One Piece – Volume 1

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.

One Piece

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.

One Piece

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.

One Piece

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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7 thoughts on “One Piece – Volume 1

  1. Oh, wow, you ARE in for a ride here. One of the most fascinating things about reading One Piece IMHO is just how much the style evolves and grows over the enormous amount of time the series has lasted. The art refines itself while keeping the same basic feel, the story and the world building pile layer upon layer of complexity and the ever diverse and crazily designed characters number in the hundreds by now (apparently, the Wikia says, we have more than 1000 confirmed named characters, between mains, secondary and extras).

    But yeah, there’s a lot of fun to be had, though I’m not so sure about analysis (some arcs may lends themselves to some reflections about their main themes but ultimately it’s very self-contained imho, and often near amoral in its stand (since almost everyone can be either a hero or a douche, sometimes both at the same time). Oh, and while it’s not the worst, do expect a bit of casual sexism sadly (and even something that would qualify as homophobia in the West, though at the same time, One Piece also has some of the best homosexual characters seen in manga). Kuina being fridged in Zoro’s origin story is merely the tip of the iceberg.

  2. One Piece is perhaps the only manga that I love from my childhood that I’ve grown to love more as I grow older (in contrast to say, Naruto and Bleach). I’m sure a lot of people who are big fans of it feel the same, so it’s refreshing to hear perspectives of people who started reading it as an adult. If I started reading it as an adult though, I feel like I’ll like it but not love it.

    I don’t know if you’re planning to continue reading it by yourself. There’s a lot to like about it, but it really doesn’t fit your favorite type of story and elements. It doesn’t know subtlety, for one. It wears melodrama like a breech (and in some points, wears it so brazenly it actually becomes effective), so as heartwrenching some moments are, it’s never as transcendent as HxH’s Chimera Ant arc.

    • ^^^^^^^^^ This times 100x.

      One Piece never reaches the peaks of Chimera Ant (or even really York New), but HXH can’t hold a candle to the sprawling world Oda’s created. After the first 10 volumes or so, Oda gets a much better handle on the artwork, and once you reach the Volume 30-50 range, there are some panels that you legitimately frame on your wall.

      The casual sexism and homophobia can get pretty annoying, but if you can get past that, One Piece is a really amazing story. It’s not going to deconstruct the nature of humanity like HxH, but the way Oda is able to create his world is second to none.

      You have to really stomach through the first 20 or so volumes because the first saga is by far the worst part of the series and extremely repetitive. It’s a really weird thing to say, “you have to read 20 volumes of kinda shit before it gets good!” but it really is true with One Piece. Even if you don’t get enough funding to read through all of One Piece, you should still read it on your own.

      • I see the bluntness as more of a plus than a minus. One Piece may not be particularly subtle, but that actually makes the really emotional scenes (and there’s a lot of those later on) even more impactful because you see everything the characters are feeling and empathize with them. The straightforwardness is actually kind of refreshing and makes the characters stand out more.

  3. One of the series’ later strengths is how compelling the main crew backstories are to sell the sheer gravitas of their respective island’s problems, which unfortunately isn’t represented well by Zoro’s backstory of “I had this girl who was my rival and then she died OH NO”. Once you start getting to characters like Nami and Sanji is when the character backstories become way more engaging.

    I don’t know if you intend to continue the series or not, but there are some incredibly strong story beats later on that are great examples of how to pull off emotional conflict in a shounen series lasting this long. It’s one of those series that legitimately put in the legwork to reach its uber-popular status.

  4. One Piece impresses me. It’s so full of energy you can’t really let it go, and makes it seems easy.
    Oda managed to create a world that is bizarre, fun, yet actually quite complex wth many different characters with their own agency.

    It may not be my favorite manga ever, but I really respect it.

  5. Luffy does remind me somewhat of Gon from HxH, actually, insofar as his moral compass is decided largely by a philosophy of nakama – which, though ridiculously inclusive (Luffy makes friends like we breathe air), is predicated on an exclusion of those who aren’t nakama. There is no real middle-ground. Luffy happens to act in a way that usually conforms to a good/evil axis, but there are times when it deviates. Gon takes it much further, since HxH is a more straightforward deconstruction, but it’s a similarity a few of my friends have noticed.

    The visual style of One Piece is honestly one of the most fascinating things about it, and you can see other mangas at times hewing close to it. Rave Master & Fairy Tail in particular (though Mashima was Oda’s assistant at one point, I believe, so it makes sense)

    Nice review! As others said, One Piece is a manga I grew up with, one that did not let me down midway (Naruto…). I’m excited to see you catch up with it.

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