One Punch Man’s Japanese and American Superhero Lineage

One Punch Man has been a hit, both with the people who have long championed the manga, and with those discovering it through its animated adaptation. The story of Saitama, an invincible superhero who literally finishes most of his fights with “one punch,” the series puts a great deal of emphasis on humanizing its Superman figure. It handily deflects the classic criticism of invulnerable protagonists as “boring” while also drawing from both Japanese and American superhero traditions, and I think it’s worth exploring what it does to make Saitama a sympathetic figure.

To talk about a Superman-type character is to also naturally bring up the Man of Steel himself. Originally conceived with incredible strength and speed and gradually transformed into a being that could move planets and reverse time, much of the past three decades’ stories concerning Superman have been finding ways to make him human. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel film focused on the psychological and emotional struggle of having to hold back all the time, something shared with select episodes of the Justice League cartoon. Superman has been reduced to the point of being not quite so omnipotent, and also turned into a brooding teenager for Smallville. Numerous “what-if” scenarios have made him Soviet, nearing death, old and out of touch with the youth, and alternative takes on Superman-esque figures have dealt with mental problems, become amoral, and more. Even other superhero-themed series such as Tiger & Bunny and My Hero Academia will build in flaws into their Supermen, though the fact that they’re in the distance means that it’s more about how their image and reality compare.

One Punch Man ties Saitama’s ongoing turmoil to the fact that his astronomical power levels have made him unable to fulfill his heart’s desire, which is to be pushed by a powerful foe and go beyond his upper limits. He wants to feel like Son Goku being brought to the brink by Frieza. He wants to be Ryu from Street Fighter, constantly pursuing the next challenge. He draws from that popular tradition in manga and other Japanese media about the thrill of the journey, and yet while Akagi brushes with death before defying it, even that is denied when it comes to Saitama. Even if we’ll never as powerful as that, I think it’s easy to understand why this would be so painful.

Perhaps the more important element is that Saitama is kind of an idiot. The fact that Saitama doesn’t quite think through his position in the world (or perhaps choose to actively ignore it) brings a certain quality that reminds me of the earliest Superman comics and stories, back when he could only leap tall buildings in a single bound. If you look at the very first Action Comics, Superman spends a lot of it bullying the bullies. There’s a certain satisfaction in the fact that Superman’s personality and character aren’t so elaborate, that there isn’t almost a century of material exploring his psyche. One Punch Man achieves something similar by just having Saitama’s morality have good intentions but generally be kind of vague. He hasn’t thought too much about his role as a superhero other than that it’s “fun” (or at least should be), though at the same time it puts a twist on that basic desire to be so powerful that no one can stand in your way.

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