One-Punch Man: Saving the Superhero Genre
In 2017 alone there are seven major superhero movies - four from Marvel and three from DC - that have either already been released or are on schedule to be released. Add that to all the previous superhero films, the many more that are on schedule in the coming years, and the myriad superhero television shows, and one could point to a new superhero renaissance. While many fans of the original comics are not complaining - movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe continue to have impressive Rotten Tomatoes scores for a franchise that is nearly ten years old - there are people who are growing bored of the tried-and-true superhero formula. Where are the fresh, original stories? Why is every superhero movie starting to feel the same?
Enter One-Punch Man, started in 2009 as a crude webcomic by the anonymous author ONE, adapted into a manga in 2012 by artist Yusuke Murata and anime by Madhouse Inc. in 2015 with a second season coming out later this year. The titular character, Saitama, is a superhero - for fun, he often comments - who is so strong that he can defeat any enemy with one punch. His power has rendered him bored with his place in life, and much of the story revolves around him finding a proper fight where he would actually have to put in effort.
A story about a guy who can punch things really hard, while amusing, sounds like it would grow stale about three chapters in… and that’s where it gets you. While Saitama absolutely destroys his opponents in fight scenes - which, mind you, are entertaining as anything to read - ONE instead focuses the story on Saitama’s struggles off the battlefield. His interactions with his fellow heroes and the hapless citizens of the city are Saitama’s greatest challenge - he gets no recognition for his previous victories, and everyone thinks he’s a fraud. After a particularly grueling fight against the Deep Sea King, who at this point has taken out several high ranking heroes, Saitama comes in an wallops him - and the people boo Saitama, calling him a weakling coming to steal the other heroes’ credit! We root for Saitama, not because he’s going to win the fight - we know he’ll win the fight - but because we want someone to say, “Hey, that guy is actually pretty awesome,” even though Saitama himself states that he wants no recognition for his actions.
Luckily for Saitama, he has one person who’s on his side from the start - Genos, a cyborg out for revenge against the mysterious being that killed his family, who discovers Saitama and forces himself in as Saitama’s disciple. Normally, Genos would be the type of character who would be the focus of the story. He endured tragedy that forced him to become a hero; Spider-Man and Batman, to name two characters, both went through the same ordeal. Instead, Genos is relegated to being a deuteragonist, forced to take the hits until Saitama shows up to save the day. He seems fine with it though; in fact, he follows Saitama with almost a religious devotion, moving with Saitama and absorbing everything he says or does. In this respect, Genos exists not just as plot fodder, but as a window for the reader to enter the world of One-Punch Man. We, like Genos, are there with Saitama every panel, learning more secrets about his amazing powers. Again, if this were a classic superhero story, Genos would be the model main character and we would have another less powerful character to latch on to as we read. But this isn’t your everyday superhero story.
Ultimately, One-Punch Man’s charm lies in its subversion of the superhero genre expectations. The strongest person in the world is an ordinary man who decided he wanted to be a hero one day for the fun of it. Instead of being bitten by a radioactive spider or enduring exposure to gamma radiation, Saitama’s secret to his power is a simple (though exaggerated) training regiment of 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats, and a 10km run every day (none of the other characters believe Saitama’s naturally-accrued powers). Though he is the strongest man in the world, he is largely unknown in society, often derided by fellow heroes and even civilians as a hack who shows up at the end of fights to take the credit. Speaking of the fellow heroes, many of them are in the business for fame and to turn a profit; altruistic heroes like Genos are few and far between.
Genre subversion is nothing new; Alan Moore tried his hand at it with the fantastic series Watchmen in the late ‘80s, and one could argue that Deadpool as he exists today is a subversion. But what sets One-Punch Man apart is the heart that ONE pours into the series. When I said that the original was a crude webcomic, I wasn’t kidding. ONE’s drawings are but scribbles in comparison to Murata’s years of experience on other series such as Eyeshield 21, but that hasn’t stopped him from making his dream of being a true manga artist (or mangaka) a reality - besides for One-Punch Man, he has authored five other manga, including the just-as-popular Mob Psycho 100. One-Punch Man is not just a humorous take on superheroes - it is a sort of commentary on ONE’s own career as a mangaka, trudging through the criticism and lack of recognition in order to get his story out to the world.
Speaking of “humorous,” another of One-Punch Man’s strengths lies in its comedic timing. Unlike Watchmen’s gritty, brooding take on superheroes, One-Punch Man revels in the lighthearted aspect of its story. Sure, there are dramatic moments - the fight against the Deep Sea King I mentioned earlier is up there - but the comedy is uproariously funny. From the bizarre nature of the heroes - including a muscly gay convict named Puri-Puri-Prisoner, a martial artist in a snake-pattern suit named Snek, and a bicyclist with no powers named License-less Rider - to the monsters who try their might against Saitama and fail miserably, there is no shortage of great jokes in the series.
If you’re not feeling the superhero fatigue yet, by all means continue to enjoy the myriad superhero movies for the next few years, or until Marvel and DC forget how to print money with their movies. But if you need a palette cleanser from the classic superhero story, or if you’re just looking for someone to give you the most epic fist bump ever, I would suggest One-Punch Man.