Pirates = Fat viking women and clowns.
Looking back at some of the earlier arcs in One Piece is kind of a surreal experience, mostly because of how vastly different the series is now compared to how it started out in the late 90's. When I started this retrospective, I had been reading some of the bigger and more recent arcs of One Piece like the Dressrosa arc, which took up 10 volumes, and the Water Seven saga, which took up a dozen volumes. I'm used to extremely long and drawn out action stories from One Piece, so to go back to stories that could have been concluded in a volume or two is kind of bizarre to me. It's even more crazy when you realize in the first volume alone, we wrap up Romance Dawn, and two mini arcs before even getting to Orange Town, the first official story arc of the manga.
Eiichiro Oda originally planned for One Piece to be about 12 volumes to tell its complete story, and with the pace of the first three volumes, it's fairly easy to believe that. Characterization is minimal, and the focus is more on introducing our characters to strange new enemies and explaining how the world works. So for the sake of my own sanity, we're going to cover what is essentially everything up until the Orange Town arc, and for the foreseeable future, entries like these are going to be short. Trust me, once we reach large arcs like Alabasta, you'll savor these shorter arcs.
Following Romance Dawn and Luffy's departure from his town, Luffy falls into a whirlpool and drowns.
Well actually, he hides himself in a barrel so he doesn't drown from his Devil Fruit powers, but is accidentally take aboard the ship of the dread pirate Alvida, a fat viking woman with a giant mace that is damned set she is the most beautiful person in the world. She has a cabin boy named Koby that is so scrawny and weak willed that he's been pretty much a slave to her for two years because he's been too damned scared to talk back to her. Koby also wound up on her ship because he thought he was getting onto a fishing boat, so Koby isn't exactly the smartest kid in the world.
Needless to say, Koby finds the barrel that Luffy hid himself in and pops out of it only to discover he's now on Alvida's ship. When Alvida realizes that there's an intruder on her ship, she instantly assumes it's Roronoa Zolo, a bounty hunter in the area. When she finds out that it's just Luffy and that Koby let him out, Alvida declares Koby a traitor unless he says that Alvida is the smartest and most beautiful person in the world. Koby's about to do it, but Luffy is able to tell Koby he should stand up for himself and his dream, mainly to become an officer in the Navy. Koby tells Alvida to screw off, Alvida attempts to smash his head in with a mace, and Luffy punches her across the ocean to God only knows where. Koby and Luffy get a dingy from Alvida's crew, and they both set sail for the nearest Naval island so Koby can go enlist.
Yeah, do you see what I mean about most of the early arcs being barebones with very little details. Most arcs are simple little affairs that end just as quickly as they start. That's fine for some series, but in One Piece. you can't help but feel that there was supposed to be more story in these earlier arcs. I'm happy that each chapter for the most part is self contained, but the downside is that any momentum that a story has is killed when stories are ended so quickly.
Anyway, Koby and Luffy set sail for the nearest naval island, where they find that the town seems pretty peaceful. Pirates aren't around and the Navy seems to be keeping things under control. Once Luffy finds out the Zolo the bounty hunter is on the island, he tells Koby that he wants to recruit Zolo. Just mentioning his name though has everyone in the town freak out and panic. Yeah, saying the name of an infamous bounty hunter that's imprisoned on your island isn't exactly the best thing to do, let alone say you want to team up with him. Luffy's kind of an idiot like that. What's stranger though is that when Koby says he wants to work under Captain Morgan, the head of the Navy branch on the island, everyone panics worse than when Luffy mentioned Zolo. Strange...
