The battle with Baroque Works continues in One Piece’s fourteenth volume, within the leafy confines of Little Garden. The initial conceit of Little Garden was “this is an island where the creatures are huge, but still dwarfed by the resident giants.” Those giants actually get more or less pushed aside in a narrative sense here, which I frankly didn’t mind at all. Their single-minded emphasis on “honorable battle” doesn’t really do anything for me, and though Usopp’s adoration of their focus is pretty adorable, I couldn’t really buy into their feelings purely for his sake. Instead, this volume quickly resolves the giants’ battle, and moves on to something much more exciting – the next showdown with the agents of Baroque Works.
At this point in One Piece, it doesn’t really feel like everything’s leading up to some meaningful whole – instead, we’re closer to something like late-era Bleach’s tactic of “invent a whole bunch of new characters and throw them at our heroes.” This isn’t necessarily a flaw of the writing, though it certainly results in a less cohesive and dramatically punchy narrative than something like Arlong Park’s tightly focused and character-focused story. As of right now, it seems like Oda’s storytelling strategy is “invent invent invent, and when things start getting creaky, just invent some more.” The fact that he started naming Baroque Works women according to days of the week, and thus is already forced to change the system to include holidays, feels reflective of Oda’s seat-of-his-pants storytelling. His style means the various pieces of this world don’t necessarily fit together into a coherent whole, but the range he allows himself in terms of creative digressions is also one of One Piece’s greatest strengths.
The one thing the giants do add to this volume is a sense of scale. Little Garden is theoretically all about abusing a wild sense of scale, and early clashes between Luffy and an angry giant abuse that to the fullest. There’s a great sense of momentum and taut energy in panels depicting stuff like Luffy slingshotting himself back into Dorry’s stomach. Another of this volume’s best visual tricks heralds the end of the giants’ duel, when the blood of one giant forms a ring in the air that is then used as a sort of comic-equivalent “match cut” bringing us to Luffy’s eye. And elsewhere, the legend of these giants facilitates yet another of the volume’s best panels, as Oda’s increasingly creative use of silhouettes effectively turns a multi-layered composition into a clear and compelling visual narrative.
But as I said, the focus of this volume isn’t really the giants’ duel – it’s the crafty machinations of Baroque Works. After a wonderfully whimsical tea party in the woods, Number 3 details his plans to isolate and capture the various Straw Hat pirates out within the wilderness. “The team is kidnapped through clever traps and forced into a horrific death game” is a pretty great place to start, and One Piece really makes the most of this battle.
Oda’s creativity and love of visual spectacle comes through clearly in the wild powers of Number 3. Having apparently consumed the Wax-Wax Fruit, his abilities all take the form of different ways of sculpting wax. His reliance on underhanded traps feels like a perfect quirk for a villain whose base power implies the necessity of waiting for wax to harden. And in contrast with the relatively straightforward powers of someone like Arlong, Number 3’s powers are all wild creativity, gimmicks that seem more interested in justifying themselves as visual setpieces than legitimately effective weapons.
In light of that, it’s not surprising that Number 3’s powers actually do work better as cute gimmicks than cornerstones of a battle. Number 3’s giant candelabra not only looks very impressive, but it works together with his assistant Ms. Golden Week’s powers to move portions of this volume into legitimate horror movie territory. Having half the Straw Hats suffer death by slow wax covering is bad enough, but forcing Luffy to watch while rotely intoning “the tea is good” is the stuff of nightmares. Shounen manga only benefit when they draw from a richer collection of influences than other shounen manga.
Unfortunately, the flipside of Number 3 being a very creative villain is that he’s not a particularly impactful one. This isn’t really Number 3’s fault – not only are we still at a point where no opponents can meaningfully challenge the Straw Hats, but Oda’s own paneling of his actual showdown with Luffy is pretty poor. As far as the first point goes, Number 3’s “close battle” requires the incapacitation of both Luffy and Zoro, as well as making sure Sanji is just absent for the whole thing. The only bright spot there is that Zoro gets to demonstrate his often under-appreciated comedy chops. While Nami has clearly established supremacy as the straight man voice and Luffy often gets the best lines, it’s Zoro’s deadpan acceptance of his death and wish to die in a cool pose that offers the best joke here. It’s nice to see Zoro getting to show off an ear for a very different style of comedy.
And outside of narrative contrivances, Number 3’s duel is further weakened by its actual visual failures. The sequences where Number 3 and Luffy actively exchange blows are significantly hampered by a lack of visual grounding. Panels that lack backgrounds entirely offer no context or sense of momentum to the characters’ movements, and the fact that Luffy and Number 3 are spinning around each other in the air makes it difficult to tell how their movements transfer from one panel to the next. Oda is clearly becoming a better artist all the time, but this fight definitely gets away from him in a way that demonstrates there’s plenty more to learn.
That said, given this volume lacks the fundamental meat of something like Nami’s backstory or the journey to the Grand Line, it’s still a reasonable volume of shounen adventure. The images of Little Garden itself are terrific, and Number 3’s powers demonstrate a creativity that I’m eager to see applied to even wilder conceits. I’m ready to see wherever Baroque Works leads.
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