There’s an inherent problem in writing critically, analytically about One and Yusuke Murata’s One-Punch Man. Readers rejoice in its hyperbole and rubberneck absurdity, but really, this beloved Shonen Jump serial is a haphazard celebration of nonchalance. It’s a saga of giving up, turning and facing the strange. The elevator pitch — a daft-looking everyman trains to become an unstoppable superhero for the hell of it — belies the more complex examination of anxiety, fear of everyday life, and the tug-of-war between existential apprehension and nihilistic conviction.
Sound heavy? Well there’s punching, too.
In fact, it’s mostly punching, and it’s for the best couched that way. Because I’ve already muddled the joke and deep poetry by laying it all out like I did. The back catalog go Shonen Jump is replete with beat-em-up sagas of cosmic fighting tournaments and ever-escalating battles between good and evil. It’s also published its fair share of pastiche and meta-textual observations about the genre. But One-Punch Man so perfectly caters to the unibrow, that ideal cross-section of the high and low. The perfect one-two punch. And I think that’s because it knows that those two audiences are actually the same.
Late in the first volume, our hero Saitama carries a small boy piggyback across the snow, having just defeated an enemy snowman. Punched a hole clean through him.
“I don’t think I can survive in a world with monsters like this,” says the boy. “I don’t think I can handle life like you can, bald dude.”
“There’s no perfect way to handle life,” Saitama replies. “When I was young, I was scared of society. Even now, life is hard.”
“Even though you’re strong, Baldy?”
“Strength and weakness don’t matter.”
“So what should I do?”
“Do what you want.”
“Is that deep? Or are you blowing me off?”
“I dunno. I just said it.”
It’s just an interstitial at the end of a chapter, a little palate cleanser after a big fight between Saitama and his over-eager cyborg disciple Genos and a menagerie of eugenic horrors from the House of Evolution. But that little coda really spoke to me, a reader plagued by anxiety over the day-to-day, a person who’s often adopted young Saitama’s vacant stare and gone dispassionate to bouts of chronic depression. That sense of ennui and emotional abandon rings as very honest. Sometimes all you need is a reminder that we’re not the only ones trembling. Mix in some wonderful sight gags and a deconstruction of the verbose melodrama of fight manga? So marvelously rendered by Murata?
It’s deep. It’s dumb. It’s over-the-top grounded in the real. I can’t get enough.