ONE / Yusuke Murata
Star Trek vs. Star Wars. Warhammer 40,000 vs. Warmachine. Batman vs. Superman. Gundam vs. Macross. Like throwing rice before vampires there's no surer way to stop a pack of geeks dead in their tracks than to ask them which one would win in a fight. There're over nine thousaaaaaaaaaaaaaand powerlevels to bicker over, and hooking up the revs-per-minute of nerds chasing their own tails insisting that completely different systems can be scientifically compared to a dynamo has kept the lights on in the comics industry since DC vs Marvel in 1996. Manga also like to get in on the action with the Jump Ultimate Stars piling in to a Smash Brothers-style ruck. There's even a Cyborg 009 vs. Devilman anime currently in production, and such a collision of two wildly different titles proves that it's only a matter of time until we are fed the epic clash of the titans as was foretold in the ancient prophecies - Sazae-san vs. Bagpuss: The Wombling.
This is what makes One-Punch Man so dangerous. This is the anime Oil Shock that will collapse economies; the hurtling meteor that will smash the delicate comics ecosystem out of its orbit and throw a black shadow over thousands of funnybooks. For Saitama, the hero of One-Punch Man, will end all of these arguments with a single left hook. He is not S-Class, SS-Class, or event SSS*-Class. His powerlevel is algebraic - (the enemy)+1. Are we to dread his coming or welcome our new overlord?
If you thought that a life suffocated by the white-collar noose of the Japanese salaryman was sad, just imagine how dismal and pathetic it is to be an unemployed salaryman. If you're in such a state that even the futile bureaucratic drones of the zaibatsu don't want you, you need to take a long hard look in the mirror because something's gone dreadfully wrong with your life. This has been the unforunate fate that our hero Saitama has been consigned to - but one advantage of being flung into the pit is that he's managed to get his mid-life crisis out of the way early and have it at a sprightly 22 years of age instead of an over-the-hill 45. Saitama is thus in a much better state to revive his suppressed boyhood dream of becoming a superhero and an encounter with Crablante, a giant crab monster who mutated into a crab-man after eating too much crab (as you do) inspires him to do just that.
...and yes, Saitama does hit the giant enemy crab's weak point for massive damage!
Through determination, training, and classic shonen hard-work-and-guts, since then Saitama has built himself up to become so incredibly strong that he can defeat any enemy in one punch. No matter how great or terrible the beast is, one punch will put him down; no matter how much armour he wears or whatever alien powers he shields himself with, one punch will reduce him to a smear on the pavement. Saitama has beaten down uncounted numbers of challengers, and the one thing connecting all the weird and wild evildoers he's confronted has been a complete absence of actual challenge. Saitama, the ultimate hero, is bored. Super-strength, impregnable toughness and effortless victory have robbed him of any sense of danger... and also any sense of thrill. It's difficult to feel any sort of heroism when instead of yelling out a defiant cry to defend the innocents of the Earth, all you can do is stifle a yawn as you wonder what's for dinner tonight. The world is still threatened by all manner of mutants, monsters and maniacs but as he pushes his way through their uncounted hordes can Saitama defeat the greatest supervillain of them all - ennui?
You might at first think you don't need to pick up the new One-Punch Man manga from the bookshop - after all, you can already read it all online. A quick click, however, will show you something very different from the printed manga indeed. One-Punch Man has a very interesting genesis as a manga. It began in 2009 as an webcomic by a man calling himself "ONE" and quickly found a following as people found an enthusiastic homebrew charm in its crude and unskilled art that was still earnestly tied to a story with a lot of heart; One-Punch Man experienced what we'd today call going viral as it swept up millions of hits. What prevented this online sensation from burning out and fading away like so many other memetic fads though was that this upsurge also attracted professional interest. One of those newly-bedazzled fans was Yusuke Murata, an artist in the Jump stable who made his bones with the highly successful 2002-9 American Football sports manga Eyeshield 21. Seeing the potential in ONE's story, he approached the webcomicker privately to propose a partnership - he would loyally adapt the One-Punch Man script and redraw its simplistic art to a printable standard, taking the tale to a national audience. While I'd expect most online amateurs to throw a hissy-fit at the notion that their scribbles could stand some improvement and stroppily demand a raft of prima-donna restrictions that would have smothered the project in the crib, ONE is evidently a rare breed of honest, modest and more perspicacious sort of creator and he agreed to Murata's plan.