Anywho, Luffy and Koby go tot he island's Naval base, but instead of entering it for Koby to apply, Luffy looks at the prisoner's yard and sees Zolo strung up to a post motionless. Zolo is probably one of the coolest characters in the series due to his stone cold disposition juxtaposing with his lack of common sense, but there was always a weird little tick in the earlier volumes of One Piece with him. You see, in the Japanese version of the anime and manga, he was called Roronoa ZORO, to homage the swordsman Zoro. In America though, he's called Zolo to distinguish himself from that very same reference so that it's not blatant, but you can still tell that Zoro was the inspiration for his name. What's bizarre though is that there are times in this arc where people will call him Zoro while others call him Zolo. Hell, Luffy flip-flips between those two names on a whim once they eventually reach Port Town. I don't know exactly why there such a weird inconsistency between the two names in the early volumes, but it thankfully ended by the next arc and his name was permanently confirmed as Zolo.
Luffy asks Zolo to join his crew, which Zolo declines. Pirates and pirate bounty hunters don't mix all that well. At that moment, the little girl that Zolo protected comes in with food for Zolo as a thank-you for rescuing her, but Helmeppo catches her and stomps the food into the dirt before having his men throw her out of the prison, laughing all the while. The girl leaves crying, but before Luffy and Koby leave, Zolo asks them to feed him the food that the girl brought, even though it was stomped into the ground. Koby gives Zolo the food, and Zolo requests that they find the little girl and tell her that it was delicious and that he ate every bite.
Luffy and Koby meet the girl, where she explains everything that happened to Zolo and how he protected her. Luffy says that he knew Zolo was a good guy and that he'll stick around until Zolo is free and ask him to join the crew then. Luffy overhears Helmeppo walking outside though, laughing that he's going to kill Zolo in three days and that he outright lied to Zolo to manipulate him. Luffy handles this well by cold-cocking Helmeppo in the face. Everyone in the towns flees at this, because Helmeppo screams that he's going to tell Captain Morgan that Luffy hit him. So since Luffy's a public enemy on the island now, he just goes off to break Zolo out of jail and have him join the crew.
So who is this evil and feared Captain Morgan that makes the whole town shake in fear and inspires terror into the hearts of man? Just some asshole with an huge ego. Yeah. The very first thing he says is that he's "the greatest" and that he can do whatever he wants because of it. You know Morgan, you're a captain in the Navy. CAPTAIN. You are not an admiral, you are not a vice admiral, you're not even a commodore. Factually, you are not the greatest, and even in comparison with the rest of the captains in the Navy, you don't have a Devil Fruit power. Hell, you're not even stationed in the Grand Line. You're in the East Blue, the tamest and weakest of the four man oceans. Get over yourself man. Oh, and he hits Helmeppo for being a weakling and tells Helmeppo to kill the little girl because she broke the law. There's being a villain, and then there's being an evil asshole. Morgan's an asshole, but just because he's so arrogant and prideful, but not in the interesting ways.
Luffy goes to the prison to tell Zolo of the deal, but his reaction is still "No". However, once he finds out that he's going to be executed, he agrees as long as Luffy can get his three swords back from Morgan. Luffy says sure, then uses his Gum-Gum powers to launch himself onto the roof... and damage Captain Morgan's statue of himself. Morgan immediately orders Luffy's execution, but after a long series of events where Luffy kidnaps Helmeppo to show where Zolo's swords are, Luffy gets back to the prison to give Zolo his swords right before Morgan tries to kill Zolo himself. Luffy and Zolo team up to fight Morgan, and Morgan goes down in one hit. Wuss.
Immediately afterwards, the entire town is celebrating Morgan's defeat and Zolo agrees to join Luffy's crew. As for Koby, he's about to try to join the Navy, but Zolo points out that if the Navy found out that he was with Alvida, let alone Luffy, then they'll deny him on the merits that he may be a spy for pirates. The Navy approaches Luffy, Zolo, and Koby and says that event hough they're thankful for beating Morgan, it's still pretty embarrsing that a pirate was able to beat a Naval captain, so they politely ask them to leave the island. Luffy and Zolo start to leave, but Koby outright denies that he was with Luffy. Luffy then hits Koby repeatedly to make the Naval officers think that they're not friends at all, allowing Koby to finally ask to join the Naval. No longer suspicious of him, the Navy accepts Koby as they all give Luffy and Zolo a salute as they sail away, off towards their next adventure.
