After hearing that the manga series is actually Very Good for a few years now, I’m finally diving into One Piece and I’m writing a sorta-diary series on it.
A note beforehand: I’m pretty familiar with the opening arcs of One Piece since I watched the anime series as a kid – especially the arcs in this range, up to Chapter 100 – and there weren’t too many surprises. So I’ll focus on the quality of the series so far and less on the arcs themselves (with one exception…).
The art is phenomenal
Right away, too, with no obvious growing pains. The flat ink-heavy blocking and limited use of detailed screentone gives the series this timeless look (alongside Eiichiro Oda’s own illustration style), while character and world design are really memorable and thoughtful. It has a similar problem to other manga where women can look very similar to one another (mainly in the faces) but so far, the series has excellent panelling and line art, the action is clear and concise, and is just altogether charming.
The character designs are especially great. They’re simple and striking, where even the obvious jobbers are fun and distinct. I think this is part of why One Piece works so well as a weekly manga: designs and personalities for minor character are easy to forget after a while – like the cat brothers in the Buggy arc, remember them? – but they’re unique enough to stick in your mind for a week between chapters.
Writing is fun and light-hearted
One Piece feels most similar to Dragon Ball early on, which I’m sure is entirely intentional. Luffy feels like a nonsensical cartoon character in a slightly grounded world, similar to Goku, except Oda embraces this aspect entirely and makes Luffy into a stupidly-driven, near-immortal rubber band.
Each arc has been very consistent and fast-paced so far, always active and exciting. In an interview with Viz, Oda says he “gets bored easily’ and has to mix things up on the reg to keep up his own interest and motivation; you can absolutely feel this approach throughout. The stories themselves are solid, told succinctly, largely self-contained, and aren’t padded out – whether it’s for the author’s sake or not, this keeps One Piece focused and energetic.
It’s worth mentioning the villains, too, who have been one-dimensional but still massively entertaining. Buggy is a clown pirate who’s in over his head against Luffy, Kuro is a scheming, cold-blooded psychopath, Krieger is a cheating win-at-all-costs warrior, and Arlong is a massive ‘fishman’ who seeks to command the through fear and brute force.
Oda is also a very character-oriented writer. Each arc so far has been built around compelling characters and relationships first and foremost, both in the villains and allies. Dialogue shines throughout as charming and funny; like the plotting, it’s driven by these contrasting personalities bouncing off one another (even if it’s usually between Luffy and Anyone Else).
I was impressed at how One Piece builds up as a serialised story and how, compared to other Shonen manga (and other serialised stories in general, really), it has such a natural and even introduction.
To explain: most serialised stories (i.e. near about every Shonen manga) set up their central heroes in the opening arc/s. They frontload the series with characters and whatever else is needed to understand the world, and then move onto telling stories withthese established characters. They expect you to know the characters to properly understand the story. While One Piece still has this type of table-setting, where the initial arcs introduce the series’ central characters for the rest of the series, it does it differently.
Each arc – at least so far – focuses on characters and the specific story the arc is about. While there’s a usually new crew member to join Luffy at the end of each arc (inside these first 100 chapters), each story works perfectly well on its own. The point of each arc isn’t to gain a new crew member but to see the conflict through to the end. Story first, series second.
So with these initial arcs, there’s a far more natural sense of introduction to the wider series. Each crew member has had an arc that introduces them but they don’t focus solely on them; the crew members are major characters but their role and introduction exist parallel to the arcs central story.
To me at least, it’s a major part of keeping One Piece as a fleet-footed adventure series. A swashbuckling pirate quest that works best when its pieces are in motion.
It’s also a big reason why it’s so ‘bingeable’ (what an awful word), always charging straight ahead – via the brick-headed Luffy – into the next adventure. Each arc has been relatively short but they’re satisfying and haven’t outstayed their welcome. Oda quickly gets to the meat of each arc – or, in the case of the Arlong arc, keeps the tension high and builds it higher and higher before reaching the arc’s centrepiece.
