My Hero Academia is a great anime and manga. Bet you haven’t heard that before. At this point, HeroAca is one of the most popular series in the entirety of the medium. Everyone’s heard of it, everyone’s seen it, and everyone has an opinion on it, with most people’s being pretty positive. But how was HeroAca made? Well obviously, it’s written and drawn by mangaka Kohei Horikoshi. While it took a number of people to make this series a possibility, from assistants to editors to animators to production assistants, it’s clearly his extreme talent which has allowed it to reach the heights that it has. But like all artists, Horikoshi did not emerge from a vacuum, creating a masterpiece out of nowhere. No, his struggles to reach this point have been long and hard. The amount of effort it took to eventually become one of the top series in Weekly Shounen Jump should not be overlooked. This, here, is the story of how My Hero Academia came to be.
Like many, Horikoshi has loved Jump from when he was a child. For those who dream of becoming mangaka, Jump is a common goal, and it was no different for him. Series like Naruto and One Piece were the most popular works in the magazine during his teenage years and he was a large fan of both those and other series. Since way back then he was interested in art, to the point that he submitted a drawing for One Piece that was eventually showcased in 2002’s Volume 23, which would’ve released when he was around 15. While it’s unrefined and somewhat unclear due to the size, his artistic skill is apparent even from that point. These popular battle shounen shaped him and for that reason, he was interested in making works along those lines.
By 2007, he managed to make it into Jump himself. This began with a series of three one-shots, Tenko, My Hero, and Shinka Rhapsody, though only My Hero is actually scanned as far as I’ve been able to tell, so that’s the only one I’ve read.
My Hero serves, as you would expect, as a prototype of sorts to HeroAca. A massive number of similarities exist: from the main characters’ family name, to the focus on heroism, to a number of designs, to a theme of overcoming the odds and proving yourself even if you’ve got physiological problems holding you back. At the same time, it’s a very different work and his relative inexperience at the time definitely shows. The art is rough and pretty uninteresting, particularly in the fight scenes which totally lack the impact of his later works, the comedy just isn’t funny in the slightest, and it’s clearly not fit for a continuation of any sort, lacking almost any depth.
However, as a proof of concept, it was excellent. Sure, the flaws I mentioned are present, and looking back on it now it’s easy to criticize seeing how far he’s come. But it’s also easy to see how he continued to move forward from here. There’s some real heart in it, a real understanding of what makes heroes so inspiring, something which would obviously become even more apparent half-a-decade later on HeroAca. He didn’t just want to make a flashy battle shounen manga which wins over the readers with cool fights, he had themes he wanted to explore and stories he wanted to tell. It might not have been perfect but giving him a serialization wasn’t a half bad idea.
And so, Horikoshi was given his first big break. To start, he was allowed to draw another one-shot, Oumagadoki Zoo. A fun little story about finding a place where you fit in, alongside a focus on magic and animals, it clearly had potential in it. Evidently, it was fairly popular, as it was picked up for a serialization half a year later.
Looking at the serialized version of Oumagadoki Zoo, it’s easy to see how far Horikoshi had already come. His art had taken a drastic step up from My Hero and even from the one-shot version. His use of blacks to give weight to fight scenes became more prominent and the character designs just felt more suited to motion. At the same time, he clearly understood how to make a long-running manga. While the base plots of the one-shot and the first chapter of the serialization are the same, their execution is different. The serialized version explains fewer worldbuilding details and shows less progress while focusing just as much on making the reader come to value the characters.
But all is not perfect. There’s a reason that this is not the manga that Horikoshi is known for, at least among any circles I’m aware of. The central issue, aside from his art not yet being as good as it eventually would become, is the fact that the characters are generally pretty unlikable and uninteresting. The main character, Aoi Hana, is a boring, normal girl whose sole standout trait is that she’s clumsy and bad at nearly everything she does. Yes, you’ve heard that before. No, it’s not any better this time around. While she is the manga’s protagonist, she rarely gets to do much. This becomes more and more true as time goes on and the series shifts towards an ordinary battle shounen arc structure. The fights are cool, but Hana’s unimportance in them drags both her and the series down. This is an even bigger problem when the outside world surrounding her is brought up, as it’s never capitalized upon. Perhaps it would’ve been if the series had gone on longer, but Horikoshi’s goals with Hana were perhaps too ambitious to ever pay off and having her be so uninteresting for such a long time is almost certainly part of its eventual downfall.
