In 1997, Eichiro Oda published the first chapter of One Piece in the Japanese weekly manga magazine Shonen Jump, introducing the world to Luffy, a teenager who couldn’t swim, who harbored dreams of being the pirate king.
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Two decades later, the manga has sold over 400 million copies, cementing its status as the most popular manga of all time, and the third most popular comic (and if trends continue, Luffy is poised to vault over much older heroes Batman and Superman).
It’s much more than a manga these days: there’s anime adaptation with more than 800 episodes,a dozen films, and even trading card games. But the manga is where it all started—which is why, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, we’re launching a readalong that will plow through all 80-plus volumes to-date, with an aim to finish up sometime around the official aniversarry date on July 19, 2017. Whether your a longtime member of Luffy’s pirate crew or diving in for the first time, it’s going to be a blast.
We’re basing this readalong on the Viz Media English language omnibus editions, which collect three volumes each—what I like to call the “One Piece Extreme Maximum Experience.” Depending on your manga literacy, you may be able to read the whole omnibus at once, as they can go pretty quickly once you’ve mastered reading right-to-left. If you’re still getting used to manga (whether the reading direction or art style), reading one volume at a time might be more approachable. Take your time! We’ll be here when you finish.
One Piece is a rich experience. Each chapter is rich in visual detail and plot incident, and Eichiro Oda loves to revisit a seemingly minor detail a few hundred chapters later to reveal unforeseen significance—which is why it’s so rewarding to reread. Join us, and prepare to ugly cry over pet food, hats, armbands, wood, and giant whales.
Side Segment Introduction: Devil Fruit Alert!
Many characters in One Piece have superpowers, gained by eating mysterious “Devil Fruits.” Each Devil Fruit tastes terrible, but after it’s consumed, it will grant the diner nigh-magical abilities, with the downside that they’ll lose the ability to swim forever. (Not great for a pirate.)
The source of Devil Fruits and their history is part of the overarching mystery of the series. Because they’re so rare, they’re very expensive. To begin the series, it helps to know the three basic types of Devil Fruit:
- Paramecia, which grants superhuman physical abilities
- Zoan, which allows people to turn into a specific animal and have associated abilities
- Logia, which allows people to turn into elements, making them intangible
As new Devil Fruits and Devil Fruit users appear, we’ll note them, to help readers keep track of the fruits and the people who wield their power.
Volumes 1-3 Overview
Monkey D. Luffy leaves his home and sets out on an adventure to fulfill his dream of becoming the pirate king, and to keep a promise he made 10 years earlier to a trusted friend. As he sets out across the waters of the East Blue, he meets his first enemies, ranging from government officials, to pirates, to spoiled brats. He also makes a lifelong friend or two, and signs up his first crew members. He also punches quite a few people directly in the face.
Our Adventure Begins…
We begin Luffy’s story, oddly enough, with the beheading of infamous pirate Gold Roger. Before he’s executed, he challenges the world to find his legendary treasure, One Piece, which kicks off a massive era of piracy.
We slide back in time a year or so and meet a young Luffy, the pirate captain Red-Haired Shanks, and his crew in a pub. They’re taunted by local bandits, who insult and attack Shanks, leaving Luffy furious; he looks up to Shanks and can’t believe he would let himself be treated so horribly without retribution. As Luffy attempts to storm off, Shanks holds him back, and his arm stretches like rubber! It seems Luffy has eaten the Gum Gum Fruit!
Devil Fruit Alert!
Shanks and his crew stole the Gum Gum Fruit from another pirate crew before stopping at Luffy’s village. Little did they know Luffy was going to eat the whole thing for dessert, turning his body into rubber (lesson learned: never leave your Devil Fruits unattended).
The Gum Gum Fruit allows Luffy to stretch and distort his body, rendering him impervious to most physical attacks, but it also means he can never learn to swim.
Our first Devil Fruit user: Monkey D. Luffy, Rubber Man.
