On page thirteen of One-Punch Man Vol. 1, I began to suspect what I was in for:
By page 29, I no longer suspected. I knew:
If you looked only at One-Punch Man‘s stern front cover or existential back cover snippet, you would be forgiven for thinking the book was a Japanese take on Marvel and DC’s usual superhero (over)dramatics. However, that’s not what One-Punch Man is at all.
Instead, One-Punch Man is Batman ’66 (Adam West, Burt Ward, the Batusi – you know what I’m talking about) filtered through a manga lens. And yes, the book is as laugh-out-loud hilarious as that description would lead you to believe.
Some Days, You Just Can’t Get Rid of a Comparison
It’s the labeling that gave it away, really.
Labeling people of (non-)importance is a classic Batman ’66 technique.
As is villain monologuing. As is overly-naive innocent bystanders. As is “who cares if the backstory makes sense, let’s get to the action.” As is villains defeating themselves through their own carelessness.
From there, the comparisons between Batman ’66 and One-Punch Man aren’t one to one. After all, the two series live in different times, mediums, and countries. But their overall tone is absolutely the same. One-Punch Man honors and pastiches superhero stories at the same time – allowing readers to both become invested in the story’s characters and laugh at how inane they are. And laugh, you certainly will.
“Parodying” the Superman Problem
At the same time, there is something real behind One-Punch Man in a way there mostly isn’t behind Batman ’66. For one thing, the titular One-Punch Man, Saitama, has an origin. (Fun fact: The death of Batman’s parents is mentioned exactly once in Batman ’66.) Saitama’s origin is that he’s a disgruntled unemployed man who got fed up with being rejected by employers and society and decided to do something more exciting instead. So he trained to be a superhero. But now, Saitama is so good at heroing that nearly all his fights end with one punch. Once again, he is unfulfilled.
This is at once a) a recognizable, real problem (planning to enter my own mid-life crisis soon, thanks) and b) a parody of the Superman problem. The Superman problem being that, to some readers, Superman is “boring” because he can theoretically solve any problem easily.
Saitama never encounters a physical challenge in this volume. (Spoiler Alert: He is forced to throw more than one punch exactly once, as part of a move called [and I can’t even type this without laughing] “Consecutive Normal Punches.”) But he is incredibly exciting to watch, and as a reader, you still feel for him. He is anything but boring, because you never know exactly how he’s going to respond to a situation – until he’s forced to throw a punch.
At the start of this section, I called Saitama’s existential angst a parody of the Superman problem. But it’s not exactly that. It is a reworking of the problem, and a reminder that the problem isn’t really a problem at all. Because if a writer and/or artist is good, the question of “Is Superman going to save the day?” doesn’t actually matter that much. What’s more important is seeing how Superman saves the day, as well as how saving the day affects him.
Saitama’s saves are always exciting, typically hilarious, and at times, affecting. That’s more than enough to carry readers through One-Punch Man Vol 1., especially when combined with the book’s campy tone.