The other main character is Shiina, a human who was transformed by a mysterious curse into a rabbit. Shiina sucks. He’s bad. This guy should not be the other main character. He’s lazy, abusive, and used constantly for jokes which just aren’t funny. This was really disappointing to me, as the one-shot version of him is similar but much less abrasive. Theoretically, Shiina is well-liked for truly caring about his friends, unlike the directors at the other magical animal exhibits. However, when he’s so disinterested in actually helping them and so abusive to Hana, he just comes across as an asshole, and it’s not fun to read. Bakugou is similar in many ways, but there’s a key difference between the two. When Shiina is abusive the manga seems to be saying “Oh that lovable goof!”. When Bakugou is abusive it’s clear that this is a problem he needs to deal with, one which hurts those around him and makes him worse as a hero.
The other characters, from the zoo’s animals to the animals at other exhibits to the humans are all perfectly fine. While they mostly lack the inherent likability that much of Class 1-A has, they aren’t offensive either. But they can hardly fix things when the main two characters just aren’t good.
Still, it’s at least a decent manga, and as the structure became more arc-based I began to enjoy it a good deal. The worldbuilding is interesting and while obviously unfinished, there’s a lot there that I can imagine would have been cool if Horikoshi had a chance to expand on it. Unfortunately, that never came, and it was canceled after 38 chapters, leaving it as a 5 volume manga which ran from 2011 to 2012.
My Hero was inserted at the end of the volume 5 release, thus making it more easily available to be scanned and increasing its profile. Notably, he says in a comment next to it that it’s still the work he’s most proud of, even with how far he’s come, noting that he’d like to return to it one day. That day would come, of course, but it would take quite a bit of work to get there.
It’s not uncommon to have your first work at Jump get axed, so Horikoshi’s fate was hardly sealed after Oumagadoki’s cancellation. Once again, he was given a one-shot, which was later followed up on when it proved popular enough to deserve a serialization. This manga was Barrage, known in Japanese as Sensei no Baruji.
Compared to his last work, this one boasts massive improvement. The art is, for all intents and purposes, on the level that it would be during HeroAca. No longer would I call it unrefined; this is absolutely fantastic. Just as a quick example, the main character, Astro, looks almost exactly like a younger version of Kirishima. And this extends beyond the characters’ faces, of course. Everyone is suited to motion and his linework is great at conveying the movement during all scenes. The use of dark black shades has taken another step up and all the fights are full of striking images. My lack of knowledge about art makes it hard to perfectly describe, so just look at it. It’s not difficult to understand why an artist of this caliber would become popular making battle shounen manga.
There’s a lot of other neat stuff in this series as well. For instance, the world it establishes is quite interesting. Set on a planet which has become a battleground for various alien races, the uneducated and poor main character finds himself thrust into the role of heir apparent to this world’s monarchy, which is struggling to even maintain its grasp on the central city. As such, he has to travel forth and work to reclaim this world from the various alien races which terrorize what remains of the human race.
While I might find positive depictions of monarchy a bit annoying, that’s a premise with a lot of merit. And in many ways, the series delivers on it. Everything moves snappily, wasting no time in getting Astro on the road and having him come to understand the depths of the hardships that this world’s population has to go through, hardships which even make his poverty-stricken life look like paradise. At no point do I ever feel like it’s just spinning its wheels. Everything feels very purposeful, unlike many of the side characters in Oumagadoki. Obviously, this was eventually canceled, but a lot of the material Horikoshi put in place here was clearly going to go somewhere. Even in the small amount that exists, there are a ton of plot developments, most of which go in pretty interesting places.
But again, all is not peachy. There’s plenty that’s not great here, and while I’d say its cancellation was unfortunate, it’s easy to see why it happened. First, the characters are once again pretty boring. This isn’t as bad for most of the expanded cast, but it is for Astro. Not only is he perhaps the most generic battle shounen protagonist in existence, he’s not even a well-done version of that. Most notably, he lacks the pathos that makes characters like Deku work even though they’re part of well-played archetypes. Astro’s whole thing is an obsession with family and keeping families together, something he came to believe in after adopting a bunch of children during his time on the streets. This is cool but ironically, in moving at such a quick and engaging speed, the series fails to flesh this out and make it really work. The first chapter of HeroAca is entirely dedicated to Deku’s struggles, showcasing the reason he so heavily idolizes All-Might and demonstrating why he wants to be a hero in spite of his Quirkless nature, immediately making him easy to love. That’s not the case here, where the first chapter is used to introduce many more characters, never truly selling the reader on Astro’s ideals and emotional connections.
