Now, most of you reading this probably aren't familiar with Marshall D. Teach, or Blackbeard, also known as the best shonen villain ever. That is likely because the One Piece fandom in US has never really been as rabid the Naruto and Bleach fandoms. I’ve always found that surprising since One Piece is currently the king of the #anime world in terms of overall sales, and heir to the Goku’s throne, left behind by Akira Toriyama.
Don’t get me wrong, Naruto and Bleach are still a part of the shonen jump big three (although in recent years Bleach has been steadily losing that status), but #OnePiece has remained a relevant flagship series for over 15 years now. One of the biggest reasons why it has never really gained as much otaku acceptance as Bleach or Naruto in US is due to the art style. The art has always been perceived as cartoony, and the legendary 4kids dub probably didn't help things, either.
If you're not familiar with One Piece, it's a series about the adventures of Luffy, a young boy who aspires to become the pirate king. One Piece pirates have very little to do with real pirating — there's very little raping and pillaging. As the series goes on, it becomes even more removed from real-world piracy. Being a pirate in One Piece is less preying on the innocent, and more a declaration of freedom to do whatever you want. Luffy expresses this freedom, for the most part, by going to amusement parks and sightseeing. Make no mistake, creator Eiichiro Oda is a very much a pirate fan boy.
When Oda introduces something important, he likes to throw in a little bit of real-world pirate lore in. So, when he introduces a character known as Blackbeard — whose real name is Marshall D. Teach — it is an obvious reference to the real-world Blackbeard's birth name: Edward Teach. This is Oda's way of indicating that you should probably pay attention to this guy.
The Importance Of Antagonists
In battle manga, antagonists are as important — if not even more important — than the protagonists. This page from a recent chapter of one of my favorite current running manga series, Bakuman (a shonen manga that is, quite literally, a manga about the production and storytelling of manga), explains it best:
Antagonists are king. Protagonists need to be cool and likable. Sure, they can have disposable villains that they defeat with ease, but for a series to really gain popularity, the antagonist usually has to be 10 times cooler then the protagonist. We can do a very simple test of comparing Naruto's basic character design to Zabuza, the first major villain introduced in the series. Which one do you think looks cooler based only on aesthetic design?
I think it's pretty easy to tell who is stronger, and who'd probably win in a one-on-one fight, but this makes for compelling shonen conflict. How the hell does the little goggles kid manage to face off against the professional killer with a sword that's bigger then him? Zabuza is a classic example of a worthwhile shonen antagonist. He's a character that's much cooler then the protagonist, and is clearly much more powerful. How will our plucky hero manage to prevail?
Why Blackbeard Is King
Most shonen antagonists come in as a cool obstacle with malicious intentions to oppose the hero, but Blackbeard is different. What makes Blackbeard so special and unique is that he shares the exact same values, as well as the ultimate goal of becoming the pirate king, just like Luffy. In fact, when Luffy first crosses paths with Blackbeard, he gives him an encouraging speech about how the age of dreaming pirates will never end.
They both share the same ambition, and their first meeting is even a friendly one. That's the genius of it. While his dream isn't necessarily malicious, the way he intends to achieve it is anything but friendly. Luffy hopes to become the pirate king by traveling along, making friends and recruiting them to join his crew so their unique skills can help him overcome more difficult trials later on.
Blackbeard also believes in recruiting so he can become the pirate king, but has a different way of going about it. Instead of making friends, Blackbeard beats Luffy's brother, Ace, half-to-death. He then turns him over to the World Government, who arrange to have him executed. The World Government bestow upon Blackbeard the title of one of the seven warlords of the sea. He doesn't keep the title for long.
Blackbeard never cared about becoming a government-sponsored warlord; that was just a means to an end. Blackbeard's real goal of getting the title was so he could break into Impel Down, the World Government's maximum security prison, where he proceeds to plow his way down to the very bottom of level six, the mythical highest level designed contain the most atrocious criminals whose existence has been erased from history by the World Government.
Why does he go there? To finish recruiting members to fill out his crew. Luffy uses the power of friendship to convince people to join his crew. Blackbeard breaks into the most hardcore prison and has the most powerful criminals compete in a death match for the right to join up with him, all for the sake of pursuing his dream. Any of this would be enough to put him on the list of the top 10 most badass villains ever — but he's not finished. Blackbeard proceeds to go above and beyond the call of duty to prove his awesomeness.
After he finishes recruiting, his new crew makes their debut on the world stage during the War of the Best at Marinford, the Marine's headquarters. Blackbeard, along with his new crew mates, proceed to finish off Whitebeard, one of the four pirate emperors and a pirate so strong that it took the entire might of the World Government's military just to fend him off.
After that, Blackbeard literally smashes down one of the oldest lore traditions established at the very beginning of One Piece — he manages to extract Whitebeard's Deus ex Machina devil fruit power from his dead corpse, wielding it along with his already awesome gravity-based darkness fruit, all while every other character stares at him wondering, "WHAT THE HELL?!" Anyone who tries to eat two devil fruits is supposed to die — horribly.
This also reveals another level of Oda's brilliance. The power that Blackbeard takes is the power to create earthquakes, a power he uses recklessly with little fear of the consequences. Oda's genius here is that he's managed to give one of his longest-running villains a power that taps into the core fears of his audience, mainly Japan.
All of these events happened in the One Piece manga around 2009, two years before the major earthquake and tsunami hit japan. As if channeling the unconscious fears of his readership, Oda had manifested an antagonist with the power to attack his reader base with something out of their worst national nightmare. All Blackbead needs to do is find the Nuclear fruit to turn him into the perfect storm of all Japan's fears.
The real beauty of all this is that this didn't happen overnight, Blackbeard's ascent to becoming one of the biggest players in the One Piece universe is something that Oda's been building for years. Most of the time his presence is something that's been building off screen. Thus far, the payoff has been spectacular.
Another thing that has separated Blackbeard from the typical shonen villain is that we've seen his progress literally run parallel along with Luffy's. Blackbeard started out being a no name, without even having a bounty to his name. He's also had just as many failures and defeats as Luffy during his journey to becoming the pirate king. That's easily what makes him most interesting.
His growth paralleled Luffy's and as opposed to generally coming into conflict with Luffy, he has mainly stayed on the sidelines save for a for a few pivotal moments. At this point, it's become abundantly clear that Oda is setting up Blackbeard and his crew to serve as the final challenge for Luffy and his Strawhat pirates on their way towards One Piece. In fact, many of the members of his crew are dark versions of the Strawhats.
As the series moves slowly towards its eventual conclusion, years of foreshadowing are building up the eventual confrontation of the Strawhat Pirates vs. the Blackbeard Pirates. Honestly, I could not be more excited, despite how many detours it took to get there.
Last week, as I was reading the most recent chapter of One Piece, Oda decided to finally reveal what Blackbeard has been up to in the post-time jump. I was so excited as I was reading the chapter on my smart phone that I exclaimed out loud, much to my own embarrassment, "Oh Shit!" That's shonen storytelling at it's best: long form serialization where every early detail builds upon itself and eventually pays off later down the road. As we get further along, I hope that we can introduce antagonists that you will grow to love as much as I love Blackbeard.
Do you agree that Blackbeard is the best, or do you have an anime or manga villain you like better? Let us know in the comments below.