One Piece Vol. 1: Romance Dawn (VIZ Media)

As part of this month’s Manga Movable Feast, Comics Editor Jason Green checks out the first volume of the simple pirate story that became one of the best selling comics in the world.

210 pgs. B&W; $7.95
(W / A: Eiichiro Oda)
It’s time once again for the Manga Movable Feast, a monthly event that seeks to foster a sense of community among manga bloggers, critics, and fans by encouraging reviews and in-depth analysis of a different manga title each month. This time out, the manga community turns its collective eyes to One Piece, arguably the bestselling comic book in the world. (Click here for an introduction to the series by The Manga Curmudgeon’s David Welsh, and click here for a collection of other links from the One Piece MMF.)
It’s almost impossible to exaggerate just how staggeringly popular One Piece is in Japan. Over 200 million One Piece books have been printed, enough for every man, woman, and child in Japan to own a volume one-and-a-half times over. The series as a whole sold a preposterous 32 million copies in 2010 alone, with the five volumes released within the year selling in the neighborhood of 2.5 million books apiece to nab the top 5 spots on the 2010 bestsellers list. In November, the month after the bestselling American comic book didn’t even break 100,000 in sales, One Piece Vol. 60 sold 2 million copies. In four days. The series’ popularity is somewhat more muted in America: its animated version failed to gain traction on Saturday mornings (the conventional wisdom blamed this on its egregiously awful English dub), and while its manga counterpart consistently makes the New York Times Manga Best Seller List, it’s generally a few notches below its more popular Shonen Jump neighbor, Naruto.
Romance Dawn, the first volume in the One Piece series, barely hints at the epic story that is to come. In the extra-length first chapter, we meet our hero Monkey D. Luffy, a small child in a quaint seaside town desperate to become a pirate, and his inspiration “Red-Haired” Shanks, a pirate captain with a heart of ill-gotten gold. Luffy gains fantastical new powers (his body can stretch like rubber, thanks to the magical Gum-Gum Fruit he accidentally eats) and learns a lesson thanks to a sacrifice by Shanks (who loses an arm rescuing Luffy from mountain bandits and a sea serpent that looks suspiciously like the alligator from Walt Disney’s Peter Pan). Flash forward 10 years and Luffy is now ready to set sail, wearing Shanks’ trademark straw hat as he pushes his tiny little rowboat out to sea. If Luffy ever hopes to find Gold Roger’s mythical long lost treasure “One Piece” and gain the title of “King of the Pirates,” he’s going to need a crew, and the rest of this first volume consists of Luffy’s first steps in getting that crew together, staring first with Koby, a Milhouse-esque cabin boy with dreams of becoming a Marine, and Roronoa Zoro, a fearsome pirate-hating bounty hunter who might just be the best swordsman in the world.
For the juggernaut that it eventually became, One Piece’s first volume isn’t a particularly auspicious debut, if only because on the surface it doesn’t seem like anything that hasn’t been done a million times over already. The shonen manga world is overflowing with plucky young good-hearted heroes with fantastic new powers on quests for magical MacGuffins with the help of a slowly-introduced and ever-expanding cast of friends, after all. Been there, done that.
But what surprised me about Romance Dawn was how much it reminded me of another staggeringly popular boy’s adventure series that launched (like One Piece) in 1997, with a first volume that screamed “been there, done that”: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I couldn’t even get through Sorcerer’s Stone the first time I tried to read it: J.K. Rowling seemed to be aping so thoroughly from Roald Dahl (one of my childhood favorites) that I couldn’t look past it, and her fantasy world seemed boring compared to the novels by the likes of Lloyd Alexander and Roger Zelazny that I had cut my teeth on. But years later, after seeing four or so of the Harry Potter films, I reread Sorcerer’s Stone knowing that “it gets better,” and this time, I got it. I could still see the formulaic elements, sure, but I could also see the potential in the story, I could see how she was subtly building the themes of friendship and death and prejudice in the guise of a children’s book that she could more thoroughly dig into as her audience grew along with her hero.
And I saw that same potential in One Piece Vol. 1. Sure, I could see all the parallels between One Piece and Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball, and sure, the pirate-themed shenanigans often left me reminiscing for the glory days of The Pirates of Dark Water. But knowing the series reputation, knowing that “it gets better,” I was able to look past those shortcomings and get to what the book did well, starting first and foremost with the characters. Luffy makes for an appealing hero: he’s good-natured, naïve, trustworthy to a fault, and unfailingly loyal to anyone who earns his friendship, all of which is captured wonderfully by Oda, who illustrates the loose-limbed hero with the wide grin of a mischievous chimpanzee. The villains are delightfully absurd, from the swarthy mountain bandit Haguma the Bear to Captain Morgan (a brutal Marine captain with a metal jaw—shades of Trap-Jaw from Masters of the Universe—and an axe as big as he is in place of a right hand) to Helmeppo, Captain Morgan’s sniveling, flamboyant son.
But it’s the grizzled, ever-surly Zoro that sums up the theme of friendship that (I’m assured) runs at the heart of the rest of the series. Zoro is one tough customer, a guy who ostensibly hates pirates and everything they stand for. And yet the wholesomeness of Luffy’s heart and his willingness to endanger himself to save Zoro’s life eventually win over the bounty hunter’s hardened heart. As yet another future crew member arrives in the volume’s closing pages, I started to think that I just might want to read more adventures of Luffy and his motley crew. Did Romance Dawn make me ready to read the other 12,000 pages of the still ongoing story? Well, not quite…but it’s a good start. | Jason Green
Click here for a collection of other links from the One Piece Manga Movable Feast.



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