By Eiichiro Oda. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.
This essay will have spoilers through the current tankobon released by Viz (Volume 55), but I will try to avoid spoiling beyond that.
I'd like to talk to you about an epic tale. Well, a series of epic tales, really, but bound together by a bunch of pirates (and a few Marines), some big battles, a few horrid villains, and an incredible love of adventure. Lessons are learned, people make friends of their enemies, and we see things we'd never expected to see. I refer, of course, to the 'title page' stories that take place, one panel a week, within the confines of Oda's larger work, One Piece.
Title pages, of course, are ubiquitous in all manga, be it shonen or otherwise. Most of the time they're the hero or heroine striking a pose, or a shot of them being casual. Perhaps they're dramatically staring if it's a serious chapter. And indeed Oda has these in the series as well, as in between each story arc in the title page sequences we have shots of the Straw Hat Pirates interacting with various fantastic animals somewhere on the Grand Line. And, of course, he has the 2-page color spreads once every 2 months or so, where we see the crew together having some beyond the impossible adventure, usually with even more fantastical animals.
But the story arcs that began in the midst of the Captain Kuro arc, showing Captain Buggy trying to get back his missing body parts and reunite with his crew, are something special. At first I took them to be pure comedy, not mattering much to the plot. I wasn't expecting to see Buggy again, and he wasn't exactly one of the Big Bads of the series, even at that point. The same applied to the arcs with Jango and Hatchan, both minor mooks in their boss's respective arcs, and both far too silly to take seriously. Even the arcs with Coby and Helmeppo learning to be strong Marines, which had an amusing Admiral who wore a dog-eared (literally) hat didn't faze me. It was amusing, but felt inconsequential.
This was partly as I wasn't paying as much attention (Viz's Shonen Jump did not help, as it cuts one of every 3 title pages to save paper - which ruins each and every arc), but partly as I wasn't expecting to HAVE to. Who drops massive hints and has suggestions of future major plot arcs in their one panel per chapter gag pages? Well, Oda does, of course. Buggy is saved in his arc by Alvida, and they decide to join forces. This then comes up 45 chapters later when the crew arrive at Logue Town and meet them. Coby and Helmeppo's Admiral who takes a shine to them is none other than Admiral Garp, one of the high-ranking marines... and Luffy's grandfather, something we discover 350 chapters later. Jango joins the Marines, and returns at the end of the Baroque Works arc. Hatchan's arc with his cute mermaid girl turns out to be highly important in the Sabaody arc, and so forth.
Essentially, Oda's story is so epic that he can't actually tell it all in the 18 pages provided to him every week. Every single title page arc has turned out to either have major plot points or foreshadowing for later volumes, with the exceptions of Wapol, Gedatsu and Eneru, and I'm fully expecting those to come up later as well. What's more, they're a story well-told. We see, over the course of single panels with no dialogue, exactly what we get from One Piece every week. Big, goofy villains, epic battles, lots of fun laughs, befriending enemies, and following your dreams.
That last bit is most important. Oda once said in an interview that Luffy doesn't believe in killing his enemies, he'd rather destroy their dreams. And indeed, most of the protagonists in these stories start off with absolutely nothing, and go through tremendous trials. But in the end, we see new dreams from each of them, as if Luffy's destruction has given them freedoms they were never able to pursue before. Helmeppo's decision to stop being a whiner and train to be a good marine, Hachan's octopus shop, Baroque Works reopening their coffee shop... isn't that better than trying to kill people and take over the world?
As I noted, the arcs start with the minor, sillier villains. To a degree, there's some of this in later arcs - I'm sure Oda drew Gedatsu's hot spring adventures simply as Gedatsu was such a loony that he wanted to do more with him. And I suppose Wapol might qualify as this at first. But Wapol's arc was the first one to startle me, as he was a nasty jerk. His arc was kind of like if Oda had done an arc with Kuro, or Arlong. And indeed this arc seems to delight in torturing Wapol, who's now homeless and essentially eating garbage. And yet he finds something he can do, something that brings happiness to children. And more importantly, brings money to Wapol. This then leads to scientists examining him and finding he can create an amazing new metal. He starts a factory, and is even richer than he once was. Oh, and he marries Miss Universe. Note Wapol is not redeemed, per se - it's implied that he's going to be as ruthless in big business as he was in taking over a kingdom.
The Baroque Works and CP9 arcs also feature villains who were more hateful than goofy, and shows some of them actually getting happy endings. But it really reaches its zenith with Eneru's great space adventure. Eneru is a rather unique villain in One Piece. While he enjoyed tormenting the residents of Skypeia, his goal is not shattered when Luffy and the others free the Skypeians from his brutal dictatorship. Instead, Eneru's ship survives, albeit battered, and he flies off to the moon. We see what happens when he gets there in the title page arc. Any idea you might have that Eneru is going to discover his inner fluffy lamb is crushed here. Most of the plot is fueled by either his random cruelty, his desire for revenge (after his ship is destroyed), or an honest-to-God curiosity about what the heck is going on here. In the end, he succeeds in reviving the robot mole race that was in suspended animation underground. He also finds that he seems to be descended from their creators. The final panel is that of Eneru, standing proud, with his giant army of moon people who worship him at his side. Clearly for Eneru, karmic retribution is something that happens to other people.
Honestly, I could go on forever. There's just as much brilliant imagery here as there is in the series - indeed, sometimes it gets even weirder. There's much-needed character development that's given here so he doesn't have to waste time on it later. Most of all, Oda has found a way to pack every single part of One Piece with adventure, even taking over the title pages to tell awesome stories. One Piece overflows with ideas from every corner. One Piece makes you care about its worst villains. One Piece is awesome.