Dragon Ball has been extremely popular since it first appeared in manga form in Shonen Jump (created, written and illustrated by Akira Toriyama) back in 1984, and as an anime in February 1986. That’s over 30 years of the adventures of Goku and his friends. A popular villain who became an even more popular hero was Saiyan prince Vegeta, who debuted in 1988, in issue # 204 of Shonen Jump, “Sayonara Son Goku”. He showed up on the anime TV series Dragon Ball Z 10 years later.
Vegeta was instantly popular, even when he was a villain. His gradual turn to the “light side” has made him one of the only characters in the whole Dragon Ball oeuvre to show any significant character development and change. (Piccolo is the other.) His transformation from evil servant of Lord Freeza to earthbound father, husband and hero is by far the biggest evolution of any DB character. This is a big part of what makes him so popular. The Anime News Network stated that Vegeta was largely responsible for DB’s success. Anime Grand Prix twice voted Vegeta as Best Male anime Character; IGN had him in their Top 10 Anime Villains list. He vies with series protagonist Goku as the most popular character on the show.
So why do people like Vegeta so much? Maybe it’s his journey of redemption that makes him so fascinating. Vegeta began as a spoiled prince; became a ruthless henchman for Lord Freeza after his planet was destroyed; had his pride shattered when he was beaten by a “low and common” Saiyan (Goku); found out that he was working for the guy who killed his family and his whole race; got beaten by Freeza; got killed and resurrected; found himself living on Earth; lost a battle with Android 18; saw Goku’s son Gohan surpass him in strength; gave up fighting (temporarily); got into a relationship with Bulma and eventually had a kid with her, giving him something to fight for and completing his journey from bad to good. By the time we reach DB Super, Vegeta is fully part of the Z-Warrior team.
None of the other characters have gone through such an interesting transformation. Goku began as a cheerful, naïve child and has since become a cheerful, naïve, child-like adult. Krillin, Bulma and Chi-Chi are not far in terms of personality from where they were when they started, except for having families now. Master Roshi is still the same horny old guy he always was. It’s true that Yamcha, Tien Shin and Piccolo all started out as bad guys and became good guys, however, Yamcha and Tien Shin have become generic nice guys, losing their edge. Piccolo was an interesting anti-hero for a time, during Dragon Ball Z when he was training Gohan to fight the Saiyans, but he has also settled comfortably into a nice guy role and therefore has faded into the background as the series went on, while Vegeta remains the more dramatically interesting character.
This is another thing that makes Vegeta so watchable…because Vegeta is such a contrast to the other Z-Warriors. Most of them—even the ones who started off as villains—are such nice people now. Even Piccolo has become very mellow and even-tempered. Vegeta, on the other hand, still has his hair-trigger temper and his princely ego. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and will tell it like it is. Despite being one of the heroes, he’s the guy you don’t want mad at you. Vegeta is the warrior who will do what needs to be done—even killing the bad guys—and it won’t keep him awake at night.
Vegeta is the perfect contrast to Goku, because Goku was brought up in seclusion by his Earthly ‘grandpa’, and has never been educated. He is now a farmer, living a simple life. Vegeta was born a prince, heir to his entire planet. Whereas Goku often embarrasses his wife Chi-Chi with his naïve behavior, Vegata has a royal comportment, which was on display when he met Cabba in DBS. Vegeta will never miss an opportunity to take a shot at Goku’s simplicity.
Ironically, bad-boy Vegeta seems more comfortable now in his married life than nice-guy Goku is. Goku always seems to be looking for excuses to run out on his family to go train. He interrupts his daily farm duties to do martial arts practice. Vegeta, although he wouldn’t admit it, seems much more protective of his family. He was outraged when Goku volunteered his wife Bulma to kiss one of the Kai’s. And his furious “That’s my Bulma” moment when he stood up to Beerus—who he used to fear—after Beerus pushed Bulma shows how much he cares. We don’t really see that from the childlike Goku.
Vegeta’s motivations have changed so many time. First it was to rule his race; then it was to destroy planets for Freeza; then it was to get revenge against Freeza; then it was to surpass Goku as the best fighter; eventually he became an anti-hero after getting involved with Bulma; and finally, after meeting his future-son Trunks, he learned the value of caring for other people and officially reformed. Goku, on the other hand, still just thinks about training, even if it means leaving his family for extended periods.
On a show which is very light on character development and depth, Vegeta stands out as a deep, complex character who has gone through an extensive evolution and still manages to keep the bad-boy characteristics that made him popular in the first place. This is why Vegeta is the best character in the whole Dragon ball mythos.