The Comics Classroom – Super Teens, Part 1: MY HERO ACADEMIA

It is hard to ignore the popularity of author Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia (Boku no Hīrō Akademia, if you want to know the Hepburn translation of 僕のヒーローアカデミア). I have kept up with the series before it came to the U.S., but even today it’s as popular now as when it first appeared here in 2015. I suspect this is, obviously, because of the fact that 1) the series isn’t finished, thus it’s always advancing and the story can keep hooking people, 2) there has been some hubbub about the first animated movie in the series doing very well, and 3) there is a videogame on the horizon this month.

Still, outside of these very big factors, I would like to make the case that what My Hero Academia does is what many popular superhero stories do regardless of if these stories come from the U.S., Japan, or elsewhere. I am not going to say that My Hero Academia is a complex story, because I believe its power comes from its straightforward simplicity, but it does certain things extremely well by being very up-front and easy-to-process.

I’d like to walk readers through just the first volume of the series, highlighting some of the plot’s basic tropes (both ones common in western hero comics and ones more infamous within Shonen manga) and justifying why these are strengths for this series. Then, in the next column, I’d like to compare My Hero Academia (hereafter simply called MHA) to Marvel’s Runaways and Avengers Academy.

An Origin Story Done Right … or, at least, An Origin Story Done Fast

The first page of My Hero Academia should tell you everything you really need to understand the two major characters. The first panel (which is read from right to left) depicts the main character, Izuku Midoriya, shielding a young child from the bullying antics of Katsuki Bakugo. While Izuku is a classic Shonen protagonist (something I’ll explain in my next point), if there is anything else you need to know about him, it is second to the fact that he is willing to stand up to somebody tougher, bigger and more aggressive than himself to help another person. This is a heroic quality in anyone, but it frames what Kohei Horikoshi wants readers to ‘get’ about Izuku. If Spider-Man is a character who is built around a sense of personal ethics, and if Batman is a character built around personal trauma, then Izuku can probably best be compared to a Clark Kent/Superman model, a character who does the right thing because, well … it’s the right thing. It doesn’t matter what the odds are, Izuku puts himself between others and danger. And that’s all laid out on the first page. I am in no way saying other comics don’t do this, but MHA slaps the image of Izuku doing his heroic shtick before he even has powers, before we even know anything else about the setting, and before we even know much of anything else.

Within a few more pages, the basics of the setting are established swiftly. While there is not a firm timeline given, after a certain point in time people began developing special abilities until 80% of the world was changed. As the manga explains, “[…] the ‘exceptional’ became the norm.” Again, MHA is quick to sort of hand-wave away (so far, anyway) issues about ‘what’ causes people to develop super abilities. The manga simply says, flat out, that it happened and that this issue is, within the story, not actually what the plot is about. What MHA focuses on is the idea of how heroes emerge in a world where heroics are more common and, say, in some settings like those of the X-Men. The premise of what makes X-Men operate is that it is meant to force us to reflect upon and consider the very human failings we have with out own species over issues that are outside of human control. The roots of X-Men are social in nature, thus it would be silly to ask why, after all these years, people in the Marvel Universe don’t just accept mutants in the same way they accept the Avengers. MHA asks readers to set aside out conceptions of powers as being exceptional so that, instead, we can focus on individuals. Characters such as Izuku, once freed from narrative constraints focusing on WHY they have or acquire powers, can instead focus on HOW those powers are used.

The narrative quickly addresses next the idea of super powered abilities and their role in society. A monstrous figure, having used his abilities to change his form to help himself commit crime, is pursued by heroes directly because of the “illegal use of abilities during rush hour, as well as robbery and assault.” In this setting, heroes and villains engage in public displays openly. Part of the charm of MHA is that these conflicts are not only public, they’re popular! Izuku collects the knowledge of these heroes in a notebook, people photograph heroes, and the state even pays heroes for stopping villains (even if it also penalizes them for damages caused in pursuit of criminals). MHA presents a world rooted in acknowledgement and admiration of heroes. Comparatively, consider the contrast between this idea and Marvel. Obviously, Marvel has an extremely dense political and social ‘web’ of stories explaining how the U.S. population understands super heroes, the most powerful of which was the Civil War story-line. This may all seem like an Apples to Oranges kind of comparison, but I would argue that, again, these are issues that tend to gum up the works of superhero stories. There is nothing wrong with narratives focusing on the mysteries of how superpowers emerged in Earth, or how complex agencies develop to police and control said powers, but consider again what this kind of ‘rush to clarify’ the setting does for our little Izuku. We get to see him invested not so much in the social aspects of heroics as we do the personal aspects of heroes and what they mean to him. I am not saying (or, at least, I hope I am not saying) that the best superhero stories gloss over complexity and narrative cohesion for personal stories. My interest is simply in how much investment MHA has in making sure you, the reader, can get to know, really know, Izuku. This kind of approach actually has parallels in Marvel, which I want  to touch on in the next column when I compare how Runaways and Avengers Academy engages in its own ‘origin story done fast’ techniques.

