Earth’s mightiest pirates

The fourth omnibus edition of Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece (Viz), collecting volumes 10 through 12, gives me the chance to talk about Oda’s sometimes counterintuitive pacing. This is one of my favorite aspects of Oda’s storytelling.

In “I have a dream” shônen, character and plot milestones can be as much of an ordeal for me as a reader as they seem to be for the protagonists. When it takes two volumes for a character to climb a set of stairs, I start wondering what Sawako is up to in home economics class. When chapter after chapter is devoted to the hero’s awesome new power-up and just how he achieved it, complete with color commentary from every other character in the comic, I start calculating how long I’ll have to wait for the next volume of Ôoku. I’m increasingly convinced that Oda feels the same way.

Luffy, the captain of the Straw Hat Pirates and the star of One Piece, wants to be King of the Pirates. To achieve this, he has to enter the Grand Line, which is where all the big pirates earn their reps. Since this is a big milestone, the part of me that still didn’t fully trust in the ways that Oda is a different kind of shônen storyteller expected it to be a protracted ordeal to read. It takes about a chapter. It’s a fun chapter, but the efficiency with which this milestone is presented convinces me that Oda is much less interested in the obvious epic beats, the stations of the shônen cross, than he is in building unexpected milestones out of side stories and throwaway bits that become huge when you aren’t looking.

This approach is entirely consistent with Luffy’s, who runs entirely on instinct or, if you prefer, a tendency to be distracted by something sparkly. There’s a joke in it – that Luffy’s short attention span actually ends up leading him closer to achievement of his goal. The adventures that result from his distractions make him and his crew stronger, and they strengthen the crew’s bond and their trust in his leadership. And that trust isn’t founded solely in Luffy’s ridiculous luck. He has force and authority as a leader largely because he trusts in his crew and will fight like mad to protect them and further their interests.

Another aspect of series that really rings a bell for me is that it’s an excellent team book. This may be more relevant for someone like me who’s read a lot of Avengers and Defenders and Justice League stories over the year, but Oda strikes just the right character balance. The Straw Hats are a mix of heavy-hitters like Luffy, swordsman Zoro, and lethal kicker Sanji, and smart and sneaky types like sharpshooter Usopp and thief Nami. As the best Avengers writers did back in the day, Oda lets everyone contribute to a successful resolution, and everyone gets a great moment or two that’s driven by their essential natures. Since they’re kind of spoiler-y, I’ll highlight a few after the jump.

Here’s poor old Usopp enjoying a moment of triumph and neatly articulating his place among the Straw Hats. Like Hawkeye in the Avengers, he’s justifiably insecure about how he stacks up with his teammates, but his smarts and craft help him come through in the clutch.

Anyone who can combine the culinary and the kick-ass is fine by me. While you normally shouldn’t tenderize fish, Sanji’s approach here can be forgiven.

It’s almost impossible to pick one page from Zoro’s utterly fabulous solo sequence in volume 12. The rest of the crew has overindulged in food and drink, leaving him to contend with a town full of bounty hunters. The battle demonstrates both Oda’s ability to keep things moving with a mix of high action and comedy, and it’s also just a great example of Zoro being really, really awesome.

7 Responses to Earth’s mightiest pirates

  1. If I had to pick a favorite character, it would probably be Sanji. He’s a type I hate (the smooth/wacky ladies man), but his fighting style and the sheer amount of smooth one liners he gets are fantastic. Even when he spends an entire battle MIA pre-Alabasta, he’s off doing something cool and/or funny in the background. The style, the cigarettes, the demeanor when women aren’t around… pretty great.

    You’re dead on about the team roles, as well. Oda puts Nami and Usopp together a few times, and while they come off as weaker, and know that fact, that actually gives them the strength to overcome. Kind of a “I can’t let my friends down” thing.

  2. davidpwelsh says:

    Sanji is really awesome, and I like him a lot, but top spot in my heart is divided between Chopper and Nico Robin. I love Chopper’s joie de vivre, and I adore Robin’s mixture of introspection and genuine fondness for the rest of the crew.

  3. ABCBTom says:

    I think the moment that further sold me on One Piece (second to volume 9’s page 200, of course) was Mihawk’s journey to a certain tropical island in volume 11. That really signaled to me that Oda was keeping track of all of the characters he’d introduced, and that there was an actual world of events happening outside of where the Straw Hats were currently located. Roguetown only further emphasized this: Buggy’s silly stories about being chased by birds and meeting Gaimon actually had a point. Oda’s start of chapter side stories are such a brilliant concept, I’m surprised I’d never seen them used before in a manga.

  4. Connie says:

    I’ve often wondered if Oda is the only one who uses those start-of-chapter narratives, too. It’s a wonderful alternative to having to come up with a splash page illustration every week for 10+ years, and as you say, it’s a good way of keeping track of important things going on elsewhere in the story.

    I thought I had seen a title page narrative in one other Jump series, but for the life of me I can’t remember which one.

  5. [...] Welsh discusses Luffy’s short attention span and the sometimes unexpected pacing of One Piece at The Manga [...]

  6. MikeyDPirate says:

    That is very true, Luffy’s “OH SHINY!” view of life makes it very fun to follow him and his crew. He would do the stupidest things and still we will read it and find out that there is a bigger plot then what we see.

    It is hard to pick a favorite character in One Piece. All of the StrawHats are just so fun and enjoyable. I love Sanji and Zoro for the bad a** fighting style, Luffy for everything about him, Robin for her awesome power and personality, Chopper for being Chopper (Minus the marketing ploy), and Nami and Usopp for because they are so cool with their ‘powers’ and personality.

    One Piece is just so wide and deep that it turns out that you are doing more then just following a set of character but in reality you are following the world itself.

  7. Khursten says:

    Yoooosh! Bring out more One Piece love, David! You’re completely right about these almost interruptive twist and turns of the manga, at least at the early stages of the manga where the Straw Hats were still trying to pool themselves together. It’s almost hilarious but I believe it’s Oda’s way of showing “fate” to his audience as well. Sure they just go wherever Luffy wants but whatever Luffy and the crew does, fate just smiles upon them and gives them good fortune.

    I love it, honestly. Now that you’ve seen Sanji, I assume you’ve read his back story as well? Wasn’t that lovely? As a foodie, I personally enjoyed his foodie kick and his logic on why he’s using his feet for battle. T^T)b

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