Riding the wave of super hero popularity, My Hero Academia has quickly become one of the most iconic manga series of this generation. While it does take influence from American comics, smart world-building and clever lore separate it from its Western inspiration. As cliché as the comparison has become, My Hero is the best X-Men title I’ve read in years, as it pulls the best aspects of Western pulp fiction and repackages it with Eastern humor and flair.
My Hero is the story of Midoriya Izuku (better known as Deku), a boy born without superpowers living in a world of superheroes and villains. He studies heroes obsessively, and his ultimate dream is to become a world-class hero despite being one of the 20% of people lacking any supernatural talents. These abilities, called quirks, have transformed society, and now children are trained to hone their powers in dedicated hero schools.
After a chance encounter with the number one hero All Might, Deku is given the transferable quick One For All, and enters the top hero school, UA. On top of his studies, Deku also becomes wrapped up a dangerous plot to upend hero society, and will need the help of his new classmates and allies if he’s going to be victorious.
One of the first things readers will notice is the manga’s rich, established world. In each story arc, mangaka Kohei Horikoshi drops new bits of lore that flesh out My Hero’s universe. The fact that superpowers are so common is awesome, but if everyone has quirks and needs training, that obviously complicates things. There are certain laws heroes have to follow, hero schools require hero internships, and there are non-combat/support jobs for those whose powers aren’t combat-oriented. If you like series with “rules”, this manga is full of them, and it’s one of My Hero’s strengths.
As Deku’s story progress, there are generally two plot lines going on simultaneously. There are the scenes at the academy with Deku in hero training or the classroom, and then there are his encounters with the series’ antagonists, the League of Villains, with the latter typically interrupting the former. They contrast nicely, and that boring life/hero life dichotomy is one the manga’s biggest takeaways from American comic books.
The X-Men/My Hero comparison has been made numerous times, but it’s an important factor in why this series has become such a hit in the West. As someone who’s followed American comics closely for several years, what I appreciate most about My Hero is its simplicity. Today, comic books from the United States are completely bloated with universe-altering crossover events twice a year. Many series, particularly the X-Men, now lack that core team dynamic that made the franchise as loved as it is today. My Hero brings back that 90’s teenage superhero team feel, before comic book events like “Schism” and “Civil War” fragmented and complicated longstanding relationships.
While comparably simpler to X-Men, there’s always something going on in My Hero, but it’s sometimes to the story’s detriment. Although plenty have praised the manga’s quick pacing, there aren’t enough quiet moments for the reader to breathe and reflect, and the story accelerates at a breakneck pace. Deku is always thrown into the next peril, which means the characterization suffers as new villains and situations are constantly being cycled.
Deku isn’t the most interesting protagonist either, with a conviction that never wavers from “always do the right thing.” Luckily, the major supporting characters add needed depth, particularly Bakugo and Todoroki. A handful of Deku’s classmates are major components of the story, but beyond them are fringe characters who, despite there not being enough of the spotlight to share, still grow on the reader. There’s Aoyama Yuga, the boy with the laser belly-button, and Mashirao Ojiro, otherwise known as Tailman, whose only ability is that he has a tail. Seeing Deku’s comradery with these minor characters is oddly more endearing than his growth with the major ones, as their interactions reflect the budding fellowship felt between a core group of classmates.
The art in My Hero can turn on a dime between basic, utilitarian panels to highly detailed, energetic action sequences. The scenes from inside UA often lack detail or background dressings, and don’t offer much personality. But that boring style can quickly transition into exciting and intense pages once the plot kicks into gear. An unassuming hero drill can become an epic confrontation at the sight of a supervillain, and moments like these are where the manga shines. Particularly impressive are the manga’s villain portraits, where full-page, heavily-penciled close-ups give a frightening perspective to My Hero’s antagonists. And although not every student and rogue gets a chance to stand out, each character design is incredibly varied and interesting.
As the marquee manga of this generation, My Hero Academia combines Eastern and Western influences and somehow transforms a subject matter as played-out as superheroes into something unique. While it lacks the addictive pacing and characterization of some of Shonen Jump’s all-time greats, it’s easy to understand why it’s one of today’s most popular manga. For fans of American comics longing for the return of those classic, Saturday-morning cartoon superteam storylines, you’ll want to look East.