One of the brightest stars in the world of current Manga is the web-artist known only as ‘ONE.’ His breakout hit was One Punch Man – a superhero comedy that has as much to do with the American conception of the genre as it does with previous Japanese attempts; the original web-comics has proven so successful that Yusuke Murata (artist and co-creator of popular sports series Eyeshield 21) took it upon himself to remake the series in a more traditional Manga manner; the remake is a proven hit: with 18 printed volumes and a TV show to boot.
ONE takes what is often considered the greatest weakness of ‘the Superman’ as a concept and character, that he is so powerful there is no sense of threat for his being, and turns into a strength: Saitama, the protagonist, is so strong he can finish any fight with one punch and thus is regularly morose; excited at any possible challenge and dejected once he realizes none of it is worth the effort. The story is more about his personal struggle to find meaning in a life as it is about punching. It is also a story very much on how the world, including other super heroes, react to presence of such a being – some are elated, some depressed and others are non-believers; after decades of Western creators trying to mold Superman into a Jesus metaphor for cleverness points, here is a story that goes on a different path.
ONE’s other major effort is Mob Psycho 100, which ran from 2012 to 2017 and is just now being published in English translation. Looking at the surface it would be easy to criticize Mob Psyco 100 as derivative of the author’s previous work; the focus of the first volume is on ghosts and psychic powers instead of superheroes but otherwise much is the same: like Saitama the protagonist of the story, Shigeo Kageyama AKA Mob (as in ‘one of the mob,’ not a gangster) is overtly powerful in a way that allows him to end any conflict easily; like Saitama his biggest issue is his passivity which allows the danger to flourish until he finally arrives to deal with it; just as in One Punch Man there is a con-man who uses the hero’s powers to advance his social statue. Both series seem to exist as an inversion of popular shonen tropes – in series such as Dragonball, Bleach and Naruto the hero must become stronger through a series of fights, life as endless struggle that demands constants self-improvement. Both One Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100 start with hero already the strongest one there is and work from there.
Yet despite these similarities it would be wrong to brush aside Mob Psycho 100 as a case of second album syndrome. First, because even if it operates within the same perimeters they are narrow enough to make it feel unique compared to other works; second, because we often allow beloved creators to offer a corpus of work that is undeniably of similar bent; and third, because Mob Psycho 100 is just good; which probably trumps all other arguments.
ONE’s style is less technically refined than that of Yusuke Murata: designs and backgrounds are often crude and simplified, characters models shift between scenes and the action is sometimes chaotic blare; but rather than being weakness the author manages to make the indelicate nature of the art into a strength. Mob Psycho 100 is committed to an ethos of ‘ugliness’ – but manages to finds shades within it. In opening to chapter 8 an evil spirit is attempting to psychically dominate Mob, a scene which accomplishes much despite being rather simple-looking. The spirit pretends to be a cult leader, encouraging humans to achieve happiness by squashing their individual sadness: “A phony smile is fine. Happiness is hard to get a grip on. Therefore it starts from the face rather than the heart.” The author implies the suffocating nature of masses, showing their grey faces move from background to foreground, with the chapter title both allowing a panel break and implying a dark mood.
There’s something in art that reminds me of Shaky Kane’s efforts – everything is a bit crappy and there’s a rather disturbing undertone to the whole proceeding. Kane work in titles like Bulletproof Coffin took on the often forcefully joyful world of older American Superhero comics, in which everything must turn out on the bright side by the end of the issue, and turn it upon its head. Likewise, in Mob Psycho 100 the triumphant structure of many a-Japanese action comics, in which the hero breaks through the power of sheer effort, is subverted - The smiles are fake, after all; Mob is not acknowledged as a great hero, not does he particularly want to.
The main ‘twist’ of this story is that we are meant to be afraid not for Mob but from Mob. He is never in any danger; he is the danger. It actually makes the series work as a counterpoint to One Punch Man: One Punch Man is about how people react to the sublime, with Saitama being this semi-benign force of nature, while Mob Psycho 100 gives us the divine look at mortals: Mob simply doesn’t understand what makes people tick, which means that even if intends to do good he can’t quite judge what this ‘good’ is.
One element that definitely separates Saitama and Mob, and therefore Mob from most Shonen protagonists, is the story’s willingness to play with the idea that there is something frightening about the hero’s terrifying power level. Every chapter features a counter titled “Mob’s-Explosion Meter,” which rises from zero to a hundred, at which point Mob does… what?! The readers can’t be sure, since we've averted all the genre rules so far; seeing as the series takes place in a world composed of horror tropes one must wander if Mob’s growing number moves him as closer to Tetsuo than Sun Goku.
If there’s a major issue with the first volume, it's that the Mob’s-Explosion Meter reaches 100 so fast, barely halfway through the volume, before resetting itself. It’s hard to know if ONE intends for us to read it as another act of deconstruction, or if it simply a matter of sloppy writing. My understanding of manga culture is limited by the works that are imported to the west, and farther limited by those that I read, but so much of the serialized manga I’ve read enjoys taking its time a bit too much: decompressing each scene, every climax, no matter how minor in terms of the overall story, deflating page after page after page of build-up (think of the endless near-reveals of the mysterious Friend’s face in 20th Century Boys). In Mob Psycho 100 the pendulum swings harshly to the other side; here the comics just run through the plot, leaving little room for anticipation. You might think Mob reaching 100% would serve as the climax of the first volume, and instead he gets there halfway through and the after-effects, in both physical and emotional manner, are less devastating than one would expect.
Is ONE playing with the reader’s expectations? Is he rushing-through all the expected twists and turns because he has something even stranger in store? I don’t know. That might be the only true reflection of ONE’s semi-godly protagonists: they remain unknowable. We can only react.