Page turns are very good
Throughout One Piece, Oda uses page turns to fantastic effect. This is an odd point but it’s something that stood out to me as someone trying to write comic scripts.
A ‘page turn’ is exactly what it sounds like; the application of the turning page, the turn from odd page to the next even page/pair of pages. I’m reading One Piece with the Shonen Jump app on my iPad in landscape – two pages on the screen at once, like a tankōbon or volume – and the effects Oda gets from the page turn can be amazing (at least to an amateur like myself).
The typical use of a page turn is the impact of a reveal or action, where you keep a surprise right up until the page turn for maximum effect. It’s also so it isn’t dulled by your wandering eyes as you read through whatever is on the page spread before that moment.
One Piece has plenty of moments like this, but Oda also uses the page turn for the sake of brevity. He uses the beats between pages to skip small chunks of time either inside scenes or between scenes – for example, a character explaining something we (the reader) already know to another character, or describing a plot point in detail without losing the in-story impact of that reveal on the character. Though I haven’t noticed it much, this even includes info that the reader can easily infer without wasting panels explaining something in explicit detail.
It’s a small detail but once I noticed, I was blown away.
The Arlong arc is PHENOMENAL
Or at least I loved it. As it went on – which extends from around 70-ish (end of the Krieger/Restaurant arc) to about 95-ish – this arc reminded me of Dragon Ball Z at its peak (because my own anime/manga vocab is limited; though to be fair, Dragon Ball is apparently a major influence).
The Arlong Arc is just coated in tension every step of the way and is only slathered with more and more as it goes on (sorry for the gross analogy). Having Nami’s experience and role central to the story works extremely well by giving the otherwise simple story – where a crew of ‘fishmen’ take control of an island about a decade ago – a powerful emotional core.
It reminded me a lot of the Frieza/Namek saga in DBZ. First of all, it’s structured in a similar way: the first half builds up tension up with small skirmishes and sets up the various villains and story threads; while the second half is a combat-focused ascension to the arc’s central showdown (that even the characters themselves acknowledge, like Zoro being aware that only Luffy can fight Arlong).
Second, the balance of power has a similar pyramidal spread, moving from strong normal people (Nami, Usopp, others), to ridiculous normal-ish people (Zoro, Sanji, Fishmen), to the superpowers (Luffy and Arlong). Like the Frieza arc, the in-story power imbalances are openly acknowledged (or horrifically realised later, like Frieza and his Coat of Many Forms) and is central to the arc’s plot.
Thirdly, the Arlong arc represents a major turning point in the series so far. This isn’t the perfect comparison (the Frieza arc comes much later in the series compared to where the Arlong arc places) but it works well enough; it’s the point where Luffy is finally recognised as a major pirate and is where we see Luffy’s ‘peak’ – i.e. when he’s made truly angry. He’s pushed to his limit in defence of and dedication to a single crewmate and friend and, like many Shonen before and after, overcomes his foe by working together.
Like the Frieza arc, you always know how it’s going to end – Luffy beats the bad guy – but it’s incredibly tense anyway. It’s pulled off with remarkable quality and consistency, and focuses on characters you can genuinely care about.
Compared to the handful of other manga I’ve read, One Piece is such a perfect casual manga that’s quick and satisfying as a timewaster, but is also gratifying to read over a long time as a larger story.
The only ‘problem’ I’ve found inside these first 100 chapters is that Oda relies on taking Luffy off the board in increasingly elaborate ways to give others time to shine (and to raise the tension, of course). It’s sort of necessary when ‘power levels’ are a thing, when a single character like Luffy is transparently stronger than the rest of the crew, but One Piece is so light and cartoonish that this suits its absurdist side anyway. This type of plot point is a mainstay of just about every long-running action story, but it’s starting to feel repetitive this far in.
Phew, this was longer than I thought it would be. We’ll see how the next 100 or so chapters are but I’ll probably focus on the arcs themselves next time instead of reviewing the manga broadly, as I did this time.
If you actually read through all this: thanks for reading my ramble tamble.