Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
Now chances are that, as you read this, TeamFourStar is currently between episodes of their hit webseries, Dragonball Z Abridged. If you’re a fan of the original Dragonball series I urge you to check it out, it’s great. But what with the recent debates about copyright within this new internet-based world (and that’s not referencing anything in particular, just that this will always be a debate going on) the question one has to ask is: Is DBZ Abridged technically protected under copyright? Is what TFS making a completely original work? Well lets find out.
So first off, what do I mean when I say ‘transformative fiction’? Well at a glance no one’s really been using the term before (which is odd, since I thought it’d be a common term like ‘fan fiction’), so it’s up to me to define it. So, transformative fiction is any fiction that uses established settings, characters or ideas and uses them to create new works of art. So any time someone makes a new re-telling of Sherlock Holmes (take the modern-day BBC retelling, for instance), that makes it transformative fiction. It’s taking the concepts and ideas found in Sherlock Holmes and changing them to make them mean something new. Seems pretty simple enough, right? Hell we could even stretch this to include any adaptation of a property from one creator to another (aka someone making a film out of someone else’s book), but I think that’s a stretch to far. Mostly because adaptations normally involve the original creator agreeing for the adaptation to be made. In the case of transformative fiction, the original creator’s permission isn’t asked for a variety of reasons. In terms of the modern re-telling of Sherlock, it’s because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is dead and no one can think of a way of asking him. But in the case of TFS, it’s an entirely different matter, since the creators are still very much alive. But before we work out if that’s okay, first we need to work out what DBZA actually is.
So, the history of the ‘abridged series’. It all started when Little Kuriboh made a (upon reflection) terrible gag-dub of Yu-Gi-Oh and it got really popular. Now I say ‘upon reflection’ for reasons I’ll get to, but what matters is at the time is that this little series created a new form of story-telling. Or, at the very least, help popularized a version of story-telling that has always existed. But looking back at Yu-Gi-Oh The Abridged Series, two things become clear: One, the only audio tended to be that of the speaking characters. Two, most of the jokes revolve around making fun of the show itself. Now I still like the show, and recognize its importance in internet history, but it’s only when you compare it to the competition that you suddenly realise what the difference is. Because this is where TFS come in, with the boys over there doing two very significant things that helped it stand out: Firstly, they had multiple voice actors (most abridged series relied on one voice actor having enough talent to do a wide range of voices, though at some point they end up sounding familiar to one another). Secondly, once we moved passed season one, we got a much, much better show. See, season one of DBZA did the same thing a lot of the other abridged series were doing: Making fun of the source material with either fourth-wall breaking humour or references to the nature of the show. In other words having one of the characters point out that they may be delayed because of filler, or having references to popular memes (well, popular at the time). That’s not to say that season one is bad, far from it. Nappa went from being a generic villain of which nothing interesting can be said to one of the funniest characters I have ever seen. It’s quite amazing to see how much they managed to take a blank slate of a character and add in actual character. But come season two, and things change. It’s subtle, but the show actually starts to bring in more stakes to the proceedings. Everything stops being a joke and instead presented as ‘real’. The characters really are in danger and they’re treating everything that is happening to them seriously. While Yu-Gi-Oh Abridged will make funny jokes about how they can’t die cos it’s a kids show, Dragonball Z Abridged actually has the characters worry about their fate. This pretty much changed the show for the better. Now we weren’t watching just a funny internet parody, now we were watching an actual show with stakes and drama. Sure the story was over a decade old, and anyone my age knew how it’d end, but there was still a level of drama to it. Character deaths actually mattered, villains were a legitimate threat. There were real stakes and consequences… which, in turn, made the show even funnier. Because this show is still about comedy above all else. But given how serious the situations were treated, it can’t help but make things funnier. Comedy works best when there are stakes involved, so seeing characters crack jokes while there’s a real threat of death makes things all the more interesting. But that’s why DBZA works. Is it transformative fiction?
Well let me tell you a funny little story. Way, way back in 2009, I met the voice actor of Goku while working at New Zealand comic-con. He said something in Goku’s voice and I very nearly said ‘That’s not what Goku sounds like at all’. Because to me, Masako X is Goku. Lanipator is Vegeta. Those actors are the real character voice actors as far as I’m concerned. The original now sounds like a bad dub when compared to the parody version. But it’s not just that the voices that are different. Each character is different, some subtly, some greatly. In this version Vegeta’s pride is taken to the extreme, while Goku is portrayed as a complete idiot. But Mister Popo… while in the anime he’s a very minor character who hasn’t got a lot going for him, here he’s one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever seen. Considering how little they can actually use of him, they’ve managed to make him quickly become one of the funniest characters in the show. He is a badass who manages to dominate the show, which is odd, considering he’s barely in it. The Mister Popo of the DBZA universe is a vastly different character… but does that then mean that this Mister Popo is an original character? Sure he shares the name of the original character, and the design. But personality wise they’re two totally different characters. Essentially they’re just twins who look alike, but act totally different. But does TFS own the rights to this Mister Popo character? If this character says something hilarious, hilarious enough for it to be put on a t-shirt and be sold, are they justified in making money off of it? I mean to use another character, when TFS’ Vegeta says ‘I AM THE HYPE!’ and put the phrase (along with a silhouette) onto a t-shirt, are they infringing onto someone else’s intellectual property? Honestly, I would say no. DBZA’s characters have as much right to exist as their own unique characters as the BBC’s Sherlock characters have the right to exist as characters related to the Sherlock Holmes mythos. They’re not making money directly off of the show’s existence, but rather what they have created because of the show’s existence. There’s a difference between selling a fan pic of a show and a copy of the actual show, after all.
But before we wrap it up, there’s one last thing I want to note about TeamFourStar’s Dragonball Z Abridged: It helped bring the Dragonball franchise back into the spotlight. Now granted, this could all be coincidence, but isn’t it odd that we had a reboot of the TV, two movies, a few more video games and a new series of Dragonball after this little parody series got immensely popular? I’d argue no, especially since one of the actors for the parody series leant their voices to one of the video games (and included all the catchphrases found within the parody). TFS is, more likely than not, directly responsible for bringing Dragonball back into the spotlight and giving it legs again after the somewhat terrible Dragonball GT. I mean the guys who made it loved Dragonball Z, the people who watch it grew up and loved Dragonball Z, and now that we have money we’re buying more Dragonball Z things because this little parody series reminded us how much we loved Dragonball. It wouldn’t surprise me that a large percentage of Dragonball’s resurgence can be directly linked to this parody series itself, which is fantastic. So even if it’s questionably legal at best, this piece of transformative fiction is helping the real fiction thrive. And, honestly, more creators should be encouraging this. If only because it helps them make more money as well.
So there you have it. My look at Dragonball Z Abridged and how it’s transformative fiction. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.