published by Viz
by Ed Sizemore
Now in its thirteenth year of publication, One Piece might be the best-selling comic series in the world. In November, volume 60 was released in Japan, selling over two million copies in four days, and that’s just the domestic sales. One Piece is printed in over two dozen languages, so there is no telling what the worldwide sales figure will be. However, One Piece didn’t start out setting Japanese sales records. Author Eiichiro Oda had to build his audience up over time.
Briefly, One Piece is the story of Monkey D. Luffy and the Straw Hat pirates. The series starts off with Luffy declaring that he will find the legendary treasure of Gol D Roger and become the new pirate king. He begins by himself and slowly gathers a crew during his adventures. It quickly becomes apparent the Straw Hat crew are not the typical pirates from American and European history. Luffy is interested in exploration and fighting for justice. He acts out of a genuine desire to help the oppressed and bring happiness to others. The Straw Hat crew shares his idealism.
The success of One Piece reminds me of another serialized comic that conquered the world, Peanuts. Like One Piece, Peanuts wasn’t a runaway hit at the beginning but quickly built an audience. Snoopy and the gang are now part of the American cultural fabric, and it’s hard to imagine a time when they weren’t household names. What’s even more amazing is that the Peanuts we know and love is very different from the early years of the comic strip.
The best example of how Peanuts evolved over time is Snoopy. When he first appeared in Peanuts, he was simply your average dog. He looked like a normal dog, walked on all four legs, didn’t have any thought balloons, wasn’t given to great flights of imagination, and didn’t even appear to have an owner. It would take two years before Snoopy had his first thought. It would take another five years before he began to walk on two legs. Peanuts was 15 years old before Snoopy had his first legendary dogfight with the Red Baron.
Similarly, One Piece took a while to find its groove. Oda had a much better grasp of his characters and the narrative structure of his series than did Schultz, so we don’t see radical character transformations in One Piece. But Oda does take time to build his characters, give them depth, and create a sense of community that is key to the appeal of One Piece. Many fans of One Piece will tell you that the series doesn’t really take off until you get to the “Arlong Park” story arc, beginning in volume 8.
I do believe “Arlong Park” marks a significant development in One Piece. Nami’s past has some very dark and brutal moments. There is a new layer of emotional depth added to One Piece during these chapters. It’s even the first time the central cast actually comes together and forms a crew. However, it is just the beginning of Oda breaking out of the Shonen Jump mold. The “Arlong Park” story arc is enjoyable, but it’s not the place I would recommend a new reader start.
Instead, I’d like to suggest that new readers begin with volume 16 and the introduction of Tony Tony Chopper. With Chopper we have the first truly vulnerable character to join the Straw Hat crew. Chopper’s grim past has made him scared and distrustful of humans. He knows medicine inside and out, but little of the world beyond the island of his birth. Strange as it sounds, this blue-nosed, talking reindeer who walks on two legs and looks like an oversized plushy doll is the character the audience can best identify with in One Piece.
Like the reader, Chopper finds himself thrust into a crazy, dangerous world populated with crazy, dangerous people. His innocence and timidity mirror the way any normal human would react in the same circumstances. His lack of general knowledge about the world gives Oda an excuse to have other crew members explain what is common information to the average person in One Piece. With Chopper, the crew now feels whole. All the major components needed for a proper community and a complete ship’s crew are finally present.
The secret to One Piece’s enormous appeal is the community that Luffy creates among the Straw Hat crew. These people aren’t simply co-workers or co-adventurers. They are a surrogate family. Aboard the Merry Go, everyone is accepted for who they are. Each person is seen as a valued member of the crew. They may have their flaws, but at heart, all the Straw Hat pirates are compassionate, decent people. This atmosphere of mutual support allows them to develop genuine affection for each other.
Luffy’s achieved an amazing feat when you look at the diverse personalities that he’s gathered around him. Zolo is a swordsman with the heart of a samurai. Nami is a gifted navigator who mixes femme fatale and cat burglar. Sanji is world-class in both his culinary and skirt-chasing skills. Usopp has the brains of an engineer but the heart of a coward. And we’ve already discussed Chopper.
Such a motley mix guarantees there will be personality conflicts and wide differences of opinion. This is only compounded by the fact that everyone openly expresses what they think and feel. It’s this lack of pretense that binds the crew so closely together. Since there are no facades, everyone knows the other crew members accept them for who they are, warts and all. That’s why they fight and lay their lives on the line for each other. It’s also why their crew stays so small. Not many people can live such a brutally honest lifestyle.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of the Straw Hat community for readers. Sure, adventures in such a imaginative and unpredictable world sound great compare to the boring lives most of us live. However, the real allure is that community Luffy has forged on the Merry Go. Who doesn’t wish to live without needing to constantly manage a public persona and instead to be among a group of people who accept you unconditionally? Sure, it seems scary at first, but it would be liberating to live so unencumbered.
I don’t want to overlook Luffy’s own charisma to attract and keep not just a crew but a growing audience of readers, too. Like Snoopy, Luffy is something of a holy fool. (You might also say court jester, but you really can’t be both pirate king and pirate court jester.) At first glance, Luffy appears to be more beach bum than wannabe pirate king. His laid-back attitude and obsession with food only strengthen that impression. As the saying goes, looks can be deceiving. Luffy intentionally chooses to live outside both pirate and conventional societies. Because he doesn’t conform to expected behavior, people are quick to brand him a buffoon. However, over the course of the series, we see there’s more to Luffy than a straw hat, bravado, and an endless appetite.
Our first glimpse into the depth of Luffy’s character is during his fight with Arlong in volume 11. He explains how much he values and is indebted to each member of his crew. He knows that he can’t be the pirate king without them. Luffy see their interdependence as fundamental to the community among all the crew members. Everyone in the manga, and I’m sure a majority of the audience, does a double take when Luffy gets suddenly philosophical. It also makes you want to know him that much more.
We get a better understanding of the scope of Luffy’s thoughts in volume 17. Luffy’s opponent, Wapol, is trying to destroy the pirate flag that Chopper flies both in memory of his mentor and as a statement of his own personal beliefs. Luffy tells Wapol that he doesn’t under the meaning of the Jolly Roger. Luffy’s decision to be a pirate is not a youthful whim. His vision of the pirate life isn’t the prevailing notion, either. Luffy says the Jolly Roger represents life itself, and being a pirate is an affirmation of that principle. To be a pirate is a holy calling for Luffy. You don’t make that decision without understanding all the implications and a willingness to commit yourself without abandon to that life. Luffy is only a fool to those that can’t look beyond the surface of people.
It only took Oda three years to find the proper formula that transformed One Piece into a best-selling manga series. By contrast, Schultz took about 15 years to create the Peanuts we all know and love today. Like Schultz, Oda hasn’t stopped adding new elements and characters to his creation. One Piece continues to evolve and mature with each new chapter. This commitment to constant innovation and improvement is why One Piece sold over 34 million books in the past 12 months.
I know that a sixty-volume manga series is an intimidating stack of books to add to your reading list. But don’t start with the first book. Start with volume 16, and by the end of the Alabaster story arc (volume 23), you’ll know if One Piece has captured your heart. If you decide to continue with the series, you can read through the first 15 volumes once you’ve caught up with the current story arc and are waiting for the next volume to be released. For those who love the series, sixty volumes means that you will get to spend a lot of quality time with good friends, the same way Peanuts fans take comfort that they have 50 years of comic strips to read and re-read, savoring every one and wishing there was more. I will continue my voyages with Luffy and the Straw Hat crew, thankful for each new volume and my time with them.