I just finished reading Nell Zink’s Mislaid, a family drama set in the 1960-1980s South. Long-listed for the National Book Award last year, it’s a novel so confident in its voice that it is at times, utterly transcendent. Zink’s Mislaid has an unmistakable clarity and strength, and it captured me as a reader. It is clearly what it is trying to be, but ascends above that space, entering a new place.
I was thinking about comics (because, that’s what I write about, mostly) and if any I had recently read had been as sure, as capable, and as vibrant as Nell Zink’s latest work, and surprisingly, I could answer yes. The answer is a newly released shonen manga series called My Hero Academia by Kōhei Horikoshi. Horikoshi’s first major release was the 2-volume dudder Barrage, which never managed to get off the ground. It was “new manga!” serialized in Viz Media’s digital revamp of Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. Despite that first false start in the US manga market, My Hero Academia, which started serialization in 2014, has already amassed a nice following in the US, has an anime on Hulu, and a fifth volume due in August of 2016.
One of the things that disappoints me about stock superhero comics (think comics like Green Lantern and not critiques/deconstructions like Strong Female Protagonist) is their lack of buoyancy. They sink under their own weight, either by being too heavy handed, too tied to the latest tie-in event, too dead-eyed, too stiff.
This is not to say that there isn’t a place for sad, overwrought, or angry superhero comics. “Adult” superhero comics, if you will. But the balance has shifted; “all-ages” is a curse word, and “comics aren’t for kids anymore!” is the mainstream press’ go-to catchphrase to describe how gritty, and frankly, how gross superhero comics currently are.
My Hero Academia clears all of those hurdles. Written as an homage to the superhero comics of yesteryear, it has all of the joie de vivre of a comic written by a huge superhero fan, all of the fun and spark of an all-ages comic, and still manages to deliver narrative driven, continuity driven superhero comics. You can tell that Horikoshi is riffing on things like the standard floppy cover (Shonen Jump vis a vis Marvel Comics Group), and even the hatching of one of the main characters, All Might, looks more like a 70′s superhero than a manga character. Horikoshi has a knack for smart character interactions, and his world-building has always been top of the line. But you can tell he is really having a lot of fun with the series, and his characters have made the story so much more fun. And that fun is infectious.
My Hero Academia is inspired, but it isn’t mired in the history of US corporate cape comics. Its target audience is every small child in Japan. Imagine superhero comics that were written for every small child in the English-speaking world. Hell, imagine superhero comics that were written for every small child in America. Imagine the type of stories you would need to tell to get kids interested in that work.
And it isn’t as though those comics don’t exist – in the past. Some of our most celebrated superhero comics creators, like Ditko and Kirby, were to a large extent writing superhero comics for kids.
The good news is that Horikoshi has created a work that is both reminiscent of those great superhero titles and unique in its own right. My Hero Academia is probably one of the best shonen manga in print in the US right now, and for my money it’s one of the best superhero comics in print right now. It transcends the genre, with beautiful art, great storytelling, and strong narrative. My Hero Academia makes the case for what superhero comics can be! and shows us how badly most are failing at it.
While corporate comics sees diminishing returns on aping the work of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons for the third decade, manga is becoming more global, more interconnected than ever. With the appeal of the global market, the growth of manga into more traditionally Western subjects is going to happen more frequently. And honestly, that’s a good thing. Let manga like My Hero Academia give DC and Marvel a run for their money.