There's no other word for it -- Eiichiro Oda's adventure series One Piece is absolutely epic. Today I take a look at the beginning of the "Skypiea" arc, which actually wasn't a difficult place to jump back on board the title (I have previously read the first 14 volumes of the series) once the action started.
Viz is currently launching an all out One Piece offensive on the American public. By June, the biggest manga publisher in the U.S. will have released 30 volumes in 2010, along with a new omnibus-format for the first 12 volumes (my verdict: these are a great deal at 3 volumes for $14.99, although the paper is rather thin and newsprint-like. However, that also means the volumes are quite compact, which is important if shelf-space is prime real estate in your house as it is in mine).
Although it has taken repeated exposure to the franchise, by the time our intrepid crew burst into Skypiea I knew I was finally hooked on the title. In these volumes the pirate crew of the Going Merry discovers a map to an island in the sky when an old galleon ship practically lands on their heads. Now, even though the manga is about a group of pirates, the truth is that it isn't love of gold that spurs the characters to literally risk life and limb to catch a strange wave ("The Knock Up Stream") that can take them to the island in the sky, i.e. "Skypiea." It is only the love of adventure that could motivate all of these characters to travel to what amounts to another world
where anything that could be imagined -- and many things that couldn't -- awaits them. Sure, their navigator Nami can't get enough of money -- her eyes even change to currency signs when the possibility of big pirate's booty is mentioned -- but these are pirates with big dreams. I loved the moment when the gruff, almost entirely beaten-down man, who has just given the crew the push they need to reach Skypeia, tells Luffy, the shonen hero, "People may laugh and say they're silly legends [i.e. Skypeia and El Dorado, a city of gold]...well, let them laugh! That's what makes it a great adventure!" In that moment he and Luffy really are heroes and not because they want to get stronger, or have something to protect. It is because they exhibit the most basic quality of the shonen hero -- they have the capacity to dream.
"Ship of fools" may be an accurate description of this group as a whole, but I found the characters incredibly endearing. Luffy, our hero, may have the IQ of the rubber that his body emulates (his one real super-power is his ability to stretch), but he is the right kind of hero-fool, the one who will never say die. Amusingly, while everyone is screeching their damn head off in
moments of danger, new crew member Nico Robin smiles like Mona Lisa and makes useful suggestions. I like her very much already. And she's a scholar! That grad student in me is charmed by her devotion to the historical record and her insistence that people's stories from the past be protected at all costs. Even at the cost of her own life. Then there's Tony Tony Chopper, the strange reindeer doctor (yeah, I really should go back and figure out how this guy joined the crew), who gets his moment to shine in volume 28. Chopper is usually used as comic relief so it was rather touching when you watch him steel himself and say that it is time for him to hoist the pirate flag, i.e. to get in the game, and become someone his comrades can depend on.
And this is just the main crew -- there are dozens of new original characters wandering around, each with their own back story, habits and perspectives. Some are ridiculous, some are heart-warming and some are downright terrifying. The majority of this arc finds the crew at odds with almost everyone on Skypiea and they are basically deemed criminals from the very instant they enter this new world. Every crew member is eventually forced to face a veritable demon in their opponent and it is rather nerve-wracking waiting to see what terrible skill the next baddie up on deck will pull out of his repertoire. Oda has peopled his world with flair and fun and there's always some character to draw you into a scene and help you situate yourself in spite of the frequent, almost dizzyingly fast, changes in setting.
For me, sinking into to the world of One Piece is about learning to read comics in an entirely new way. I've really come into man
ga through the shojo gateway and much of the shojo I've read kind of encourages you to glide through the story, with its soft-focus perspective and panels which flow into the next one quite fluidly. One Piece is much more grounded in its setting than I'm generally used to. Significantly, every panel is packed with visual information. Characters are often having a conversation in the foreground, while in the background there can be an entire town going about its business or just other characters doing their thing. I had to force myself to slow down and really take in every panel for visual cues, which is often where the story was actually taking place (and not necessarily conveyed through dialogue). After two volumes this started to become an easier read for me and I was able to pick up information much more quickly -- particularly in the fight scenes, which are so dynamic and energetic you have to really pay close attention to figure out who is clobbering who but good.
Oda has a knock for populating his universe with interesting people and places and his heroes never lack for conflict or a destination. It is both a huge draw and a bit of a downside to the series because it feels as though the adventure may never end. There's strong incentive for me to keep reading as the story seems to get more and more involving over time, but that also means there is often a sense that these charming adventurers may be a bit rudderless in spite of their big dreams. For now, I'm on board the One Piece ship and looking forward to finding out where these characters can possibly go after kicking ass on an island in the sky. The best part is I have complete faith in Oda to find something equally insane and unique to occupy his heroes once they return to earth.
Review copies of volumes 25-28 provided by publisher.