One Piece – Volume 12

Look, I’ve spent eleven straight volumes offering staid, craft-oriented critiques of One Piece. I’ve discussed key structural decisions, the composition of action setpieces, Oda’s evolving visual repertoire, and all manner of other theoretically interesting facets of comic design. I have been very good about trying to ensure you generous supporters get your money’s worth out of these writeups, and that they aren’t simply the style of fan-gushing you can find on basically any forum.

With all that in mind, I think I’ve earned the right to say HOLY SHIT THIS VOLUME’S JOURNEY INTO THE GRAND LINE IS SO FUCKING COOL.

The second chapter here, detailing the Straw Hats’ trip from their last island into the Grand Line itself, is possibly my favorite chapter this manga has offered yet. Containing no real fight scenes or emotional narrative at all, it is simply a pure, gorgeous celebration of One Piece’s fundamental promise – fantastical adventures on the high seas. Festooned in beautiful visual setpieces and defined by constant new challenges, it is Oda at his most wild and exuberant, demonstrating the condensed adventure juice that is One Piece’s most exhilirating drug.

But before that, our heroes have to escape Roguetown, and the clutches of the authorities. The very cover of volume twelve reflects something about this “arc” that hasn’t ever really been true before – at this point, the Straw Hats are actually acting like a gang of pirates. Up until now, they’ve been heroically saving villages and digging into the tragic, honorable backstories of all their various members. This time, they’re taking their loot and fleeing from a town that’s under military jurisdiction. Yeah, they didn’t really steal anything this time, but they’re still squabbling with other pirates and causing a scene and generally being a rowdy bunch of miscreants. It’s a nice thing to see.

It’s appropriate, then, that this volume is called “The Legend Begins.” That seems like an odd thing to declare twelve volumes into a story, but while Luffy’s story is well underway, his legend only begins when the world really starts paying attention to him. I’m a big fan of stories that dig into the strange sets of events that eventually wind their way into legends, and happy to see Luffy begin his own.

The first chapter here fills out One Piece’s world in a variety of satisfying and likely necessary ways. The distinctive uses of Devil Fruit powers here demonstrate that it’s not just Luffy who possesses a versatile power – in fact, even a power that seemed designed just to slot an old villain into Oda’s only style of drawing women (an already-apparent failing of his art style) is here turned into a strange kind of transportation. This chapter also introduces something that’s perhaps not the most graceful addition, but a very necessary one – dedicated anti-Devil Fruit weapons. Luffy can’t stay invincible forever, after all.

Beyond that, this chapter also offers a solid prelude to the beautiful setpieces to come. Oda’s use of full blacks continues to reap great visual dividends, and the final shots of the Straw Hats at sea are all lovely compositions. The silhouette framing of their guiding lighthouse is a particular highlight, establishing a sense of mystery and slight menace to counterbalance the excitement.

And then we hit this volume’s true masterpiece, the entrance to the Grand Line. Oda has consistently demonstrated an ability to construct imposing full-page setpieces, but never before has anything approached these pages’ sense of scale. Dramatic shots of the monsters of the Grand Line or the cliffs of the Red Line frame the Straw Hats’ ship as utterly outclassed by this world, a minnow in the ocean. It’s easy enough for characters to say the Grand Line is dangerous and impressive, but shots like these really make you feel it. And the pacing of this segment is equally impressive, crafting a sense of overwhelming excitement as the crew gallops towards their goal. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to read this as it was being published, with that final shot of the crew grinning towards the Grand Line offering infinite promise.

Though the absurd setpieces of the Grand Line pull a lot of focus here, it’s also worth highlighting how much Nami’s permanent addition to the crew improves the overall cast dynamic. First off, Nami is absolutely crucial as the straight man in a crew of idiots. Every single other member of the Straw Hats embodies some genre of buffoonery, be it Zoro’s lackadaisical attitude, Usopp’s traditional clowning, or Luffy’s grinning ignorance. Having someone to bounce off those characters is important – not only does Nami hold her own and offer counterbalance for their antics, but she also keeps the story actually moving forward.

On top of that, the addition of an actual accomplished seaman and navigator means that the Straw Hats finally do feel like a pirate crew at sea. While before now they were essentially just floating around in a bucket, Nami’s straightforward understanding of seafaring dynamics means One Piece can now draw coherent conflicts out of their actual sailing. Issues like the ship getting becalmed or spun around by a storm wouldn’t have landed with any impact before, but Nami’s quick and precise articulation of these conflicts means One Piece feels far more like an actual seafaring adventure, something that pretty much had to happen before they reached the Grand Line.

The rest of this volume builds on the key strengths of those first few chapters, though there’s nothing that matches the soaring heights of chapter two. Their brief run-in with a giant whale reiterates the manga’s new sense of scale, while also demonstrating that Oda has learned their adventures and the places they visit can be just as fanciful as Luffy’s powers. And the introduction of the “Log Pose,” a special compass designed to map the strange magnetic fields of the Grand Line, offers both a sense of clear progression and some artificial but likely necessary constraints to their journey.

The mechanics of the Log Pose inherently demonstrates the push and pull of freedom and structure necessary for a story like this. On the one hand, one of the great strengths of One Piece, one it clearly demonstrates in this volume, is that it can basically become anything. On the other hand, stories like this still need a sense of overall progression to keep the audience feeling like there’s a goal and actual stakes. The more large-scale purpose of the Log Pose is to frame the Grand Line as a coherent path, where the Straw Hats must move from one island to another like they’re defeating levels in a videogame. And on a smaller scale, the fact that they must rest to “charge” the thing for an indeterminate amount of time at each island means Oda can make each island a much more coherent conflict, where they must learn to master an island’s challenges before moving on to the next.

Volume twelve ends with them visiting their first island, Whisky Peak. The Straw Hats’ brief time here quickly demonstrates that Oda is definitely going to be using this episodic approach to stretch his genre muscles, starting with the classic “an upbeat town with something lurking beneath the surface.” Whisky Peak quickly turns into a straightforward showcase for both great environmental setpieces and Zoro demoing his new swords, but that’s perfectly fine. The adventure is underway now. The sky is the limit.

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