Despite Being Its Influence, the Western Comics Industry Remains Silent on My Hero Academia

A panel showing a lineup of various major characters from the manga, My Hero Academia.

As the political and social climate feels more alarming day by day, it is not a coincidence that we have been living in a zeitgeist filled with the saturation of superheroes in our media for people to turn to for guidance. Although superheroes have been a prevalent norm in comics, the genre has recently found a major resurgence in film and television. But beyond the Marvel cinematic universe and the many reiterations of the Batman story, superheroes have even found a significant presence within manga and anime.

The Vol. 1 cover of the Viz English-language publication of My Hero Academia.
The Vol. 1 cover of the Viz English-language publication of My Hero Academia.

My Hero Academia (Boku no Hīrō Akademia) is a superhero manga series written and illustrated by Kōhei Horikoshi. Running since 2014, the series also has an anime adaptation helmed by Bones Inc. The series is set in a world where superpowers, known as “Quirks,” are commonplace. Izuku Midoriya wants to be a Hero himself, but he was born without a Quirk. On a fateful encounter with All Might, the world’s greatest Hero, Midoriya is not only given the man’s blessings to enroll at a superhero-training high school, but he is passed down All Might’s own Quirk for Midoriya to inherit for himself. Midoriya takes on the name “Deku” as his Hero alias and the series follows him and his peers as they balance the life of training, school, and the impending threat of villains.

Viz Media handles My Hero Academia’s English-language release, and since publication in 2015, the manga and respective anime have been nothing less than successful. The series has had a loud presence across fans in conventions of all types and even has a huge, viral reach online beyond the barriers of its own fandom communities.

Not only has it stabilized its popularity in Japan (it was the number 4 best-selling manga in 2017), but it has consistently made it on top reading and sales lists in the United States and has a significant sales presence and demand in major comic book shops. A fervor certainly boosted following the release of its anime adaptation, My Hero Academia has built a quick, international reach a lot of manga can’t really say they had previously. More recently, Legendary Entertainment, an American media company, has expressed interest in producing a live-action film adaptation.

But beyond numbers, what exactly has provided the series the boost it has?

My Hero Academia uses tropes in very much the same way many superhero stories and other shounen manga (works targeted for a male, teen demographic) do. The series honestly does not do anything groundbreaking compared to its predecessors. The series is about not already being heroes, but becoming and registering as heroes, a theme that has been explored in another manga/anime series like One Punch Man and Marvel. In fact, the series is often jokingly compared to the 2005 superhero comedy, Sky High. The film follows a very similar premise with a protagonist without superpowers who has to attend a school filled with others who do.

It is visually evident that Horikoshi, the series’ creator, handles his work with the confidence of where its source material from. He has even cited his influences from and admiration of Marvel Comics. Parodies have made appearances in the series and were not shy from being made clear as to what they are referencing. In volume one of the series, for example, when Quirks were being explained, clearly defined silhouettes of iconic characters like Superman and Wonder Woman have appeared in the world’s exposition. Extreme caricatures of other characters like Wolverine and Cyclops from X-Men like have appeared as gags in crowd shots. A couple of characters also have powers drawing from maneuvers based on the abilities of famous figures like Spider-Man. More explicitly, Viz’s publication of the series engineers the book covers to reference the look of issue covers in American comics.

A comparison of <i>My Hero Academia</i> Vol. 9 to an <i>Ultimate Spider-Man</i> cover.
Viz slightly rearranges the covers of the series to reference the style and layout of American comic issue covers. The art of Vol. 9 deliberately references an Ultimate Spider-Man cover by Mark Bagley.

Although people are always looking for a good, motivational superhero story — and comics will no doubt never run short on one to offer — perhaps what helps My Hero Academia the most is that it found its relevance in a time calling for better accessibility in comics.

One would think My Hero Academia would have been disadvantaged for being a manga, a medium still largely stigmatized as its own niche market separate from western comics. But despite these pushbucks, manga has always been a successful industry to international readers on its own terms. At times, manga titles have been even more successful than western comics against their own domestic sales.

According to Heidi MacDonald of Comics Beat — who took notes at a presentation in New York Comic Con — Viz Media was the biggest book publisher in terms of market shares, over DC Comics and Marvel as of 2017. MacDonald additionally notes the changes and current trend in consumer habits: people are turning less to specialty shops and more to bigger retailers and online services in a period where manga (or “graphic novels”) is now more accessible.

