Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Building & Demolition... One Piece at a Time

The One Piece Manga Moveable Feast recently passed, and likewise, I passed up the opportunity to comment on the series as well. I couldn't think of anything to add about the series that hadn't already been said multiple times by multiple people. They all came from the same consensus - it took a while before the series began to become appreciated for its innovation and genius. For some people, they were able to easily jump into the series without much prompting. For others, it was more of an uphill struggle.

I have to admit that I wasn't a big fan of One Piece at first. It wasn't the cartoony expressions - I'm used to that. I used to "read" various French children's comics with big noses. What I had trouble with was threefold.

1. Unlike DragonBall, which was easy enough to understand just by looking at the pictures alone, a lot of One Piece is expressed by what the characters say. More than that, a lot of the humour comes from how the characters react around each other.
2. Most of the first volumes takes a long time to show things happening. There are multiple pages of characters yelling their beliefs, and I began to find it increasingly tiresome. If it makes it any easier, Oda originally wanted to draw out the beginning even longer, but the Shonen Jump editor wisely told him to speed things up so they'd at least start the adventure on the 100th chapter.
The increasingly seriousness of the fights. This may sound strange, considering it's a humourous series, but let me explain. The first villain fight that I really liked was Luffy's fight with Buggy the Clown. After that, it was Captain Kuro (sometimes translated as Captain Crow) who was a cool calculator. Then the One-Man army, Don Kreig, then the Shark-Fisherman, Arlong... For a long time, I was waiting for the fights to be fun again. It wasn't until the fight with Foxy that I began to like it again - and he didn't show up until past the 300th chapter!

There's one other factor that's been covered about One Piece, and that's Oda's creative world building. I'd like to take the opposite tact, and say that just as much as he likes creating unique countires, he also goes out of his way to destroying them as well.

When it comes to landscapes and architecture, Oda has the remarkable feat of killing his babies. He's not afraid to show the damages to beloved inanimate backgrounds, and even went so far as to make the beloved Merry Go inoperable due to all the rough travels it went through.

It wasn't until the Water Seven arc that I began to understand where this mentality came from. Japan routinely suffers from earthquakes and tsunamis, and that's reflected in their culture. They have a tendency to rebuild themselves from the ruins multiple times. Things may have gotten better now, but its that ability to bounce back no matter what that's likely stayed in the Manga medium.

When buildings get destroyed in S-hero comics, it's usually no big deal. We never consider the lives of citizens living in them, since they're not part of the story. Likewise, if the Baxter Building or the X-Mansion gets burnt in the crossfire, we don't care; it'll be mysteriously repaired later on. In the world of One Piece, it's different. We've seen these people living in the village, and therefore, care when their world is in danger of being destroyed. It's one of the lessons that Jeff Smith wrote about in drawing Bone - make the audience care about the village people, and they'll be affected when they want to protect themselves.

Wherever Luffy goes, he runs the risk of not just defeating the Big Bad of that country, but also destroying every major monument in the process. So when he wound up on Amazon Lily and saw the tyrant Queen's forbidden backside, I thought for sure the island was going to be reduced to a smoldering crater. So it was a pleasant surprise when the damage turned out to be minimal in comparision. In effect, the battle only ended after the fight with the Queen's sisters, without the need for the Queen to be defeated. Instead, she was impressed with his compassion to help him with his personal request.

In fact, everything starting from their arrival at Sabaody Archipelago (chapter 500) was a total subversion of the usual formula of island hopping. It is at that point that the sheer inventiveness of One Piece really begins to shine. It is with great thanks to Viz that they've sped up the One Piece releases up to that point where it'll be truly appreciated by an American audience.  So far, it's currently at the crux of the war between the Whitebeard Pirates against the World Government.

While most Shonen series have one-on-one fights to make it easier to stage fight scenes, Oda goes one better and has multiple pirates fighting against multiple marines in various combinations. One fight can just as easily switch to another if the situation warrants it, and on an unpredictable battlefield, anything truly goes.

You'd think it wouldn't be possible for so many players to have their moment in the sun without hogging the spotlight and making it look confusing, but somehow Oda manages to make it work. Even more impressive is that while showing multiple fights with multiple opponents with unique abilities, (many of who we never saw before), was done with continuous two-page spreads. Imagine the 75th issue of Fables' war against the Adversary multiplied by 100, and it still wouldn't come close to how awesome the One Piece war is. WhiteBeard's Quake-Quake ability makes Samuel from the 4th season of Heroes look tame in comparison.

One thing that I was amazed at in DragonBall was how the damage to the fighters and the battlefield would be consistent throughout the pages. If somebody's cheek was cut, it would stay cut. If a tile on the floor broke, it would stay broken. Oda's certainly taken the DragonBall influence to heart in the architecture. The people, not so much, since they're perpetual Timex machines. Up until the war, the only deaths that happened were in flashbacks when members of Luffy's crew had their tragic pasts revealed. It may sound a bit hyperbolic, but after this war, things will never quite be the same again... while feeling exactly the same later on. I don't want to spoil things too much for those who haven't read the current chapters, but rest assured; things will get worse before they get better.

The people at Marvel & DC should check out the latest One Piece storyline in the American Shonen Jump to get a better idea of how an epic storyline can be done right without degenerating into event fatigue. Sadly, chances are that they'll ignore the competition and focus on their already rapidly dwindling audience. For those of you getting sick of the current state of the American S-hero comic market, One Piece could be your cure. The length and intimidation factor is high, but the payoff is worth it for those willing to stick it out. You likely entered the S-hero world by grabbing a random issue and liking what you read enough to fill in the blanks later. You've supported your favorite S-hero characters for years through inane storylines and numerous price hikes. Isn't there any room for one more?

"Every act of creation is first an act of destruction. " Pablo Picasso.

EDIT - I added another update at the end of this relevant post. It appears destruction of private property follows the Straw Hat crew like little lost puppy shadows.


  1. It's actually only at the half-way point of the story; there are years of realistic destruction and violence ahead.

  2. Please. If by "realistic", you mean being able to continue to stand up even while every bone in your body is shattered, but you can still continue to fight because you're holding your blood cells together out of sheer will, while fighting enemies who can shapeshift their form to any animal, vegtable or mineral in existence. Considering the amount of damage Usopp goes through, it's amazing he hasn't gone the way of the Merry Go yet. And he's the weakest member of the Straw Hat crew. In fact, Oda said that Usopp would ALWAYS be the weakest, which means he's below Nami in terms of power.

    Which is another aspect that Oda does well. While other Shonen Mangas tend to focus on the stronger protagonists while overlooking the weaker ones who remain on the sidelines, reduced to being cheerleaders with commentary, the weaker members of Luffy's crew don't shy from joining the fight against opponents they know they stand no chance against. The thrill of a fight ISN'T proving that you're stronger than somebody else, but doing your best against someone who's CLEARLY stronger than you. If you can manage to overcome that hurdle, then you can rise up to any challenges that come up in the future.

    Furthermore, claiming that One Piece is currently at the halfway point is laughable. Oda's routinely said that he was at the halfway point from every major story since the Skypia arc ended - around chapter 300! And he's already passed the 600 chapter point two months ago. His mantra's now entered a kind of Zeno's Paradox zone where the closer he reaches his goal, the further away it becomes.

    Not that I'm complaining, mind you. It'll just give him more chances to display the kind of imaginative quality that I haven't seen in a long time.

  3. Nice piece. I hadn't ever thought about the destruction to architecture in One Piece that way before, it really is magnificent. I'm with you in hoping American comics take a leaf from Oda's book when it comes to epicness.