The Pirate King of Manga
Right now, as you read this, he is probably drawing.
His desk is cluttered, covered with pages of sketches. Pots of ink are placed cautiously, with reverence to their capacity for creation and destruction, in the corners – with no risk of being accidentally knocked over.
The smell of smoke, ink bleach and paper fills the air. Cigarette butts lie in an ashtray to one side. A library of manga, paper, and apparatus surrounds him. It is accompanied by an army of colourful dynamic figurines that stand poised, as if ready to strike.
And there he persists, tirelessly creating his story. It's likely he is operating on around three hours of sleep.
His next deadline is less than a week away.
Millions of readers wait with baited breath to see what will happen this week in his ever expanding and almost gloriously never ending adventure, One Piece.
He’s the paragon of the industry. The lone man at the top. The pirate king of Manga.
He is Eiichiro Oda.
Remember his name.
Firstly, lets give you a sense of scale.
J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has sold around 500 million copies worldwide. The franchise is worth an estimated $25 billion.
By 2015, One Piece had over 380 million volumes sold worldwide. It has 13 feature length films, an animated series with over 750 episodes, dozens of games and all manner of other forms of merchandise based on it. It's estimated to be currently worth around $10 billion.
Oda, who is both the illustrator and writer of One Piece, has said that he's only around 65% of the way through his series. The end of 2016 saw One Piece celebrate it's 20th year in serialisation.
This means we have a decade or so left.
My prediction: by the time he's finished, One Piece would have outsold Harry Potter. It's a big deal.
Who is Eiichiro Oda, and what is One Piece?
Oda is a manga artist.
One Piece is his creation - the most successful manga ever. Currently it remains in serialisation.
It is an epic adventure story set in a fantasy world overflowing with imagination.
The premise: The greatest pirate in history was finally captured by the world government. He had amassed treasures most couldn't comprehend. At his public execution, he was asked if he had any last words. As he began to speak, a boy in the crowd asked him where he had left his treasure - known as the 'One Piece'. Grinning, he replies: "My Treasure? It's yours for the taking! I left it all at that place...". He is executed mid sentence.
This spurs a great pirate era, where a new generation seeks to find his legendary treasure.
Fast forward a few decades, and we find our main character - a boy named Luffy - in a small island village. He dreams of becoming a pirate. However, his life takes a turn for the strange when he accidentally eats a magical fruit known as a 'devil fruit' which grants him a special ability. His body is made of rubber. But the drawback is that he'll never be able to swim.
Oda is every bit as intense as you might expect.
Aged 4 he decided he wanted to be a manga artist to avoid getting a real job.
At 17, he successfully published his first standalone manga story - Wanted! - which won several awards. This landed him a job at Weekly Shonen Jump.
The team that makes One Piece is small. Oda writes all the story and does all the art. He has an editor with whom to discuss his decisions and a few assistants to help with the illustration.
Aside from being competent enough to work with him, he has a simple demand of anyone that works on the series.
They have to be prepared to die for One Piece.*
Why should you care?
Any franchise which grows to this scale is worth noting. And the comparison with Harry Potter is more apt than it might at first seem.
Consider this; when it first began, One Piece was aimed at young adults. Teenagers and people in their twenties. These readers now are in their thirties and forties, and their kids are also picking up the series.
It's a rare thing when a series crosses generations. The Harry Potter books were released over over a decade. Starting with the Philosopher's Stone being released June 26th 1997 and concluding with Deathly Hallows on June 21st 2007. The movies that followed extended the franchise's lifespan. Harry Potter achieved cross-generational appeal, with many adults becoming as enthused as children.
One Piece is doing this, but perhaps even more impressively. It's been in existence over two decades, and fans are looking forward to a third. Oda's body of work grows on a weekly basis in the usual insane conditions that manga is created.
Furthermore, One Piece has become a cultural pillar of Japan, and its fanbase keeps growing. Here's another statistic for you - Volume 83 of the series was released in early November. In the first week of sales alone, it sold 1,631,659 copies. The second best selling manga for that week was the final volume of the internationally popular Bleach series. It sold 248,139 copies.
One Piece is on another level.
Why is he so successful?
The easy, fanboy answer would be to simply state "because he's that good".
There are a host of contributing factors to its success. One Piece was first published in 1997, two years after Manga was really kicking off from the success of Dragon Ball, which gained global appeal (and has sold around 230 million copies of its volumes worldwide to date). Lots of series that were started in the late 90's went on to become successful not only in Japan but in the West too. These include the likes of Naruto and Bleach. It came along at a prime time with many other franchises.
But at the end of the day, One Piece has been published in the same magazine for the last twenty years. It's had just as much exposure as every other series. It consistently emerges as the most popular series against all others in the same publication. It's been more successful because people enjoy it more.
So I'm sticking with the fanboy answer. He's that good.
Eiichiro Oda will already go down in history as one of the greatest manga artists of all time. Perhaps one of the greatest artists of all time, in terms of sheer volume and impact of his work. He's changed the face of the manga industry and genuinely had an impact on Japanese culture. He's also brought Japanese culture to a wide constituency in the West.
It's even more exciting when you consider this is all still happening right now. As I sit here and type this, I know that I, along with millions of other readers, are only days away from our next weekly instalment of his story. I'm on this ship and I can't wait to see how it'll end
It might seem intimidating to get into two decades worth of manga if you've never tried it. But I assure you, it's worth it. If you're looking to read something totally left field, to exercise your imagination in a way you don't usually, I highly encourage you to grab volume 1. Then you'll see what all the fuss is about.