Written by C.B.W. Caswell
What to read: One-Punch Man
Published: 2012 – Ongoing
Original Publication: 2009 – Ongoing
Genre: Superhero, Action, Comedy
Summary: In a world where being a superhero is like any other career, there exists a hero with powers beyond any other: the ability to thwart any threat — human or otherwise — with a single punch. But even stranger is how this hero, Saitama, continues to go unnoticed by the superhero community and the public at large, despite his best efforts to gain notoriety. What will it take for Saitama to be respected as the hero we all know he is?
Favourite character: Saitama
Why you should read it: It’s impeccably illustrated and its humour comes from being self-aware of not only itself but of the action manga genre as a whole.
With the release of the anime, One-Punch Man is gaining a lot of attention. And for someone who’s been reading the manga for the past few years, it feels like watching your favourite local band’s first music video hit a million views — you knew they were amazing all along, but now you don’t have to tell people about it because everyone knows. And for those who are only becoming familiar with the series through the anime, you have a depth of context you’re missing that elevates the series far past just being a goofy satire of Nihon action comics.
Romanized as Wanpanman from Japanese, One-Punch Man’s name is a play on the Japanese children’s hero Anpanman, who has a conspicuously similar costume.
Originally drawn by the mangaka ONE (a pseudonym), the series had an almost MS-paint quality to its images. Yusuke Murata (mangaka of Eyeshield 21, who The Pulp has covered previously in our What to Read section) discovered the manga, and has been reproducing it with updated images since 2012, often keeping the layout of the original pages drawn by ONE.
It makes the update less of a rip-off by Murata and more of an homage. It’s apparent from ONE’s illustrations that he’s read his fair share of manga, given their inherent balance and visual tension. Murata is really just refining the shots, tweaking and adding contrast while also including an incredible amount of detail which ranges from pull-away shots of the Earth that show the terra-forming after effects of an enemy’s attack; to giving cinematic, shot-by-shot flow to a mecha flying through the air and landing on a rooftop.
But one of the best uses of contrast is when Murata juxtaposes his nuanced illustration with the blunt, sloppy, flat style originally drawn by ONE for comic effect, often to suck the air out of what would normally be highlighted as a tense moment.
Now that the series has moved to animation, I’m hoping the show will continue to reach back into the original style, keeping its style grounded and mining the depths of genius that was apparent to Murata.
Why One-Punch Man Shouldn’t Work
The thing that piqued my interest in One-Punch Man’s concept is that for a narrative to be at all interesting, there has to be conflict. This is why Superman and the Hulk are particularly flaccid heroes; without weakness, there’s nothing for the hero to overcome. And better still is if, rather than having a physical weakness, the protagonist has a relatable character flaw. This is all storytelling 101.
So a character that defeats all enemies with literally one punch shouldn’t offer any interesting dramatic conflict. But there are a number of ways One-Punch Man gets around this. The series often leans on other hero characters that aren’t as strong as Saitama starting fights, and Saitama flying in all Goku-esque to finish off the battle. There’s also something Shakespearean (yes, I am now to commit an egregious literary sin and compare anime to The Bard) about knowing the outcome of a story from the outset and watching to see how it turns out in the end anyway. And, as is obvious from the title, it’s going to end with a big ass punch that tears open a hole in the universe. *Disclaimer. This hasn’t actually happened yet, but it’s going to at some point.*
However, aside from leaning on other characters, there are other workarounds to introduce conflict (I’m about to wreck a small arc in the series for some people who haven’t read it, but as mentioned, we all know how it’s going to end anyway and it’s more about actually seeing it happen). A few chapters are dedicated to a large meteor that’s going to strike and destroy Earth and it’s up to the heroes to stop it. After a few huge displays of power, all are left thinking there’s nothing to be done. Saitama jumps up, punches a hole in the thing, lands, and says “that takes care of that.” Meanwhile, the shards of the meteor begin to rain down in the background, so while the Earth is safe, the city is ultimately destroyed for comic effect.
At this point in the series, there is little character conflict going on, and I can’t see that ever really increasing. Both the manga and the anime begin with Saitama dealing with ennui at reaching his peak strength and never having an enemy that truly challenges him (this could be interpreted as a meta-conflict for the series as a whole, the boredom of life without conflict). This doesn’t remain as Saitama’s motivating force, eventually being replaced with his pursuit of becoming a renowned superhero, but his struggle with boredom does come up here and there in the series. The remade manga is only now introducing side characters with actual personalities, as most up to this point were just fodder to stall for time until Saitama showed up to fix the problem, and hopefully they will continue to expand on these characters and provide more depth.
Watch it. Read it. Love it.
Whether your poison is anime or manga, it’s easy to fall in love with One-Punch Man’s irreverent treatment of the action manga genre. It consistently references Dragon Ball with how its enemies have multiple forms, along with numerous other series that make for great fodder when taken at face value. Saitama is a great hero that embodies a common struggle: someone of incredible power that is never given the credit he deserves. But through his exploits, he continues to climb the rungs of hero recognition, one villain at a time.
Like its hero, the One-Punch Man series was always strong, even in its humble beginnings. And chapter by chapter, episode by episode, people are finally starting to notice.