies away. Jumping back in six years later, it might as well have been a new book. So what did I find?

On the plus side, considering that basketball is a sport I can’t stand to watch, Slam Dunk Vol. 12 was a lot of fun. I was lucky because the book began with the start of a match against their big rival in the local tournament, rather than picking up mid-game like the next volume certainly will. Inoue’s character Sakuragi still serves as our entry point; new to basketball (if innately skilled), he often learns things so that we, the audience, can learn them as well. We get to watch strategies and ideas unfold against him throughout this match, and Inoue is careful so that Slam Dunk is as much about the planning and coaching as it is sheer physical strength and power. If it was just a matter of "who can throw the ball farther?" Slam Dunk would end up boring, but Inoue makes sure to not fall into that trap. It also helps that by this point in the series, Sakuragi is no longer the sole main character. While some of the members of the team were little more than faces to me as a latecomer, team captain Akagi and star athlete Rukawa get a fair amount of focus in this story, and I appreciated that Inoue isn’t making it solely about the brash and slightly clueless Sakuragi.

That said, it is a little hard going back to Slam Dunk after seeing how much stronger a creator Inoue became since then. Much earlier in his career, Slam Dunk feels much more on the surface than his later works; motivations aren’t terribly deep, and the story itself is little more than a dozen other series out there as well. It’s not that Slam Dunk is bad—it’s in fact an above-average series in the scheme of things—but it suffers in comparison to what Inoue eventually has come to achieve in his comics. The art also isn’t quite as polished in Slam Dunk; you can see flashes of the art master that he is today, but the fine level of detail hasn’t quite arrived yet. His characters are still shaped well and attractively, but unlike today he still relies on a lot of manga shorthands like super-deformed faces to show surprise or outrage, and there are speed lines galore for backgrounds. They’re tricks that Inoue had shed from his system by the time he started Vagabond, and I’d forgotten that they were still present in Slam Dunk.

Despite the weaknesses that often come with a creator’s earlier work, I did find myself enjoying Slam Dunk, enough that I’d like to read some more down the road. Inoue’s characters are sweet in their attempts to succeed, and if someone else’s name was on the cover of Slam Dunk I suspect I’d have been less disappointed in the spots where it was hard to keep from comparing to Inoue’s other works. This is a solid comic that is still a head and shoulders above most other series brought over from Japan. I won’t get quite the same Inoue fix from Slam Dunk that I do Real and Vagabond, but it’ll be a nice way to spend the time until those series eventually return.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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