My Hero Academia: superhero fun without decades of backstory

It’s never been an easier time to get into superhero comics. They were once thought to be a specialized branch of study and the domain of dusty longboxes. But today, digital distribution has made it immeasurably easier both to find cape comics — thanks to platforms like Comixology and iTunes — and figure out where you should start with one of the billions of lists and recommendation guides out there.

But that doesn’t mean that getting into superhero comics is without confusion. New fans seeking to enjoy cool comics they’ve heard about or seen on social media must contend with line-wide events that hijack the characters they love; the ridiculous prices of single-issue comics; and — should they want to read their favorite stories in print — the labyrinthine processes of pre-ordering issues and finding a comic shop. Add to that questionable recent Big Two decisions like a DC miniseries where Nightwing leads an organization hunting down superhumans and Marvel abruptly deciding that Captain America — a creation of two Jewish WWII veterans and aspirational symbol of hope to millions — has apparently always been a Nazi now, and it’s easy to see why so many would-be readers get turned off.
[Ed. note: The author of this post works freelance for a manga publisher unaffiliated with My Hero Academia.] But luckily, for people who love superheroes, there’s a great alternative that’s easy to find and just as easy to love: My Hero Academia.

A self-contained superhero universe

VIZ Media
Written and drawn by veteran manga artist Kohei Horikoshi, My Hero Academia premiered in Japan’s legendary Weekly Shonen Jump magazine (home to iconic manga like Dragon Ball and One Piece) on July 7, 2014. In February 2015, VIZ Media began publishing the series concurrently with Japan in its own digital Weekly Shonen Jump magazine, as well as releasing the series’ collected volumes in print and digitally. An anime adaptation directed by Kenji Nagasaki, written by Yosuke Kuroda and animated by Bones (the studio behind Fullmetal Alchemist and Space Dandy) is currently in its second season and is streaming free on Crunchyroll and also on Hulu and FunimationNOW.

The story is similar to shows and comics like Teen Titans, Runaways or Young Justice, though its closest thematic analogue is the forgotten (but awesome) 2005 Disney film Sky High. In a world where 80 percent of the population has some form of superpower or “Quirk,” superheroes are government-employed peacekeepers and celebrities. Middle schooler Izuku Midoriya wants more than anything to be a hero, yet he’s one of the rare “Quirkless,” destined never to develop powers of his own. Despite this, he dreams of making it into U.A. High School, Japan’s national superhero training school.
Izuku gets his shot when he tries to fight a deadly villain that captures his ex-friend and biggest bully, the cruel Katsuki Bakugo. This brings him into contact with his number one idol, the super-strong All Might. The villain dispatched, Izuku discovers that All Might was grievously wounded in battle years ago, can now only transform to his super-strong self for three hours a day and is looking for a successor to inherit his strength-enhancing Quirk, One For All.

All Might, who’s come to town to teach at U.A., is moved by Izuku’s selflessness in saving Katsuki. With mere hours before the U.A. entrance exam, he puts Izuku through a hyper-intense training regimen and then passes One For All down to Izuku by giving a strand of his own hair to the kid to eat. Although he initially can’t handle the power — to the point of his limbs breaking every time he uses it — Izuku gets into U.A. Alongside his classmates, he learns from Japan’s finest heroes about protecting people and fights a new breed of horrifying villains that crop up.
Something for everyone

Bones
Like X-Men or Legion of Super-Heroes before it, My Hero Academia’s biggest asset is its huge cast, with even minor characters having a fun look or interesting personality for readers to latch onto. Besides Izuku — insultingly nicknamed “Deku” by Bakugo, which literally means “one who can’t do anything” — with his sunny determination and funny neurotic outbursts, and then there’s Bakugo, one of the biggest assholes the superhero genre has seen in some time. He’s a huge jerk — insulting everyone around him as “extras” — but he has the power and talent to back it up, which makes it worse. There’s also Tenya Ida, the super-responsible class president with literal jet engines in his legs and a heroic legacy to live up to, and Shoto Todoroki who has fire/ice powers and is basically this series’ answer to Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Prince Zuko — with as much of a monstrous dad as that implies.
The series also has a lot of fun, varied female heroes on its side. First, there’s Ochaka Uraraka, who can make anything float by touching it with her fingertips and is so supportive, she convinces Izuku to make “Deku” his codename because “to me, it sounds like you never give up!” Then there’s Mina Ashido, who looks like a pink alien and just rolls with it — when the kids have to choose codenames, she initially decides on “Alien Queen” to honor Ellen Ripley. Finally, there’s my personal favorite, Tsuyu Asui who, with her frog-like looks, power set and complete bluntness towards everyone, is basically a funnier version of X-Men villain Toad.

What Makes It Work

Both versions of My Hero Academia are just plain fun. Horikoshi’s manga is like the best superhero comics, always providing something entertaining and always leaving the reader wondering what’ll happen next, with fun characters and a playful art style. All Might is notably drawn Western-style in his hero form, which is funny and makes him stand out.
The anime is far behind the manga at this point — with less than 30 episodes aired at the time of this writing, compared to the manga’s 13 Japanese volumes — but it brilliantly captures and expands on what makes its source material so worth adapting in the first place. Bones has always done great animation work and Academia is no exception. Movements are smooth, characters are expressive and the fights pop right off the screen.
Both the Japanese and English casts know exactly how to make these roles work. As Izuku, Daiki Yamashita and Justin Briner both nail the optimistic nerdiness and heroic attitude (with Briner channeling a little of Morty Smith for good measure). As All Might, Kenta Miyake nails the goofy earnestness of the part, while Christopher Sabat (best known as the voice of Vegeta & Piccolo) is doing some of the best work of his career by playing All Might as essentially Superman, which turns out to be a great fit.
If you love superheroes but are put off by the many barriers to entry for getting into modern cape comics, My Hero Academia is for you. Weekly Shonen Jump sells digitally for $0.99 an issue and Crunchyroll is free, making it easy to find. On top of that, it’s absorbing and fun and exciting to follow — exactly what superhero stories should be.
Tom Speelman is the former manga/anime critic for the Eisner Award-winning Comics Alliance. He’s proofread and edited several books for Seven Seas Entertainment and other clients and can be found on Twitter @tomtificate where he’s usually yelling about comics.

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My Hero Academia: superhero fun without decades of backstory