My Hero Academia is beloved in Japan, but the series is also popular in the United States. The original series already has 14 volumes in print from Viz Media. It comes to readers here as part of a new generation of boys (aka shonen) manga, and has an animated TV show which has recently entered its third season. The premise of the comic is that the world is super powered - over time, humans started developing "Quirks" that give them unique powers, and these "Quirks" have become more and more common. Due to the rise of superpowers, superpowered crime is a major concern, and so the government has created a “Hero Licensing System” that allows people with Quirks to register with the government and fight crime as a job.
If you’re not completely immersed in Japanese comics, you’re probably thinking “Quirks sound a lot like the mutants in X-Men,” and you'd be right. The My Hero Academia universe is deeply indebted to modern American superhero comics, and it is clear that the series’ creator Kohei Horikoshi holds American superhero comics in high regard. But those influences are a sort of subtext for the original comic; the structure of My Hero Academia is based around the traditional Japanese school year and other Japanese constructs that make the series unique and not just a New Mutants knockoff.
What makes My Hero Academia: Vigilantes different from its predecessor is its premise; rather than being a story about students saving the world from the confines of a training program and a school, it’s about small-time players taking up the role of hero when using their abilities is forbidden. In that sense, My Hero Academia: Vigilantes takes the subtext of American superhero comics from the original series and elevates that influence to a textual level.
That elevation isn’t very subtle. One of the three main characters is a masked, muscle-bound guy named Knuckleduster who swings around on a grappling hook and is one of the few “Quirkless” characters in My Hero Academia. (Sound familiar?) Early on in the book, he takes a low-level vigilante named Koichi Haimawari on as an apprentice. Koichi works at a convenience store and calls himself “Nice Guy” (he basically cleans up litter and helps people cross the street with his powers), but restyles himself as “The Crawler” after some training. The two pair up with a wanna-be pop star who calls herself Pop☆Step to save the neighborhood when a rash of Quirk-enhancing drugs start turning people with low-level Quirks into instant supervillains. There are nods to the X-Men in particular - two high school delinquents are the spitting images of Wolverine and Cyclops, with powers to match.
To be clear, My Hero Academia: Vigilantes is an intensely commercial work. As a spin-off, Furuhashi and Court have to work within a developed fictional world and make sure that readers see the connection. That connection comes mostly in the form of character cameos from the original series to drive the plot of various chapters. It’s clear that My Hero Academia: Vigilantes relies on the popularity of My Hero Academia to sell books. The language is a little fouler, the action a little bloodier, and the fan service (which exists in basically all comics for boys in Japan) is a little raunchier. Still, Hideyuki Furuhashi, the writer of the comic, clearly understands the power of My Hero Academia’s central theme. My Hero Academia: Vigilantes is a story of finding your inner strength and finding your way in a hard world, just like its source material. There’s a tenderness in that worldview that defies genre standards.
The apple can’t fall too far from the tree though, and that’s visible in the illustration of My Hero Academia: Vigilantes. Betten Court is a capable chameleon, managing to nearly match Kohei Horikoshi’s distinctive style. The production of these comics is very slick in the way that all modern shonen manga tend to be, but Betten Court makes space for pop culture cameos and other visual inside jokes throughout the book. The action scenes flow well, and the Knuckleduster scenes in particular have great pacing. A good punch cures all ills.
Unfortunately, My Hero Academia: Vigilantes is a series that doesn’t stand by itself. It needs the world building of its companion series for a lot of the comic’s action to make complete sense, and it lacks the original series’ charm. The strength of My Hero Academia: Vigilantes is in the universal nature of its themes and the deep well of its source material that it gets to draw from. Betten Court is a capable illustrator, and the book is a fun exploration of the world of My Hero Academia. While Furuhashi and Court may not have created a comic that manages to step outside of the long shadow of its source material, My Hero Academia: Vigilantes is an enjoyable read, and it wears its love of American superheroes on its sleeve. Readers uninitiated in the world of My Hero Academia will be better served by starting at the source.