For the month of August, I set about the somewhat daunting task of jumping into the long running and immensely popular “One Piece.” Taking advantage of the economical 3-in-1 omnibus editions, I read through the first three volumes of the series. After nearly 600 pages of swashbuckling adventures and outlandish antics, I have quite a bit to say about Luffy and his gang.
Written and illustrated by Eiichiro Oda
As a child, Monkey D. Luffy dreamed of becoming the King of the Pirates. But his life changed when he accidentally ate the Gum-Gum Fruit, an enchanted Devil Fruit that gave him the ability to stretch like rubber. Its only drawback? He’ll never be able to swim again – a serious handicap for an aspiring sea dog! Years later, Luffy sets off on his quest to find the “One Piece,” said to be the greatest treasure in the world…
As I admitted previously, I’ve had some experience with “One Piece” through my subscription to Weekly Shonen Jump. Still, nothing could’ve prepared me for the opening chapters of the series, which move at a breakneck pace from one nonsensical amusement to the next. When a book’s opening pages feature the protagonist stabbing himself in the face to make a point, you know you’re in for a wild ride.
With massive fight sequences and a plot to “become the very best,” “One Piece” is a shonen comic through and through. The story of these first three volumes can be summed up in a few short sentences; “Boy dreams of becoming a pirate. Boy gets mystical powers. Boy sets out to become the legendary King of the Pirates, and gets into trouble along the way.” From the outset, what separates it from others of its ilk is the book’s distinctive art style and uniquely enjoyable characters.
Though my experience is limited and my palate unrefined, Oda’s style feels quite unlike any other mangaka I’ve ever seen. His work somehow toes the line between masculine super heroics and a cute, chibi-esque form. While the current chapters of “One Piece” feel quite intimidating, with an unwieldy large cast and densely packed panels, these first volumes are much more inviting. Oda introduces the large cast piece-meal, with iconic and memorable introductions to the major players. The action is just as bombastic as I have come to expect from the series, though it seems much easier to follow the flow of the story. Whether that’s due to a greater familiarity with the characters and context for the story, or a shift in Oda’s story-telling over the years, I don’t know.
Though the plot, at least in these three volumes, is fairly light, the book’s diverse cast of enjoyable characters leaves a last mark on the reader. Through Luffy we are introduced to a world of wonder and wackiness. In some ways, Luffy himself is the least engaging character of the book. Lacking any sort of internal narration, Luffy’s motivations, thoughts, and feelings are often hidden from the character. Oda forces the reader to judge Luffy on his actions, which at times can seem brash and callous. While he clearly has a good heart and a fierce sense of loyalty, his strong desire to be the very best, the best pirate no less, places him in a category apart from your traditional heroic lead.
We learn more about Luffy from the characters that he interacts with, each one more interesting than the next. There’s Koby; the cabin boy that dreams of becoming a naval officer, Zola; a triple-sword wielding bounty hunter, and Nami; a wily thief that steals from pirates. Each character brings something different to the table in their interactions with Luffy, while mirroring him to a degree. The concept of “treasure,” the thing that one holds as most important, is a common unifying theme among the cast. While the concept is occasionally heavy-handed (more than one character emphatically exclaims “This is my treasure!” throughout the course of the three volumes), it serves to contrast Luffy and his friends from the typical pirate gangs.Continued below
Of course, a good hero requires an equally compelling villain, and these early chapters provide a number of contenders. Among the handful of antagonists that beset Luffy on his quest, the naval captain Morgan and Buggy the Clown play the largest roles. Buggy makes an especially an intriguing foil for Luffy, being his sort of dark inverse in many ways. While none of the villains pose too dire of a threat, there presence hints at the sort of perils ahead in the quest for the One Piece.
And what a quest it looks to be. While we only get the slightest glimpses at the greater world in which “One Piece” exists, there’s an apparent richness and depth on display. Oda presents a world quite unlike our own, one that is even more predominantly aquatic. In this world there exists only a single landmass known as the Redline. The continent forms a halo-esque ring around the world, cutting the ocean into two distinct seas. Running perpendicular to the Redline is a popular sea route known as the Grandline. That sea route is the supposed rest place of the One Piece, and as such attracts all manner of would be plunderers. The unique setting pushes the pirate theme to the maximum, allowing for a true world of piracy, in its golden age no less.
Thanks to the memorable characters and bizarre world they inhabit, I enjoyed my time reading “One Piece.” That said, I can’t say these early volumes made a terrible compelling case to continue reading for 70+ volumes. I was hoping to discover what exactly it is that has caused “One Piece” to become so entrenched in the hearts of fans, but it seems the book takes a bit longer to hit its stride. Muliversity reader tempranillo and our own esteemed Walt Richardson have suggested that the book really takes off in the “Arlong Park” arc around volume 8. As someone coming from the side of American comics, asking readers to make it through 70-odd chapters of the seems unimaginable.
Therein lies a technically obvious, though somewhat impalpable, difference between the pacing of American and Japanese comics. Perhaps it lies in the smaller trim size of the pages, or the fact that the chapters are traditionally serialized weekly rather than monthly. Regardless, there’s certainly a sense that the story moves at a deliberately slower pace. This is further contrasted by the lack of distinct “story-breaks” between arcs. While modern American comics “write for trade,” with clearly delineated 3 to 6 issue arcs, “One Piece” at least blurs the story into a single continuous thread. In this way one can imagine how, with enough creative drive, the story could breezily coast along for hundreds of chapters. Perhaps moreso than Luffy’s quest for the One Piece, I’m compelled to read on just to see how Oda develops and evolves his story, both on technical and thematic levels.
So that wraps up our second month of the Multiversity Manga Club. I hope everyone that took part enjoyed reading “One Piece,” whether as a first time reader like myself, are as a fan revisiting an old favorite. I excitedly hope to return to the series in future installments, but am equally excited for our September book, which will be announced later this week. Once again, thanks to all provided their comments and thoughts, I look forward to hearing more!