What makes a hero? In Western superhero comics and shonen manga, the protagonist typically overcomes numerous trials to reach a certain goal. There is a specific reason why a certain character is the hero of their own story: Goku of Dragon Ball and Superman are essentially aliens from another planet imbued with powers beyond the average man. Spider-Man and Deku of My Hero Academia earned their powers out of circumstance (some would say it’s destiny).
For these heroes, their origins and motivations are central to their hero status. Their journey to reach their respective goals sets what we expect of them. We root for them because we see ourselves in them: the underdog with dreams of becoming strong enough to overcome great odds. We empathize with their struggles because if they can do it, so can we.
These are all conventions we’ve come to expect in the superhero genre time and time again, and these tropes have been deconstructed and dissected one way or another over the years.
Watchmen (“Who watches the watchmen?”) and 2019 superhero-horror film Brightburn (“What if Superman was evil?”) are some recent examples of pop culture breathing new life into the superhero genre. But perhaps no other current title has subverted expectations on superheroes more strikingly than One Punch Man.
The premise of One Punch Man goes like this: In a world of superheroes in constant battle with monsters, one unique hero named Saitama manages to win all of his fights in just one punch, and he no longer feels the thrill of victory. Bored of his immeasurable power, he sets out to find tougher opponents to fight.
One Punch Man started out in 2009 as a webcomic by anonymous artist ONE featuring crudely drawn characters. It was initially published for free online, and was eventually picked up as a digital manga in 2012, exchanging the crude drawings for a more polished look. In 2015, One Punch Man was adapted into an anime series, the second season of which was released last April.
The critical reception amongst western audiences has been clear. It debuted at the top of the New York Times Manga Best Seller list. It was nominated for an Eisner Awards in 2015. The first season of the anime sits at a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. The manga just recently went past a hundred chapters and its anime counterpart isn’t that far in terms of plot. The second season adds further depth to all the refreshing qualities of its premise, and successfully continues to avoid cliches set by its predecessors.
The initial joy of watching One Punch Man is Saitama effortlessly defeating his opponents with a single punch, but the novelty wears off quickly. What is there to look forward to when battles are decided in one blow and the hero is already immeasurably stronger than his opponents?
The world of One Punch Man hosts a myriad of superheroes and equally supervillains with tragic backstories, cool outfits, and flashy moves. Heroes work for an established organization called the Hero Association which gives them licences and categorizes them by rank. This hierarchy creates division even between heroes, and a sense of elitism for those at the top.
Because Saitama doesn’t portray himself as someone powerful, he starts out in the lower echelons, almost as a tragicomic character. Much of his heroism goes unappreciated by the ones he saves, and other heroes often wind up taking credit for his work.
Saitama doesn’t have silhouette-defining hair or a striking superhero costume. He doesn’t have a tragic origin story. His powers weren’t bestowed upon him by a deity or absorbed in an experiment gone wrong.
In fact, Saitama is strong precisely through hard work - a strict regimen outlined of 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats, and a ten-kilometer run every day. He eats three square meals, including a banana in the morning and sleeps without any air conditioning. His strength is a testimony to the value of pure discipline and will through intentionally average circumstances. If Saitama can do it, perhaps any of us can?
ONE’s inventive writing has assured us that One Punch Man is no one-hit wonder, as he serves as an inspiration for modern life. Despite being the strongest being in the universe, he worries about paying bills, and is even more concerned about catching supermarket sales than defeating evil. His lifestyle remains unbearably mundane, and his average looks do everything to conceal his powers.
Saitama treats superhero work as a mere hobby, and the seemingly contradicting qualities that he espouses reveals what being a hero is about in the modern world. It’s not about how cool you look. It’s not about being number one. It’s about always being there when you’re needed. Even if you’re just a bald unassuming man in red gloves and a caped yellow jumpsuit.