It wasn't so simple as a radical unsolicited advance catching everyone off-guard and knocking the whole office for six, though - the editors at Jump were actually highly resistant to Murata's idea, arguing that it would be a waste of money because no-one would pay to read what was "already piracy" - which I'd say shows Japan's dogged determination to remain resolutely and defiantly behind the times. Jump was prepared to endorse the ONE/Murata partnership, but stipulated that they'd have to come up with an original story. After a lot of cajoling and standing on his established reputation as a hitmaker, in 2012 Murata persuaded his bosses to make it a contest - ONE and Murata would run their new pilot oneshot, Dangan Tenshi Fan Club (where the boys of a school class conspire together to protect the secret identity of their mahou shoujo classmate) alongside chapter one of the redrawn One-Punch Man, and readers could decide which would go to series - One-Punch Man won by a landslide and that is still cascading down to this day. ONE is still continuing to draw his webcomic as he's always done while Murata makes it all swish and snazzy for the Young Jump Web Comics digital magazine - some of his updates are even semi-animated as he draws frame-by-frame action sequences as animated GIFs. Murata's print tankobons of One-Punch Man have been multi-million sellers, and the ultimate vindication of his faith in ONE's story is the creation of a high-budget anime replete in ostentatious silky-smooth sakuga which began broadcasting just this month, under the Madhouse studio marque but which brings together an ensemble of talent across the industry as Space Dandy did.
It's a fascinating story, and it's equally remarkable to compare ONE's webcomic to Murata's tankobon and see the absolute transformation that's been achieved. It's quite respectful - Murata has loyally followed ONE's original as a storyboard - but the level of detail it's blossomed into is superb. Collapsed buildings, snapping capes and bulging biceps, nothing has been skimped on. Winds rush like flowing manes and craters are gouged out of the landscape on a panoramic scale. Less extravagant but no less important artistic techniques, such as fish-eye effects to widen the perspective, are deployed well, flexing the page with the reverberation of big blasts. Every bone and dimple is impressed on characters' faces, which oddly enough lends itself better to cartoony comical double-takes by contrast as eyes bulge around them - and even though Saitama himself is juxtaposed against this high detail as a bland bald egg-head (showing his indifferent detachment from all the testosterone-fuelled machismo grunting and sweating all around him), even his sketched lines convey a lot of expression, such as the subtle face falling when he's enjoying the first proper fight he's had in years only to wake up and realise it was a dream.
Alongside the excellent detail in the art is also a weird and wild sense of character design. Establishing from the outset that One-Punch Man is going to be punching through all of that tiresome powerlevel rubbish, the first villain we encounter is a very thinly-disguised reference to Dragonball's Piccolo. While that might be not so much imaginative and a little on-the-nose there are a whole range of kooky and crazy creates that follow on behind him. There are a number of knowingly absurd figures - the aforementioned Crablante, and Incarnation of Electric Light String Man - but others are outright freakish... if the Piggy Bank Monster was sprinting after me with the glassy rictus leer of a Five Nights at Freddy's furry Terminator I'd be scared witless. And hey, if any of you are fans of Monster Musume then you'll love Mosquito Girl - she can drain me dry anytime....!
The design of these monsters and supervillains is also what made One-Punch Man click for me as a comedy. There's a bit in Resident Evil 4 where the hero Leon confronts villain Krauser. Krauser rants that a conservative mind can never hope to prevail and he is part of a radical new wave that will sweep away the old order and bring mankind to the peak of evolution. He demonstrates this by growing an arm into a giant claw and sprouting all sorts of other spiky gubbins like the world's worst herniated prolapse - and all throughout the cutscene I was wondering how you can be the Ultimate Being without opposable thumbs. One-Punch Man also skewers Krauser's mutant delusion with the sad fate of Crablante: he's been carving a bloody frustrated swathe through the neighbourhood, and one of the reasons his nose is out of joint is because a local kid drew rude pictures on his chest with a marker - nothing that some spit and a towel won't fix, but that's more difficult than you think when you only have pincers and can barely snap on a sponge.