Okay, so we’re only less than five pages in and we’ve seen the comic address the fact that you don’t need to worry about where powers come from, just that people have them and society tries to balance things out with heroes who stop crime. We know Izuku has a heroic spirit, but we won’t really have an idea of his powers or what his motives are.

An Origin Story Done Right Fast II: Quick to Power-Up, Quick to Move On

The basic idea of Izuku’s power, and his relationship to the source of said power, is explained within MHA’s first 60 or so pages. Izuku becomes acquainted with his world’s greatest hero, All Might, after a display of heroics. Izuku, not possessing any kind of powers himself, is extended the chance to inherit All-Might’s power, an energy-based ability called ‘One for All.’ While the idea is simple, the MHA manga is a shonen manga, thus it embraces very particular tropes. MHA is very quick to give Izuku powers because ‘what’ the power is in itself not as important as HOW Izuku gains, trains and utilizes these powers. To understand why this is a big deal, let’s talk about Shonen for a second.

Shonen manga is, in its purest form, a medium for young boys. While the age range varies from anywhere between eleven to eighteen, the values of what Shonen tends to embrace is physicality and friendship. While there are a wide variety of social issues behind why Japan would want its youth to embrace these concepts, the short version is that it produces active and socially aware individuals, or rather, it shows idealized characters who pursue these things in their own lives. Izuku begins the manga as a weak character who needs to physically train before he can truly ‘inherit’ the One for All power. And I mean, Rocky style, he has to build up his body. Unlike Spider-Man, whose body became superior because of his transformation, Izuku undergoes a rather radical regiment of physical labor before he even gains powers. This is, again, accomplished quickly in the MHA story, but it shows that this is a Shonen manga. Characters undergo rigorous training in Shonen stories, they learn new powers or abilities, and they tend to push themselves beyond whatever they believe their limits are. The importance of Izuku training is that, well, that he needs to train at all. His powers are part of a social contract between himself and All-Might, thus touching on the Shonen theme of friendship.

In what I might say are the strongest Shonen manga, characters don’t exist in isolation. They’re always becoming friends with a huge variety of other characters, often antagonists. Heck, some of the best Shonen characters are the antagonists who then turn into protagonists due to rivalries/friendships with the main character(s). The mentor/student dynamic between All-Might and Izuku is the heart of the MHA, although it cannot be said that the relationship between Izuku and Bakugo (the bully he stands up to on the first page) is less important.

Mentors are something that Western comics understand, yet it is rarely something pursued over a long haul. Mentor figures in Western comics tend to be part of stories which are brought in after a certain amount of time, or they are used as what I might consider set pieces, they’re characters who advance a story, yet who (again, in my experience) seldom have agency within the stories themselves. All-Might’s dynamic with Izuku is genuine and touching because they both need on another, both because All-Might needs to pass on his power and because, maybe even more importantly, Izuku needs to learn to become a more capable person. In a super hero comic, the only way that happens is by gaining powers and being trained.

MHA works hard to build up a world quickly that is free of certain kinds of narrative complexities and it moves fast to develop a character who is open to gaining power, but not actually being ready for it just yet. Thankfully, his has a strong mentor figure to help him transition into the ‘actual’ core of the story, that being where he joins a hero school. Izuku is not a blank slate styled character who grows into a personality so much as he is a young character who already has heroic traits which just finally gain their ability to blossom once he finds his mentor, trains his body, and then enters the right school. Izuku never truly changes so much as he simply becomes immersed in a new network of situations and characters. Izuku contrasts sharply against Peter Parker because, for one things, he never has to undergo a trauma which forces him to decide to use his powers for good. He already starts the story wanting to do that. The issue of how a teen would or wouldn’t ‘really’ use their powers is something I want to dig into via the next column.

NEXT COLUMN: Heroic Academies, American Teen Heroes, and more. I’ll compare and contrast MHA with Marvel’s Runaways and Avengers Academy and dig into what is similar between these American and Japanese comics, what makes them tick, and what can be gained from reading all of them side by side.


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