Before I get into this review of a Japanese comic book that’s actually a spin-off of another Japanese comic book, I’d like to briefly cover my own background as a fan of American comics, specifically the superhero genre. As a teenager-turned-aspiring adult who grew up on a steady diet of Marvel & DC, it was easy for me to take for granted the fact that every character I read about exists and operates in the same world. It’s a very simple concept, the idea of a “shared universe”, but just the idea that anyone can show up in anyone’s comic has instant creative appeal. Spider-Man can show up in a Thor comic, Batman can team up with Green Lantern, and so on and so forth.
If you take a look at Japan’s closest equivalent to mainstream American comics — the weekly published Shonen Jump magazine —you’ll notice the percentage of interactions between characters from different titles is basically zero. There have occasionally been events where characters from different books meet, but these are almost always non-canon “filler” stories that don’t impact the plot of either book. There will never be a chapter of One Piece where Goku from Dragon Ball suddenly shows up to help Monkey D Luffy take on Blackbeard, however awesome that would be. These sorts of crossovers just aren’t the norm in manga, and that’s perfectly fine; not every comic is obligated to follow the same rules as American superhero comics, and in fact many of them are better for it.
Still, what if one were to take the “shared universe” concept from American superhero comics and apply it to a massively popular shonen manga series that already features dozens of super-powered characters? Enter My Hero Academia: Vigilantes.
To understand the world of Vigilantes, first you need to know a little bit about the core title: My Hero Academia. Written and drawn by Kōhei Horikoshi, the story takes place in a world where 80% of the population has manifested a super-power, or “quirk”, which can be anything from breathing fire to turning invisible to having the proportional strength and abilities of a frog (no that’s not a joke and yes it’s awesome). We don’t know how long this has been happening but we can assume it’s been a while. By the time the story begins the various governing bodies of the world already have policies in place to regulate the use of quirks in public. Despite that sounding like the set-up for a “Big Brother” style dystopia, this is a time of unparalleled peace, happiness and security; a golden age safeguarded by “pro heroes” who have been officially authorized to defend the innocent against attacks from dastardly “villains”.
My Hero Academia: Vigilantes is not about those heroes, as you may have divined from the title. Instead, this is a story about unlicensed heroes who prefer to operate under the radar, performing smaller everyday acts of “heroism” and doing the best they can not to get caught. This first volume chronicles the adventures of three such heroes: Pop☆Step, Nice Guy, and Knuckleduster.
Pop☆Step is quite honestly the least likely to be considered a hero, being more concerned with getting her make-up right, setting up impromptu concerts and selling “Pop☆Step” merchandise. If we’re comparing her to American superheroes her closest equivalent would probably be Booster Gold, if Boost Gold showed 60% more leg.
Nice Guy prefers to focus on smaller acts of kindness; he would rather pick up the garbage than pick a fight with an actual villain. Think Peter Parker at the beginning of Spider-Man: Homecoming, only with zero desire to graduate to the big leagues.
Knuckleduster is crazy. The creators say his starting point was Batman but I honestly see him relating more to Moon Knight: they both love punching first and asking questions later.
On paper none of these people should work well together and yet, in typical “odd couple” fashion, they find they are far more effective as a team than they ever were apart. Nice Guy keeps Knuckleduster from beating criminals to a bloody pulp. Knuckleduster encourages Nice Guy to work on becoming a better hero. Pop☆Step makes sure both of them don’t get too carried away and lose sight of what they’re doing. With only five chapters to cover in this first volume there’s little time for the characters to develop outside these roles; Nice Guy gets the closest as he begins moving out of his comfort zone while the other two are fairly one-note at this point. However, I’m willing to give this cast a chance on the strength of what I’ve read so far and from the bits and pieces I’ve gathered online there are some pretty interesting developments on the horizon.
In terms of story there are hints of a larger conspiracy building around the edges of these character’s adventures but so far Vigilantes seems unconcerned with trying to match the scale of it’s parent series, nor does it seem particularly interested in grand debates on the nature of heroism. Comparisons between the two titles are inevitable and doubtlessly there will be readers who are put off by this choice, but I feel this is to the creators credit. They could have simply rushed out a book that was just the main series except all the characters are criminals and it’s totally SERIOUS BUSINESS, but instead they took the time to create something that has it’s own identity while still being respectful of the core title.
I understand there’s also been some debate on whether the events of this book are “canon” to the main story. That is to say, the readers aren’t certain if the events taking place in Vigilantes are actually part of the ongoing plot in MHA. It’s easy to see where the confusion’s coming from; while characters from the core titles make cameos in Vigilante – one or two taking on larger roles in certain chapters – the characters and events of Vigilante have yet to warrant a mention in MHA proper. It’s kind of like how the Marvel TV shows constantly reference events from the movies while the movies themselves just seem to kind of ignore their television equivalents, that is to say there isn’t a lot of give and take happening between the two.
Still, I found the crossovers when they did occur to be integrated pretty naturally, none of them seem like they were written as cheap fan service and the characters who do show up are never written wildly out of character. We can credit a lot of that to the series writer, Hideyuki Furuhashi, who does a capable job of respecting what’s come before while also developing his own distinct corner of the MHA universe, peppering it with references ranging from King Kong to the X-Men. This is a writer who wears his geek love on his sleeve and if nothing else I got to respect him for that. He’s also very good at keeping the plot moving at a decent pace; the entire time I was reading this volume there was never a moment where I got bored or wondered what the MHA characters were doing right now, and that’s a surprisingly hard thing to pull off with me.
Then there’s Vigilantes other resident MVP: Betten Court, the series primary artist. More than anyone else working on this book I think Court had the hardest job of all: finding a style that was visually close to Horikoshi’s style that the main characters could be easily recognized while also adding his own visually distinctive touches. Based on what I’ve seen so far I think I can safely say that he’s stuck the landing; his design work is similar enough that it doesn’t contrast wildly with characters from the main series, but it also has a certain zippiness and clarity that compliments Furuhashi’s more light-hearted and comedic style of writing. All-in-all it seems like Court and Furuhashi are having a genuinely fun time playing around in Horikoshi’s sandbox, which makes me even more excited to see what crazy ideas they come up with next.
In conclusion, I would say Vigilantes is a breezy read but a nevertheless interesting companion piece to the MHA series. While this series doesn’t yet qualify as required reading for long-time fans of the main story I believe that most readers will find something to enjoy in this first volume, and I for one am looking forward to seeing where Court and Furuhashi go from here. If this is the kind of quality we can expect in future spin-off titles I believe this comic is definitely a step in the right direction. Of course no sensible review can end without some sort of obligatory rating system, so I’ll give My Hero Academia: Vigilantes three and 1/3 blackened tongues out of five!
Until the next time, Squares. Go beyond! Plus ULTRAAA!
…I mean, come on, you had to have known that was coming.