But that’s not the biggest issue. The surrounding characters are generally pretty good, so I could forgive Astro being boring. What I can’t forgive is the cardinal sin of battle shounen series: poorly handled power levels. In essence, Astro’s abilities are never clearly demonstrated and thus what he’s able to accomplish is vague and unclear. And this extends beyond him. Astro’s teacher, Tiamat, is similarly impossible to gauge and the antagonists are hardly any better. As anyone who’s spent time with this genre would know, unclear powers make it hard to get invested in the battles. What makes HeroAca work so well, alongside other works like Jojo and Hunter x Hunter, is the ability with which Horikoshi manages to take unique skill sets and figure out ways they could be used in battle. We almost always understand what a Quirk can do and what its limits are, with the surprise factor being how a character figures out how to use it. This series just utterly fails at that, which is perhaps its biggest issue, one which is particularly annoying given how great his art had become at this point. If Horikoshi learned one thing from this manga’s failure, it was how to write interesting fight scenes.
Still, it’s a fun manga, and I do believe its cancellation after a mere 2 volumes was unfortunate. It was never going to become an amazing series but it absolutely had the potential to be a good one if it had been given the chance. I do understand why it never got that chance but I certainly find it a bit sad.
So, Horikoshi got two manga serialized in Jump, one running for 38 chapters and one running for 16, neither reaching a full year’s run. That sounds really bad, and it’s certainly not great, but to actually figure out how successful or unsuccessful he was, we need to take a broader look at Weekly Shounen Jump and how manga tend to work in that magazine.
The first thing that’s worth looking at is the rankings of his three series. Now, it’s important to state that these rankings are not real. They’re merely the placement of the various series in the table of contents, only including weeks where a manga doesn’t get any color pages. Theoretically, this ranking is based on the results of the reader survey 8 weeks prior. In reality, of course, the arrangement of the table of contents is merely whatever Jump’s editors want in a given week. However, that’s still valuable. Even if it doesn’t tell us exactly how popular each series was with the readers, it does give us a sense of how heavily the editors were prioritizing them. It’s also worth noting that, while I trust the sources I used for this, I may have entered some data wrong, so I apologize if there are any minor errors.
As you can see, Oumagadoki didn’t do all that well, only making it into the single digit ranks a couple of times. For most of its run, it was consistently in the bottom half of the list, which is never a good sign for a new series that the editors should want to be pushing. Barrage, on the other hand, started off decent, though not amazing, before rapidly dropping down to the very bottom of the list prior to its quick cancellation. I wouldn’t be shocked if it was already axed after volume 1, with the editors not even remotely caring about promoting it after chapter 9 or so. And for comparison’s sake, here’s HeroAca. As you can see, it’s only been in the single digits once in its entire history, accompanying a fairly recent downward swing which still leaves it well above his previous two series. It’s quite apparent that the past works were not a success.
But how common is that? Well, to find out, I decided to take a look at how many Jump manga manage to survive at least a year long-run, defining that as my criteria for success. Starting from 2010 and going to 2016, the least successful year had only a 12.5% success rate while the most successful had a whopping 36.36% success rate. These figures should make it very clear: failing is the norm for a Jump manga. And so, this might be where you assume that what makes Horikoshi special is not that he managed to get into the magazine before failing, but that he eventually succeeded despite having previous failures.
But even that’s not the case, no, many of Jump’s most popular manga, now and in the past, all came after failed serializations. Black Clover’s mangaka previously made Hungry Joker. Shoukegki no Soma’s made Shounen Shikku. Haikyuu’s made Kiben Gakuha. From World Trigger’s came Kashikoi Ken Rilienthal. And before Nisekoi there was Double Arts. None of these predecessor manga made it a full year, much like Horikoshi’s first two. It is a bit more uncommon to actually have two failures prior to making it big but given Horikoshi’s talent and potential, I can see why he got a third chance, one he didn’t blow.
Still, the fact that it’s normal to fail first didn’t help Horikoshi much after Barrage was canceled. As he himself admits, it getting axed left him fairly depressed. And yet, in spite of the fact that it would have been more than understandable for him to throw in the towel, deciding to go for some smaller magazine which would allow him to keep going even if he wasn’t making the most popular series of all time, he pushed on. He refused to give up and, in doing so, managed to make HeroAca. And as I showed with the rankings earlier, it immediately paid off, becoming one of the most popular series in the magazine right now and one of the most recognizable anime and manga of the 2010s in the process.
Horikoshi’s story is absurdly inspiring. He managed to take his failures and build upon them. He learned from his mistakes but never gave up the core elements that made him so worthwhile in the first place. And in the end, it paid off for him. That would be worth recognizing in any sense but the fact that doing so allowed him to write the manga he’d been wanting to make for the last half-decade raises this story to another level. He finally got his wish, fleshing out My Hero into a work that everyone could love. My Hero Academia is a great series, one that doesn’t need this knowledge to stand up. But I think that knowing what Horikoshi had to go through in order to truly achieve his dream of publishing successfully in Jump makes it even better and I hope that you can agree.