That’s not the last time we hear from these bandits. After Luffy insults them for making fun of Shanks, he gets kidnapped, and the chapter ends on a dramatic and violent note, shaded by true friendship between Luffy and Shanks. As Shanks leaves, Luffy swears he’ll become a pirate one day, and Shanks gifts Luffy with his straw hat. This moment is sweet, but also extremely important to Luffy’s dreams and the saga as a whole. Shanks will be referenced quite often, and is definitely a character of note.
After a 10-year time skip, we rejoin Luffy as he’s heading out to start his journey to fulfill his dream of becoming the pirate king. His adventures start rather auspiciously, as he barely survives a whirlpool and runs afoul of his first pirate. But he also manages to make his first friend, Koby, the abused cabin boy of a cruel pirate. Koby’s dream is to become a member of the Navy. Luckily, there’s a Navy base nearby!
Koby reveals to Luffy that the Navy base is also the location of Roronoa Zolo, pirate hunter. Luffy decides he sounds handy and wants to ask him to be part of his crew, but unfortunately, Zolo is being held captive by the ruthless and narcissistic Captain Morgan.
The Naval base adventure is where we first get to see Luffy in action for a longer battle as he teams up with Zolo to defeat Captain Morgan, who has been abusing his position and levying unfair taxes on his citizens, leaving them in poverty. The government corruption on display in these chapters is understated due to the wild antics of our heroes, but no less horrific. It’s simply that most of the terrible parts are contained in negative spaces and readers have to infer quite a bit from the details Oda provides.
Captain Morgan has a giant axe hand and a giant ego to match, and his son, Helmeppo, is a whiny brat. Luckily, Luffy is here to save the day, because nothing gets in the way of his dream of becoming the pirate king and building an awesome crew, not even a power mad Navy captain.
This is also where we encounter our first flashback, reveal complicated or tragic backstories of the people Luffy meets (general manga hint: if the border around the panels is black, it’s a flashback). Flashbacks are a common feature of shonen manga, and Oda uses them to maximum effect, generally to jab your heart as hard as possible. A piece of Zolo’s past is revealed to us, and back in the present it becomes clear why he eventually chooses to become the very first member of Luffy’s crew: Zolo’s dream is to become the greatest swordsman in the world because of a promise made to a childhood friend. By this point, it should be obvious that Luffy cares deeply about not just his dream, but the dreams of everyone else, and he gets annoyed when people are apathetic or too scared to strive for their goals. The fact that Zolo has a dream that rivals Luffy’s in scope makes them a perfect, and terrifying, match.
Zolo uses three swords, one of which he holds in his mouth…and he can still talk, somehow. (One Piece requires pretty epic suspension of disbelief, but this one is okay, because Zolo is fantastic.) Pay attention, starting now, to how Zolo uses his black bandana.
After restoring the Navy base to law and order, Luffy says goodbye to Koby, who remains to join the Navy, fulfilling his dream. Although they’re now technically enemies, we’ll soon learn that Luffy doesn’t handle traditional social groups like anyone we’ve ever met. Zolo and Luffy head back out to sea…
…but they don’t take any food.
Desperately hungry, they try to figure out what to eat. When Luffy spots a bird in the air, he launches himself up to capture it, but it’s a bit larger than he anticipated. He gets carried off in the bird’s mouth, leaving Zolo to frantically paddle after him. Zolo accidentally encounters three freshly robbed pirates who are bobbing in the sea, and after he convinces them they don’t want to pick on him (with his fists), together they row in the direction Luffy was last seen.
If you’re keeping count, this is the second Unfortunate Incident Luffy has experienced at sea since leaving home. He can’t swim, navigate, plan a voyage…you’d start to think, wow, this kid is dumb. But is he? If you could hear me now, I would laugh maniacally and then trail off without explaining myself…so imagine that before moving on to the next paragraph.