Captain Morgan is a terrible villain, one dimensional at best, outright badly written at worst. As a closing for Koby, even though he barely stuck around for one volume, we still got the impression that he was a good kid with a good heart that truly believes in justice. But the real standout of this plot line is the Navy. The Navy will become one of the primary antagonists of the series, but here we not only see some try terrible people in positions of power, but that there are genuinely good people working in the Navy. Some people just want to do good in the world, and we see that underneath corruption, oppression, and questionable morals, normal sailors in the Navy still believe in law and order.
Once Luffy and Zolo have left, they continue to sail blindly until the most logical of things happen. A giant bird comes down and eats Luffy. So... that's a thing that happened. Luffy gets taken to a small town called Orange Town, which is the stronghold of the feared captain Buggy the Clown. Buggy's an interesting villain in that he's the most recurring villain in the series. We'll see him nearly half a dozen times as of this date, and each time he may be an ally or an enemy to Luffy. I wouldn't go so far to say that he's one of the best villains in the series, but he's definitely one of the most enjoyable, and the first character besides Luffy to have a Devil Fruit.
Yes, Buggy's ability is that of the Chop-Chop fruit, where he can separate his body at will and control them autonomously as long as his feet are on the ground. It's a cool little ability if only for the fact that we won't be seeing another Devil Fruit user for quite some time, four arcs from now to be specific. Plus Buggy has some fairly interesting history, but we'll get into that later.
Once Luffy gets taken to Orange Town, Zolo immediately tries to follow him, but instead gets ambushed by three lackeys of Buggy the Clown adrift at see. He promptly beats the life out of them, letting them live as long as they can take him to Orange Town. Along the way, the three tell him that they were sent adrift by a thief that stole their treasure, their boat, and left them in the middle of a storm. Luffy escapes from the bird and falls into Orange Town, only to fall in front of some of Buggy's goons... and the woman that stole from the three pirates at sea. Luffy beats the pirates and asks who the woman is. She introduces herself as Nami, a thief that steals from pirates.
Nami is, frankly, one of the best written characters in the series. She's always intelligent, is able to explain and understand situations well, and just has one of the best backstories in the series. Oda LOVES to go into explicit details about his characters backstories, dedicating sometimes several volumes at exploring a character's life before meeting Luffy. Nami is the first member of the crew to have her backstory revealed, and it's simply great. One of the best arcs of the series, Arlong Park, is dedicated just to her character development and her finding a place within the Straw Hat crew. She's sly, but you can tell she has a heart and looks out for people, but in the beginning of the series, we only know that she's looking for 100,000,000 berries, the currency of the universe, in order to buy a certain town.
You wouldn't be able to tell from her first meeting with Luffy, whom she sells out to Buggy almost instantly. She ties Luffy up and gives him to Buggy, hoping to wipe away Buggy's grudge against her and steal more of his treasure. Buggy and his crew celebrate in the one way they can; have a huge party and shoot cannonballs at the town! Buggy blows up an entire block of Orange Town for fun with his special Buggy Cannon Balls, and chokes one of his crewmates to death for insinuating that Buggy has a big red nose (even though Buggy mishears nearly everything people say to him). In order to prove that Nami is loyal to him though, Buggy tells her to shoot a Buggy Ball directly at Luffy. She hesitates, only for Luffy to tell her that being a pirate is never that simple. So Nami says screw it, saves Luffy with the help of Zolo, who finally shows up, and launches the Buggy Ball right at Buggy's face as they make their escape.
Zolo gets injured while running away, so the crew needs to rest for a moment. There's a brief chapter about a dog who's defending his owner's store from Buggy's pirates, even though the owner died that's fairly touching, but whose only contribution to the story is to show that Luffy's a good soul to Nami that will defend both humans and animals from bullies. The town's mayor appears during this whole sequence and explains how gosh darn it, he's not going to let Buggy destroy his town! So he charges to Buggy's base and demands a fight! He then immediately gets choked by Buggy's Chop-Chop powers. Give the mayor some credit for at least doing something. Luffy saves his life, and it's time for Luffy and Buggy to finally square off.
