My procrastination pays off once again! For the past year you could only read this series through the digital copies for sale on Viz’s website. Then they announced a few months back that this excellent superhero manga would be receiving a print release. No doubt to cash in on the upcoming anime adaptation. That has wound up being a move that has paid off for them handsomely. As for me: The wait was worth it. These two volumes of “One-Punch Man” are consistently entertaining as they embrace and make light of the conventions of superhero comics and shonen manga.
Saitama was once an ordinary unemployed salaryman. He never had any aspirations toward heroism, until the day he saved a kid with a giant cleft chin from the wrath of a giant crab monster. Realizing that he had found his calling, he trained himself everyday for three years until his hair fell out and he achieved ultimate power. Now he can defeat any opponent with only one punch. Yeah, ultimate power is great and all, but there’s no heroic struggle to be had when every fight is decided with the first blow he strikes. What’s a superhero for fun to do?
He’d have no time for the way I described him in that paragraph, that’s for sure. Genos, a cyborg who is looking for revenge against the malfunctioning cyborg who killed his family, conveys his origin in a couple walls of text to our protagonist’s great annoyance. Saitama responds with a, “Knock it off! Shorten that to 20 words or less!! And try again!” So here goes:
Saitama beats up bad guys with one punch. Now he’s out to find a way to make it satisfying.
That’s the best part of this series: It wastes no time in getting down to business. Saitama’s personality and motivation are clearly established from the start, and the first couple of chapters are done-in-one stories that efficiently set up the threats he faces before they’re defeated with one punch. Subsequent chapters break down into larger arcs, but there’s precious little fat to their stories. They offer the bare minimum of characterization and setup to get you involved in Saitama’s struggle and offer up new twists to each fight. Yes, it’s also fun to read about characters with detailed personalities and complex backstories who are fighting amidst labyrinthine plots. Then there are those times where you just want to read a story where a guy punches another dude and the fight is won. It’s a simple yet satisfying formula that works extremely well here.
Of course, the little things add up after a while and you start to appreciate the quirkiness that ONE, the writer/creator of this series, brings to the story. Saitama’s above-mentioned admonition to Genos is just one example. You also get lines like, “With the birth rate so low, I can’t let you kill that kid,” and a fighting move called “CONSECUTIVE NORMAL PUNCHES!!!” Yet for all of his power, Saitama’s biggest concerns are remembering to take out the trash on garbage day, realizing that the fight that he’s in is causing him to miss bargain day at the supermarket, and that for all that he’s done for his city -- nobody even knows who he is. That last thing turns out to be a real issue when a group of bald-headed superpowered miscreants start tearing up his town. It also looks to be the driving point for the next volume when Saitama and Genos decide to actually register as superheroes and get the recognition they feel they deserve. I’m sure that’ll turn out well for the both of them.
“One-Punch Man” is also relatively unique in that it’s one of the few Shonen Jump titles to be produced by a writer and an artist. Yusuke Murata fulfills the latter role in this case. I’ve never read his American Football manga “Eyeshield 21,” but it’s clear to see that he’s completely in tune with the kind of story ONE is telling here. Where everyone else in the book is all (intentionally) over-designed shonen fury, Saitama is made up of simple lines to stress his ordinary nature and highlight how out-of-place someone like him is in this kind of story. Murata states in his illustration on the very first page that Saitama is simultaneously the easiest and hardest character to draw. I can believe that because he can never look like he belongs in this book. That’s part of the joke.
I’ll also admit that he’s great with the designs for the rest of the cast and with the fighting in general. It’s clear that he possesses a keen understanding of shonen tropes -- just look at the fight between Hammerhead and Sonic in the second volume -- but knows how to exploit them for maximum comedic effect. The accidental nut-punch seen here is something that should be studied by future generations as an example of how to do that kind of joke just right.
This series does require a certain familiarity with shonen fighting manga and superhero tropes to really get the most out of it. Some people may also find its setup to be too simple and not to their liking. In my case, I see two creators digging deep into a one-note premise and delivering some weird and wacky glory in the process. It’s well worth reading whether you go and buy subsequent volumes digitally, or continue to wait for the next dead tree edition like me.