David Welsh is running the One Piece Manga Movable Feast this month, and he asked me to take a look at “Baroque Works,” an arc in One Piece. I gave it some thought during some downtime and came up with a few ideas. This is post is something I came up with that doesn’t really fit into an exploration of the content of the series, but it’s definitely something interesting about “Baroque Works.”
The “Baroque Works” arc comes at an interesting point in Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece. It spans roughly from the end of volume 12 to most of the way through volume 24, which puts it somewhere in the neighborhood of 2400 pages. Volumes 1-12 are collectively known as “East Blue,” but are instead more properly considered a collection of short stories and arcs rather than a long-term story arc. “Baroque Works,” though, is a monster, longer than Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (give or take a couple hundred pages). While it is composed of smaller stories–“Whiskey Peak,” “Drum Island,” that island with the giants whose name I forgot–those stories all work toward getting the crew to Alabasta. The first twelve volumes don’t have that unifying theme, beyond the goal of getting to the Grand Line. There’s no major villain lurking in the shadows so much as a series of midbosses that Luffy and crew need to get past to make it to the Grand Line. Kuro, Axe Hand Morgan, and Arlong don’t quite have the same pop as Crocodile, and Buggy and Alvida are so funny as to be more comedic relief than true blue threats.
Thinking through the length: Conventional wisdom says that if you have a super long epic in mind, and 2400 pages is several pages past “super long,” you need to hook your readers in first. You need them to believe in your story before you throw them into the deep end. You don’t lead with the uppercut. You start with a jab to test the waters. It worked for Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso with 100 Bullets, which was sold as a morality tale and ended up being something almost entirely different. Azz and Risso hooked them and then got down to business. Oda did the same thing.
Follow along: The main cast of One Piece is made up of Luffy, Nami, Sanji, Zolo, and Usopp. Chopper joins partway through “Baroque Works,” and Nico Robin joins at the end of the tale in volume 24. The next member joins around 21 volumes (another 4200 pages) later, and the final member comes a handful of volumes later. For much of the series, the cast that is established going into “Baroque Works” is the cast of the series. They’re the core, the primary cast.
Okay, so what, he has a cast, even Queen’s Blade has those, big deal, who cares? Well, by the beginning of “Baroque Works”, after having already made it through around 2400 pages of getting to know the primary cast, we’ve built up a connection between us and them. We made it through the emotional minefield that is Nami’s origin, seen Zolo’s slightly less sad in comparison origin, gotten used to Luffy’s (let’s be fair here) complete idiocy, and realized that Sanji isn’t just another pretty face. If you’ve made it twelve volumes in, you’re a fan, is what I’m saying, and you get how the characters react and feel.
That provides a necessary foundation for “Baroque Works.” Without that foundation, like if Oda had started the series with volume 13, we’d be dealing with getting used to the primary cast, meeting Chopper, meeting Vivi and Carue, and then the conflict of the arc. That’s a lot to take in all at once, but since we know all of the principal characters, “Baroque Works” is allowed to move at its own pace.
Long story short, “Baroque Works” is interesting because of its length and focus. It seems like after completing “East Blue,” Oda felt comfortable enough in his craft and in his fanbase to do something with a bit more meat on its bones. After “Baroque Works” comes “Skypiea,” which is around ten volumes. “Water Seven” is fourteen volumes, “Thriller Bark” is five, and “Sabaody” ended up being just a couple volumes, though “Sabaody” leads directly to “Impel Down.” He got away with a long arc on “Baroque Works” and then knew he could get away with it again.
That’s all I got as far as meta reasons to pay attention to “Baroque Works.” I’ve got a list of things to cover in the big grabbag in the next post (tomorrow, maybe) that’ll cover “Baroque Works” and more, but really, the best reason to pay attention to this arc is that it includes Mr. 2, Bon Clay. Bon Clay stands alongside Don Quixote Doflamingo, Hawkeye Mihawk, Rob Lucci, Trafalgar Law, Carue, Chopper, Kiwi, and Mozu as some of the best characters in the series.