Resetting sail

March 14, 2010

I don’t know quite why this has happened, or exactly when, but I’ve got an ugly One Piece monkey on my back. Viz sent me some recent volumes from its ramped-up release schedule, and I liked them well enough and, critically, wanted to know what happened next. That desire to know the outcome has gotten steadily worse as I’ve picked up subsequent volumes, and Viz’s omnibus editions of the early volumes have me reading One Piece on two tracks, current and vintage. As a manifestation of this awful addiction (and seriously, I can usually be found wandering around my house with some random volume in hand like a security blanket), I thought I’d revisit an old review of the first two volumes with updated, junkie thoughts in italics and some commentary on the third volume afterwards.

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The “young man with a dream” story is as common to manga as dead girlfriends are to super-hero comics. [I’ve got to apologize for the manga-spandex comparisons that crop up so often in these early reviews. They really don’t serve either kind of comic, but they reflect my head space at the time.] These callow lads want to be sports heroes, great chefs, and master gamesmen. There’s a surprising amount of variety within the genre, and the level of drive the protagonists display can range from amiably low-key to full-out obsessive. But what happens when the dream in question is kind of stupid?

In the case of Shonen Jump’s One Piece, you get a daft and surprisingly heartwarming comedy that’s probably a lot smarter than it seems.

Monkey D. Luffy, the dreamer in this instance, wants to be King of the Pirates. There’s some question as to whether he actually knows what pirates do. Luffy grew up in a seaside village that provided refuge for a rather unusual pirate crew, led by good-hearted Captain Shanks. Since the pirates used Luffy’s home as a hideout instead of a target, the boy never saw the darker aspects of piracy. From his perspective, pirates are good-natured rogues, living lives of adventure on the high seas and drunken fellowship on dry land. [Luffy’s vague grasp of the criminality of the pirate’s life seems largely intact.]

Shanks and company discourage Luffy’s attempts to join their crew. (Did I mention Luffy can’t swim?) He’s impervious to discouragement, though. By the time the pirates save Luffy and his town from a group of mountain bandits, the boy is hopelessly hooked on piracy as a career choice.

Luffy isn’t much of a long-term thinker, though. By the time he sets off in a sad little tub, he has no crew and only a vague notion of what he’ll do next. And he still can’t swim. As a child, he ate a strange fruit that turned his entire body to rubber. While that has its uses, buoyancy isn’t one of them. [This fruit is part of a horticultural subset known as “devil fruits” that give their eaters amazing and bizarre powers but rob them of the ability to swim a stroke.]

So Luffy sails off to assemble a crew and pursue his goal, armed only with a beloved straw hat (a gift from Shanks), a rubber body (surprisingly effective for clobbering), and impenetrable optimism (maybe it’s made of rubber, too). In short order, he runs afoul of pirates a bit more representative of the lifestyle. They pillage and murder, often taking sadistic pleasure in the fear they inspire. It’s hard to see how Luffy will fit in with this ilk. [The short answer is that he won’t. Luffy doesn’t want to be a pirate as pirates are; he wants to be a pirate as he has come to conceive them – adventurers who see amazing places and do legendary things, basking in the camaraderie of the crew.]

Happily, he doesn’t modify his full-speed-ahead tactics a bit. Luffy clearly has his own vision of what piracy is, and he’s blissfully dismissive of any counter-examples. His oblivious determination is also reflected in his attempts at crew recruitment. First up is [Roronoa] Zoro, a noted bounty hunter of pirates who wants to become the world’s greatest swordsman. Second is Nami, a clever thief who preys on pirates and wants to score enough loot to buy a village. Both take an understandably dim view of Luffy’s profession, but the dork who would be King is undeterred.

In the course of the first two volumes, Luffy bounces through a range of misadventures. He finds Zoro in a town under the thumb of the sadistic Captain Morgan, befriending and inspiring Koby, a would-be navy officer, in the process. Next, he hooks up with crafty Nami in a town under siege by evil pirate Buggy the Clown. There’s peril aplenty, with Morgan, Buggy, and their colorful henchmen doing their best to bring Luffy’s quest to a lethally premature end.

But there’s plenty to laugh at, too. While creator Eiichiro Oda does some exceptional physical comedy and builds some nice set pieces, the most satisfying laughs come from reversal of expectations. Koby, Zoro, and Nami all do their level best to explain to Luffy what pirates are really like, generally right before Luffy does something courageous and generous. He’s a tough kid to dislike, and it’s hard not to root for him. Dreams of piracy aside, he doesn’t sink to other pirates’ level, and he doesn’t let their brutality disillusion him. [Seriously, Luffy might be congenitally immune to disillusionment.]

Oda’s visuals are a cartoony treat that remind me a lot of Todd Nauck of Young Justice. He does terrific character design, particularly on scurvy antagonists like Morgan and Buggy. Oda has also come up with some creative renderings of Luffy’s rubbery frame, but he saves them up for maximum impact and comedy. He strikes a very nice balance of actual brutality (Luffy’s kinder, gentler approach to piracy wouldn’t have any impact if there wasn’t a contrasting reality) and highly stylized antics.

Is One Piece a great manga? Not really, but I don’t think it aims to be. It seems more satisfied to be creative genre entertainment. What raises it above its legion of “young man with a dream” peers are the subtle ways it subverts its own genre. In the final analysis, it offers good pirate fun, solidly crafted and sneakily smart. [This is very clearly wrong, maybe not in terms of Oda’s aims, but certainly in terms of One Piece’s greatness. It has that essential, aforementioned quality that defines great adventure comics – making the reader want to know what happens next because the characters are so likeable and the plots are so engaging. And it can be extraordinarily moving, not so much early on when Oda is setting up his game board, but certainly later.]

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The third volume is most noteworthy for the introduction of Usopp who is, in Whedon-esque terms, “the Zeppo” of One Piece. He’s not exceptional like his cast mates, and his primary skills seem to be in spinning tall tales and taking punishment. (He’s also pretty good with a slingshot. I have no idea if this is meant to reflect a “David in a world of Goliaths” metaphor, but I’ll throw that out there.) His primary function, though, is essential. He’s the (relatively) normal guy, out of his depth but along for the ride because he believes in his friends and cherishes their thrilling adventures, even though those adventures frequently scare him to death. Usopp is Luffy’s opposite in a lot of ways. Luffy is a bulldozer of certainty, while Usopp is characterized by much more realistic doubt, mostly that the Straw Hats will survive their latest mishap. But Usopp keeps trying to contribute and to keep up with the larger-than-life figures around him, and he’s clearly positioned for that thankless role, “the heart of the team.”

A frequent synonym for “the heart of the team” is “the punching bag,” and Oda seems to be dedicated to a certain consistency in portraying just how Usopp would fare against the Straw Hats’ adversaries. It’s become almost impossible for me to think of Usopp without subconsciously inserting “poor old” in front of his name, but he’s a key ingredient to the series. The central message of One Piece is that everyone should be able to pursue their dreams, even if those dreams are rather beyond the scope of one’s abilities. And that’s why we have friends, to help us achieve those dreams and accept our help in return.