At least it would be, if it wasn't for Zolo coming in to fight Buggy's second mate, Cabaji. The fight happens, and if you're ever wondering if I'll go into detail about fight scenes during this retrospective, let me just make it clear right now that I probably won't. If there are major character developments or revelations during a fight scene, then yes I will talk about it in depth. One Piece is an action manga at its heart, so trying to describe each fight scene is pointless since there are so many of them. Needless to say, while the fight scenes are cool, it's going to be hard to talk about them in a text summary like this, so I'll just skip to the good parts. Zolo beats Cabaji and Luffy is about toe fight Buggy, only for Buggy to say that Luffy's hat reminds him of a certain pirate he once knew. Luffy asks if he knew Shanks, only for Buggy to say that they were actually crewmates!
Buggy and Shanks were both apprentices on a pirate ship when they were kids, and both had different dreams once they grew up. Shanks just wanted to sail the sea and be at peace, while Buggy wanted to become the wealthiest man alive. Shanks agrees to disagree with Buggy, and they continue to live their lives until their crew finds the Chop-Chop fruit. Buggy come sup with a plan to sell the Chop-Chop fruit and become rich through that, but he accidentally eats it because of Shanks because anime logic (he stuffs it in his mouth to hide it from Shanks but accidentally eats it when Shanks is alive). Luffy laughs at the story, so Buggy plunges three daggers into Luffy's hat, making Luffy extra pissed at Buggy now.
While Luffy and Buggy are fighting, Nami is trying to find a way to steal Buggy's treasure, but Buggy spots Nami and stops fighting Luffy to try and get his treasure back from Nami. Buggy unleashes a technique where all of his body parts, minus his feet, fly around rapidly and hit everything they see. Luffy defends Nami, but when Buggy tries to reassemble himself, he notices that he's only just a pair of feet, a pair of hands, and his head. While Buggy had his body part's flying around, Nami was able to wrangle all of them up and tie them together. With no way to attack Luffy or Nami, Luffy hits Buggy with all he has and sends Buggy flying off of the island.
With the town saved, the townspeople return and try to figure out who saved them from Buggy's wrath. As soon as Luffy says that they're pirates, the townspeople immediately try to chase them out of town, not wanting to have another Buggy on their hands. The mayor wakes up after Luffy runs away with Zolo and Nami, only to personally chase them to the shore and thank them for everything that they did and that he's eternally grateful for saving their small town. Once they leave, Nami wonders where one of her loot bags went, which had about 500,000 berries. Luffy says that he left it for the townspeople in order to rebuild Orange Town, only for Nami to beat him senseless, saying to never give any of her money away again. And so the crew sails off into the sunset, ready for their next adventure...
This post took me way longer than I ever intending it to take, and even longer than I intended it to be lengthwise. The early One Piece arcs are surprisingly dense, with later arcs focusing mostly on intense fight scenes that can be described rather easily. Here, not so much. So much happens in the span of three volumes that it felt bizarre to shorten them into their own individual entries. Hell, The Alvida stuff all happens in Chapter 2 of the series!
For a beginning of the series, the first three arcs are perfectly fine for establishing the world and our main characters. Koby proved to be a pretty worthless character, only appearing for one volume and being pegged as being of the main crew members if you just read the first arc. One Piece changed a lot over 20 years, so seeing the beginning is quaint, but fun. You can tell that it's One Piece, but it has a lot more fun and comedy in it than later entries would. I'd almost argue it's like reading the original Dragon Ball compared to Dragon Ball Z; fun overall, if a bit different from what you might be used too.
Next time, our small crew will continue to sail onward and meet a frightening new villain and pirate crew... and meet one of the most infuriating characters in the series.
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