On an island, an unnamed girl is running away from another group of pirates, carrying a stolen map, when Luffy drops in on them (literally). Seeing a prime escape opportunity, the girl labels Luffy as her boss and skedaddles, leaving Luffy to take the fall for her thievery. When the pirates attack Luffy and knock his hat off his head, it’s on. This is another moment to note: the deference with which Luffy treats his hat is a piece of mostly silent world building; the hat represents his friendship with Shanks, their trust and affection, and his promise to become the pirate king. Because the pirates mess with his hat, Luffy wipes the floor with them. The mystery thief suddenly appears again, impressed, and offers to team up with him to rob pirates.
Her name is Nami, and she’s earning money to buy a village. She stolen the map to the Grand Line—that’s where pirates go to prove themselves and grow rich. She’s convinced robbing the pirates there will be extremely profitable. Her hatred of pirates is deep and vicious, and once she figures out that Luffy’s a pirate, she’s immediately put off. It only grows worse when Luffy invites her to be his navigator. She’s strategic, which doesn’t bode well for Luffy, because the pirates in the village still have lots of treasure, and Nami wants it.
Her solution? Sneak into the pirate crew using a hogtied Luffy as a trick, get everyone super drunk, and then make off with their treasure. This is the first time we meet the pirate Nami stole from, Buggy the Clown, and yes, he has a big red nose. But he’s very sensitive about it, so don’t say anything. Although Nami’s plan almost succeeds, she fails to account for the brutality of Buggy and his crew, and when he challenges her to kill Luffy, she falters. Nami is many things, but “murderer” isn’t one of them.
Luckily, Zolo finally arrives and saves the day (he saves the day a lot and it’s pretty dreamy). Although Zolo is an excellent swordsman, he’s no match for Buggy, who, unbeknownst to him, is also a Devil Fruit user. He stabs Zolo with a floating hand!
Devil Fruit Alert!
The Chop Chop Fruit gives the user the power to section their body into pieces, which allows Buggy to split apart and use his individual part independently of one another. Of course, the ability comes with one downside: multi-tasking is tough, and when you spread your body across a wide range of space, you might get a nasty surprise…
Our next Devil Fruit user: Buggy the Clown, chop chop man.
Using quick thinking, the trio escape Buggy and his pirates. Unfortunately, Zolo is extremely hurt and Luffy is trapped in an iron cage. While assessing their situation, they meet a lone dog, guarding a pet food store, and then the mayor of the village Buggy has attacked. The mayor, Boodle, helps Zolo find a place to rest, then tells Nami and Luffy all about the dog, whose owner died and who has been protecting the store for months. This is another one of Oda’s heart wrenching backstory tricks. It’s super effective, unless you’re dead inside, when one of Buggy’s crew members and his giant lion come, attack Luffy, beat up the dog, and set the pet store on fire.
(Who beats up a dog? ONLY VILLAINS.)
Luffy’s reaction is quick and merciless. I have the benefit of multiple rereads of One Piece, deep into the series, and I know a lot about Luffy and his development. But seeing this early version of him immediately come to the defense of the dog, and then very quickly, the mayor of the town, is pretty heartwarming. It cements his character very early as one of good faith and honor. One of the best things about One Piece is its heart, and Luffy is most certainly a huge part of that.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Luffy and Zolo challenge Buggy and his crew to a battle to stand up for the village, even though Zolo is still injured. This battle is one of the first to expand over multiple volumes; these conflicts are not only fights between strong opponents, but snapshots of our heroes deciding what type of people and fighters they are and where their moral centers lie, making choices that will change who they are.
Hard truth: my least favorite part of One Piece is how Oda can stretch out a fight out until you’re dragging yourself through the pages, begging for it to end. Of all the issues I have with the manga, this is a very small one, but you can treat this first big boss battle with Buggy as a measuring stick: were you bored at all? Because the battles don’t get shorter. Luckily, the art style is such that important moments in a fight are often obvious. I hereby give you permission to skim as many battles as required to stay invested in the larger story.