A few small jokes are lost in translation - the Japanese title is a pun on the popular young children's cartoon Anpanman (Saitama's superhero costume is even a reversed-colour version of Anpanman's own outfit) and "Mumen Rider" has less of an impact if you can't remember Kamen Rider since Saban's "Masked Rider" TV series during the Power Rangers craze back in the Nineties. Quick gags like this though don't detract from the main thrust of humour throughout the two volumes which continues to hit the bullseye (and even if the reference is vague you can still appreciate Mumen Rider as a general dork with his fastidious chaining-up of his pushbike before a battle). As much as Saitama waxes philosophical with long soliloquies about how he has sacrificed his human emotions in the pursuit of strength, it's amusing to see just what does actually get him in a tizzy - the Ultimate Battle that he seeks isn't against the Subterranean hordes he dreamed about but a buzzing mosquito that no super-speed can snatch and the rush to see if he can reach the supermarket before Bargain Day ends. Contrasted with the exaggerated fury of the other heroes and villains who take this gig much more seriously, it's all very zen. The more straightforward parody gags - Genos the cyborg has a more traditional superhero preoccupation with backstory that crams the other characters out of the page and Saitama also calls out his special moves before attacking with "consecutive normal punches" - are well-timed and not belaboured too long, as are the deadpan silent beats of reactions. Gorilla Man's long page of lidded disappointment that creeps into into every lingering line of his detailed portrait at the end of volume one is perfect.
Another thing that makes One-Punch Man stand out is that it's violent. As much as this is a colourful superhero comedy with wacky cartoon villains, when Saitama belts a baddy the enemy doesn't just groan "I'm at my limit!" and then join Saitama's team a couple of chapters later as you'd expect in a shonen battle-manga... instead, he explodes. I mean, literally explodes, with bloody chunks of gore smeared across the street. One-Punch Man is quite open and unashamed about death and destruction, freely announcing that thousands have perished in the latest monster attack and not being shy about bystanders getting flattened as collateral damage; there's some really quite gruesome scenes as Mosquito Girl's swarms make victims shrivel up and lay dessicated in front of you; Saitama's own kills reach double-figures in these two volumes and he barely blinks at being a killer - punching over a giant and accidentally crushing a city underneath him merits an "oops". This quite casual and relaxed approach to death actually works much to the manga's advantage. You can see the better effect it has when you compare it to Kill la Kill - that anime started out with an exhilarating rush of outrageous action similar to One-Punch Man but it ran out of steam towards the end and what finally brought it to a gasping, wheezing halt was when everyone - yes, even that guy who had been hung by barbed wire over the school gates in the first episode pour encourager les autres - was revealed to be A-OK for the big finish and we needn't have worried about them. For a show that adopted such an edgy title it was dismaying to see Kill la Kill be de-fanged and blunted. The cheerfully carefree brutality of One-Punch Man however is much more pleasing and liberating. For a start everything immediately feels more vigorous and energetic, and rattles and claps along at a more rugged knockabout canter; it sweeps away the dreary rote-recital moral-maundering self-excusing ritual that encumbers and numbs so many other action anime, wasting time like a 1970s Doctor Who story where they spend half the episode in a jail cell. It makes fights feel more worthwhile - when your gimmick is defeating everything in one punch you can only string out combat so long, so a briefness of action is compensated more by a more impressive aftermath. It's also an effective rejoinder to the shouty shonen bombast of the rest of the cast, popping their puffed-up arrogance like a pin in a balloon, while also making their own fights feel more significant - Saitama is just in such a different league that we better appreciate how the other cast members have to sweat over every scar before he almost accidentally intervenes.
This shows that for all that its hero is "OMG IMBA" and should be nerfed in the next patch, One-Punch Man actually has great balance and was unabashed fun for me for beginning to end. It combines the best aspects of genre parody and character sketches while also showing off some great fighting in the Shonen Jump tradition. With gorgeous artwork bringing exciting action to lavish life and dramatic death, it's a full-on full-spectrum manga that satisfies every criteria. One-Punch Man is another salutary example that silly stuff taken seriously makes for great comedy.