As the comics industry still struggles with understanding inclusivity, manga meanwhile has long had a history of better accessibility to previously excluded groups like women — as cited in the writings of Masami Toku. My Hero Academia’s popularity is supported thanks to the growth of “non-conventional” and newer comics readers finding a place within manga. With what it has to offer storytelling wise, My Hero Academia is technically not niche, but its subjectivity to being niche provides a channel to those who simply want a new superhero story without the pressure of overwhelming lore and an elitist environment.

With that said, it is odd how there is little reception by major creators and publishers in the Western comics market despite the series’ deepening influence — save for a few exceptions. Back in April, the series collaborated with Avengers: Infinity War promotional material. That said, the initiative was specific to Japanese locale to commemorate and market the film’s international release. Manga and comics are still unfortunately treated as distinctly separate things, yet the overlap in their communities has made it clear that they rightfully do not have to be so. Perhaps this silence unfortunately coincides with and is symbolic of a similar silence and small resistance against the ongoing critique of the growing unsustainability of the western comics industry.

The different distribution techniques between manga and comics could also play a huge factor in determining the consumer habits in their respective markets. Formats today are more varied than ever, but comics in the American format are still generally published firstly in thin periodicals, otherwise known as issues. On the other hand, Japanese comics, and even with some European titles, have opportunities to be serialized in magazines specialized for comics and other small press ventures. These magazines serialize different titles covering hundreds of pages on a frequent schedule, even weekly.

The trade paperback format in western comics tends to be for specialized titles, like works that have been intentionally published as “graphic novels,” or long after a series has been running. These bound volumes compile issues together and present them in a single format for a reader to digest a whole series. After a time span of magazine serialization, Japanese comics are collected in bound volumes called tankoubon. Most manga readers would be more familiar reading with this format if they are reading work exported from outside of Japan.

In short, it is clear why it makes sense to theorize that the difference in these distribution formats also plays a decisive role in the comics markets. Bound volumes are more straightforward for readers to approach versus having to constantly keep track with the sales of smaller issues. Magazines serializing comics is also a more inexpensive investment compared to periodicals: readers are able to explore multiple titles in one publication versus a singular story in the span of a whole single issue. These collected formats are budget friendly and less intimidating to a reader who especially may not necessarily label themselves as a comics connoisseur. What is treated as the norm in the publication of manga should be another talking point on the issue of accessibility given the difficulties faced with the distribution of American comics.

The market should not be shy and frugal when it comes to understanding how international work succeeds. Manga and anime influences were and are deeply present in American work, especially in the 2000s when major publishers who specialized in translating Japanese works started increasing their presence.

From 2002 to 2011, Tokyopop was one of the largest publishers for English-language translated manga. In that time, the company even sponsored an annual competition for new writers and artists to have a chance to publish their own “Original English Language (OEL) manga.” The company went on to expand their library to nurture the creation of manga based on classic American prose novels. Tokyopop knew that manga was becoming popular with young readers and they capitalized on it (Though it is important to note that since its initial bankruptcy and recent attempts to return to the business, Tokyopop has come under fire over how it has mistreated its creators over the years.).

The influences of anime and manga were especially present in television animation. The art direction of the 2003 Teen Titans animated series clearly draws influences from anime. As a superhero series itself, this parallels My Hero Academia’s own take on western comics.

This sort of influence was not only present in American works, but it was mutually reciprocated in Japanese media. For instance, Heroman is a manga and anime franchise collaboration from 2010 between Stan Lee, Tamon Ohta, and Bones Inc.: the same studio that would later handle My Hero Academia’s anime adaptation as previously mentioned. More recently, Batman Ninja, directed by Junpei Mizusaki, is a heavily stylized, 3D animated film that gives its own a radically different take on the iconic Dark Knight. Comics has always been running on global exchange, not only as far as dated to Osamu Tezuka’s relationship with Disney, but even as far as the Japanese printmaking influences on European illustration.

It is difficult to argue that comics and animation have not been depending on cross-cultural influences since early history and continue to do so. The lack of mainstream discussion in the industry over why My Hero Academia and other non-conventional titles work currently prosper the way they do is hindering what could be conducive solutions to help the western comics industry. With the hope and motivational spirit that My Hero Academia provides, the western industry needs to embrace that change if it wants to survive.

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie somehow finds bliss in purposefully complicating the art of storytelling and undertaking the painful practice of animation. If you see her on Twitter at @lvmaeparian, she is doing neither of those things.