So here I am, embarking on a journey through the first volume of one of the longest and most storied shounen manga out there. I have to assume this is some kind of ploy – funding just the first volume of a monolith like One Piece only makes sense if you’re assuming it’s a strong enough hook to do the rest of the work by itself. I’ll read the first volume and then get dragged along by my own momentum, trapped in the story that has become almost synonymous with manga itself. I’ll start One Piece and that will be the end of me.
I can certainly see the potential of the plan. One Piece’s first volume is, above and beyond anything else, fully imbued with a sense of fun. One of the keys to making an appealing shounen manga is creating a world the reader wants to jump into, full of characters doing things the reader would want to do. One Piece easily and continuously succeeds at that – its world doesn’t feel dark or in jeopardy, its world feels like a permanent sunny vacation. The loose setup of vaguely connected islands makes One Piece’s world feel like a Wind Waker-esque tapestry of adventure, and any sense of underlying danger is pretty much immediately dispelled by Luffy’s miraculous ability to shove off one island and randomly float his way to another. Being a pirate seems like an upbeat, merry thing, and protagonist Luffy’s absolute confidence in his ability to master this world is infectious.
Luffy’s personality is the second variable worth noting here, but Luffy’s uniqueness isn’t immediately apparent. In the first double-length chapter, where a strong self-contained story establishes Luffy’s powers and goals, him being the absolutely confident kid who dreams of becoming the Pirate King isn’t much of a surprise. All shounen kids dream big, and then they grow into shounen heroes who start at the bottom and work their way up. Luffy doesn’t do that – from his first adventure onward, he’s absolutely confident he’ll win, proud of his own strength, and disdainful of weakness in others. The story may be upbeat, but it’s still about pirates; Luffy doesn’t seem to care if useless people die, and doesn’t have much use for anyone who isn’t dedicated to convictions of their own. He wants to be a captain, and actually feels captain-like from the very start – blunt, driven, and able to make callous decisions at a moment’s notice. He’s a point of sharpness in a very cartoony world.
That leads into One Piece’s third pillar, its extremely distinctive visual design. There are few sharp edges here; One Piece is all ballooning, cartoonish caricatures, immediately bringing to mind something like Dr. Slump’s wildly exaggerated art design. Characters share common attributes like tall frames and huge feet, but are all distinguishable in profile, a key attribute for action heroes. Slapstick of the falling-out-of-your-seat variety is a given, and faces contort wildly for over-the-top reactions. One Piece’s underlying aesthetic sets it apart among recent shounen hits, elevating sturdy genre setup through consistently inventive visual design.
The aesthetics lean into more classic strengths during the fight scenes, which already possess a strong sense of impact. While collections of panels can get a little busy at times, the setpiece visuals are excellent; you can really feel the whip and thud of Luffy’s extended movements, and later scenes with Zoro exude an effortless sense of cool. Luffy’s rubber powers inherently lend themselves to creative problem-solving and battle techniques that feel natural even when they’re invented on the spot, and strong use of heavy blacks and good expressions give Zoro presence even when he’s just grimacing at people. One Piece’s visual style can be pretty rough at times, and certainly doesn’t have anything resembling a consistent sense of human anatomy, but that generally works out okay given its naturally cartoonish visual assumptions. And it certainly possesses both great personality and a strong eye for making the big panels count.
Overall, One Piece’s first volume is an easy and rewarding read. The weakest notes so far are definitely the villains – they’re all one-note cartoons, essentially extensions of binary bad guy ideas that bring nothing interesting to the story outside of their visual designs. And the storytelling itself is still very archetypal; Zoro’s simplistic backstory breezes past in a few panels, and Luffy’s goal is little more than “I wanna be the strongest.” But as far as stories working within that kid’s-story template go, One Piece presents a compelling world, engaging protagonist, and vivid art design; more than enough strong material to warrant further reading. The story understands fun, and fun is a very good place to start.
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