WARNING: Spoilers for My Hero Academia. Read at your own risk.
My Hero Academia is easily one of the most popular series currently running in Weekly Shonen Jump. Now in it’s third year of serialization, HeroAca has mountains of merchandise, several spin-offs, two video games, and two successful anime seasons under its belt, with a third season coming next month. It’s no exaggeration to put it in the same category as Naruto, One Piece or, Dragonball when you talk about tentpole series that define Jump as a brand.
On the surface, My Hero Academia is mangaka, Kohei Horikoshi’s, love letter to American superhero comics. The manga features countless nods to the Marvel/DC brand of comic books. Many onomatopoeia in the manga are often big, bold words like “SMASH” spread across a panel. Panel placement in the earlier story arcs seem more reminiscent of how they are set up in superhero comics. Even All Might, the main character’s mentor is a giant, wide necked, broad chinned nod to Silver Age superheroes.
Compound this with the fact that mainstream American Superheroes are gaining more popularity in Japan and you might mistake HeroAca as an attempt to ride the latest trend, something Marvel and DC have been guilty of doing lately. However, I believe it’s more than that. The more I read, the more I see that Horikoshi and his team have a firm understanding of what they’re doing and take great care in adopting only the best aspects of both manga and mainstream superhero comics. (“cape books” if you’re in a rush).
I want to stop and say that my view on this may be slightly bias. I have a sort of jaded view on the brand focused nature in which cape books are written. Part of the reason I became interested in manga is because i grew bored of cape books from DC and Marvel and third party/self-published comics repeatedly being drowned out by the mainstream machine in comic shops. But that’s a topic for another day.
HeroAca at its core focuses on a theme that to this day is difficult for cape books to commit to–passing the torch. My Hero Academia tells the story of a group of super powered teenagers who train at a specialized school to become full-fledged heroes. It also takes time to focus on adult heroes as they question the best way to prepare the next generation.
If you’re familiar with cape books, you may be saying that this reminiscent of stories like Teen Titans, Young Justice, Avengers Academy–the list goes on. Except, as stated before, HeroAca commits to this theme.
Those stories are used less to develop the younger characters and more as a way to feature them without getting them involved in more high stakes stories. A big problem with mainstream superhero stories is how quickly they run back to the status quo if they feel an idea doesn’t pan out correctly. The most glaring example of this I can think of is Batman.
From 2009 to 2011, Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, was dead. He was a casualty of the crossover event Final Crisis. The aftermath would see Dick Grayson, the first Robin, become the new Batman. This, sadly would not last as Bruce would return after traveling through time (don’t ask) to reclaim his mantle.
These kinds of situations where a character dies–but not really–and things just return to business as usual are littered throughout DC and Marvel’s history to the point that it’s become a running joke among comic book fans since the 80s.
Compare that to HeroAca, which just saw its first major character death, and constantly raises death flags for All Might, and you can see a clear difference in how legacy is handled. That isn’t to say that you can’t establish legacy heroes without character death, but cape books have a very serious problem with taking one step forward and two steps back.
Batman is also an example of how you rarely see uncertainty in mentor characters in legacy hero stories. Batman has his brief moments where he questions how he should go about teaching his protégés and whether they’re the right fit for crime fighting, but usually he is an insurmountable wall of certainty that is one hundred percent sure he knows the right thing to do, an aspect that makes one of the few powerless heroes in DC’s universe the least human.
HeroAca also frames teenage heroes in a way that many cape books fail to. Cape books often portray teenagers in four to five easily digestible, Breakfast Club-esque, archetypes. This may be because a lot of these books are being written by people who are so far removed from the concept of being a teenager that anyone under the age of 20 seems like an alien to them. To be fair, Avengers Academy and many X-Men stories do avoid this issue of making teenagers seem too stereotypical.
HeroAca’s cast of teenage heroes-in-training do have familiar manga quirks (heh..), but they still do enough stand out as actual characters. Bakugou is loud, boisterous, and aggressive, but he’s hardly the “rude dude with attitude” that the epidermis of his character portrays. He learns, he grows, and he worries about his place in the world.
The growth of his character from the U.A. Sports Festival to his second fight with Midoriya is some of the finest character progression that you can find almost anywhere in storytelling. Even the kid who speaks in broken French and shoots lasers out of his belly-button has more to offer. This creates characters that are more endearing and feel less like brands.
I know I’ve spent a considerable amount of time ragging on superhero comics, but don’t take this as some kind of “Japanese comics are superior” op/ed piece. I have a big problem with how both Marvel and DC write and promote their books; however, they do produce great stories sometimes. Those great stories are what inspired Horikoshi to turn the world of shonen manga on its head.