After Zolo effectively discards one of Buggy’s crew members, the final battle begins. In the midst of Luffy and Buggy’s fight, Buggy makes a surprising revelation, and we’re treated to the backstory about how Buggy acquired his powers by eating the Chop Chop Fruit. He also reveals that he used to crew on a ship with someone Luffy knows. The hows and whys are better discovered via a close reading of the manga. But it is funny, and Buggy is ridiculous, so don’t miss out. Luffy and Buggy’s battle itself is comical and neat, and full of fart-joke level humor I liked at 12, and also three days ago.
After the battle ends, the trio has to book it out of town, because the villagers mistake them for the dog-kicking pirates who punched the mayor. Well, Luffy did punch the mayor, but only to keep him from rushing into a battle in which he would’ve been killed. Thankfully, the mayor manages to make it to the harbor to say goodbye. A common theme for Luffy is how he makes allies and friends, and the way he leaves them: it’s a nice thread to watch for.
There’s a small side story in the last volume about a man trapped on an island that doesn’t seem very relevant or important yet, but pay attention anyway. One Piece is a huge world, full of stuff. Oda is not kidding around with the worldbuilding; every single filler chapter that breaks from the main storyline will probably be important down the road. “What is this nonsense?” I used to ask, annoyed, when Oda derailed from Luffy’s main journey. Later, I would regret skimming when seemingly insignificant detail suddenly became relevant. Sometimes, worldbuilding is just worldbuilding, but with Oda, worldbuilding could be the axle the plot turns on in a few hundred chapters. It helps to pay attention! Then you’ll at least know where to go back to for a refresher (and you will probably need refreshers).
The last part of this collected volume introduces us to a new village that Luffy and his friends visit, meeting several new characters: Usopp, a boy with sharpshooting skills, whose father is a pirate, and his young friends. Usopp is a bit arrogant and naive, but has a good heart. He’s also a bit of a trickster, and he often trolls the village by pretending pirates are coming. He’s basically a smart, bored kid with too much time on his hands.
Yeah, you might see where this is going.
Usopp has a friend named Kaya, who is ill. She has a butler named Klahadore who has cared for her since her parents died. Kaya is gentle and sweet-natured and loves Usopp’s fantastical stories. Of course, Klahadore doesn’t like Usopp at all, and insults his father when he discovers Usopp visiting Kaya one day, leading to a fight. Usopp refuses to back down because he’s never going to be ashamed of his father. He storms off, leaving Kaya upset and Klahadore feeling righteous.
Later, when Luffy finds Usopp at the coast, they overhear a strange conversation between a pair of pirates on the beach planning to murder Kaya! They’re discovered when Luffy openly challenges their plans. Before Luffy and Usopp can escape, one of the men hypnotizes Luffy, leaving him unconscious on the beach. That leaves only Usopp with the truth of what he knows about the plot to kill Kaya and steal her inheritance…after all his previous lies about pirates.
One Piece’s world is already large, and we’re only three volumes into the narrative. In the first omnibus volume, we meet over 10 characters, many who will be back later. Luffy makes several friends, adds one new crew member, Zolo, and one grudging partner who hates pirates, Nami. He’s filled his first mate and navigator positions, and he’s managed to beat up two whole pirates and stop their reign of terror.
This was one of my main points of bemusement going into One Piece: I thought Luffy and his friends were pirates, not heroes, because it’s seems very weird that they’ve only really managed to do good deeds so far, even if they have caused a ton of property damage in the process. If you’ve had the same thought: you’re right. It’s an interesting development, isn’t it? This question becomes more and more relevant the deeper you go into the series…and there are answers to be had. But you’ve got to keeping reading for that.
We’ll be diving into the second omnibus, which includes Volumes 4, 5, and 6, and features the dramatic ending to Usopp’s story. I hope you’ll join us as Luffy and crew continue on their adventures.