Dragon Ball is one of the most influential manga of all time, but only One Piece seems to have really understood what made it so special.
It doesn’t take a manga expert to see that Dragon Ball was and is an inspiration to One Piece creator Eichiro Oda, but that is hardly unique in the world of manga. Every shonen manga that came after Dragon Ball’s meteoric rise to fame has, intentionally or not, been influenced by Goku’s adventures. However, One Piece is one of the few series that truly understands and recaptures the spirit of Akira Toriyama’s masterpiece.
Originally starting in 1984, Dragon Ball started life as a very different story than the ones fans are familiar with. Though action has been important since the beginning, early Dragon Ball was as much about comedy as fighting. It was even labeled as “the ultimate comedy manga” in early marketing material. As the series went on and Goku got older though, the action and stakes become increasingly intense. Goku became a father and the series’ villains became alien warlords and ultra-powerful androids. Still, even as the series grew more serious, there was still room for humor. Villains like the Ginyu Force and Majin Buu manage to find a happy middle-ground between being threatening and incredibly silly. It’s this balance that One Piece captures better than almost any other manga.
Beginning just two years after Dragon Ball’s 1995 end, One Piece initially appears to have many differences from its spiritual predecessor. The world of One Piece is much better thought out than the Earth of Dragon Ball. The former series’ pirate-theming is also more consistent than the stir-fry of martial arts mysticism and outlandish science fiction employed by Toriyama. But what the two share is that humor is almost baked into their worlds and characters. In both series, giant monsters aren’t scary or impressive, they’re big goofballs. Fighters who initially take themselves seriously are routinely made the butt of jokes. The main characters themselves even pull from a similar well of humor. It’s hard to look at the rock-headed but good-natured Luffy and not see him as a spiritual brother to the similarly sweet but dumb Goku. There’s a reason Dragon Ball’s crossover with One Piece works as well as it does.
More than just recapturing the magic of Dragon Ball though, Oda actually does the impossible and expands on it. Luffy’s stretching abilities are powerful and epic, but still always at least a little goofy. Even his transformations go to a far sillier place than Toriyama ever went with any of Goku’s Super Saiyan forms. While still intimidating, Oda’s art style makes Luffy’s Gear Fourth forms Boundman and Snakeman ridiculous in the best way possible. What’s remarkable is that it’s not just Luffy either. Almost every powerful character has some sort of humorous design, whether that be King’s pteranodon form or Buggy’s ability to split his body parts up.
All of these comedic elements combine to set One Piece apart from many of its contemporaries. Certainly, popular manga like Naruto also have humor, but that never feels like an inherent part of their world and characters. One Piece and Dragon Ball both understand that comedy doesn’t have to distract from exhilarating action and can actually enhance it in many ways.
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