The battle between Luffy and Buggy’s pirates concludes in this volume, across a trio of chapters that basically split the difference between slapstick and traditional action. While Buggy came across as intimidating in the earlier Nami chapters, Luffy outclasses him pretty handily, and so any attempts at tension here are mostly about Buggy putting either Nami or Luffy’s hat in danger. Even Buggy’s special power no longer comes across as dangerous – it’s more a tool for slapstick, where Buggy’s ability to send his top half flying becomes a lot less powerful when Luffy can still kick his bottom half in the junk. Buggy’s power kinda sucks, but it sure is good for gags.
It’s a strange ending to the manga’s second arc, frankly. I do like how much the devil fruit powers add to the creativity of these encounters – it’s not about “power levels” in the slightest, it’s about thinking up wacky, inventive ways to apply the very specific things these characters can do. Luffy has very vaguely defined strengths and weaknesses, but the looseness of his battles can be totally handwaved through the creativity and “tonal rightness” of the way he applies his powers. And of course, there are still a fair number of individually strong panels that show off the manga’s excellent union of comedy and action sensibilities. But between the lack of tension and Buggy tossing off one more of the manga’s incredibly condensed flashbacks, it’s not the most thrilling shounen fiction.
Things improve somewhat once the trio get off the island. Small manzai routines between Nami and Luffy actually form an unexpected highlight in these chapters, in spite of my generally established dislike for the style of comedy. A large part of this comes down to the fact that we’re in a manga – in the context of a comic book, gags like Luffy saying something stupid and Nami calling him on it only take up a couple panels, and so the pacing is much better than if they were dragged out to make temporal, screen-filling punchlines in an anime. But these two also just have a really strong dynamic – Luffy’s deadpan attitude applies equally well to these jokes and to everything else he does, so it all feels more natural and thus funny. And Nami generally gives as good as she gets, slowly figuring out how to make the most of her two largely useless companions.
The manga’s second half introduces our fourth crewmate, Usopp the Captain/Liar. I have to admit, I arrived at this portion of the manga with some real trepidation – when I first attempted to scale One Piece through the anime, about four or five years ago, it was the Usopp arc that shoved me off. Usopp seemed directly reflective of the kind of abrasive, “loud noises!”-style comedy I tend to find really repellant in anime, and the fact that he seemed particularly beloved by fans of the series struck me as a serious warning sign. But it seems like the manga understands some part of the issue here – Usopp is basically introduced through a sequence where he thinks he’s being funny, and everyone else thinks he’s being obnoxious, which is essentially my own experience with the vast majority of anime comedies. Even if Luffy’s laughing at his wackiness, I can at least relate to Nami shaking her head.
Usopp does manage to sell himself better through the later chapters here, and I again think that the transition from anime to manga really makes what would be an aggravating performance into one I can happily skim through. His fundamental character is, like Luffy, somewhat unusual for his position. His strengths are his weaknesses – he’s a lying coward, but he’s got convictions of his own, and his heart is in the right place. Usopp’s character forms a strong counterpoint to Luffy, who up until now seems to have idolized the overt appearance and demonstrations of strength. Usopp is anything but strong, and engaging with and respecting a person like that would probably do Luffy some good.
Usopp’s actual intro arc is fairly simple so far, mainly noteworthy for the fact that his beloved friend is about to be assassinated by Literally Michael Jackson. There are some nice thematic notes scattered throughout these chapters, though. The episodic adventure separating Buggy from Usopp ends on the saccharine but Luffy-appropriate “the treasure is the journey itself,” which Usopp compliments with “even if you’re rich, it doesn’t exempt you from sorrow.” And in the end, Usopp and Clahador seem to be striking a contrast between an “honest man” and a good man.That, again, isn’t the most profound of statements, but building up texture about the “meaning of a pirate” can only be a good thing.
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