by Salem @cicada_cryptid
My Hero Academia has taken the manga reading and anime watching community hostage, having approximately 30 million copies of its manga in circulation as of January 2021, and with its anime adaptation still airing its popularity is sure to continue climbing. Much of its popularity comes from fans who love the fantastical characters created by Kōhei Horikoshi, and it’s not hard to get why, a relatable main character with a slew of side characters that sweep across the personality spectrum, anyone who watches the series (or reads it) is bound to find a character that they enjoy, and with the screen time devoted to each character there’s no shortage in seeing your favorite in action. So why has a villain character that’s been kept mostly a mystery grabbed the attention of the ever-growing fanbase, a character with less screen time than most of the other villains no less? Is it his cool attitude? Is it his simple emo-Esque costume?
Throughout my time as a fan of My Hero Academia I’ve always seen posts online of fans gushing about the character of Dabi. A villain with a unique flame quirk, much like another fan-favorite Todoroki, with the exception being his flames were blue. Even when I was a reader had not been introduced to Dabi as a character I already kind of liked him. All of this talk about Dabi came to a head for me personally when Ryan Stegman the artist for such titles as Superior Spider-Man, Venom, King in Black, and Uncanny Avengers drew a cover for the french edition of the manga in September of 2020.
(Ryan Stegman’s Dabi and Shigaraki)
Recently I saw a trend with all of the Dabi love and Dabi fan accounts that I was seeing, many of “his” fans were around my age, around 18 to 21. This conclusion led me to more questions, ‘why were people around my age liking this character so much?’ The answer lies in a lot of our childhoods, much like Dabi’s own motivations.
(The rest of this piece contains spoilers for chapter 290 of the My Hero Academia manga. As of writing this piece these chapters have not been adapted into the anime.)
“Gifted kid burnout,” a very real phenomenon has really taken control over my generation and many others. What is it? Well, in layman’s terms it’s a fixed mindset that has been instilled in a lot of us since we first entered school. Expectations placed upon us that frankly, a lot of us couldn’t keep up with. This gifted kid program was meant to help us find out potential and hopefully achieve that full potential, the actual reality is much less cheerful. A lot of gifted kids have grown up anxiety-ridden and depressed simply because we weren’t able to meet expectations. So, I’m sure you’re wondering just what this little info dump has to do with Dabi? Well, simply put, Dabi is a gifted kid, and much like the rest of us, he wasn’t able to meet the expectations put onto him by his father, pro-hero Endeavor.
If you’re not caught up with the manga of My Hero Academia Dabi’s mysterious backstory was finally revealed to the readers, Endeavor, and Shoto Todoroki all while in the cataclysmic battle between Shigaraki and the League of Villains and the pro-heroes joined by members of the UA hero program. Dabi’s real name is Toya Todoroki, a reveal so dramatic it would make any theatre kid blush. However, it’s his history that makes him so relatable to the now-grown gifted kids.
Toya, much like his brother Shoto, was born as a result of Endeavor’s vain goal to usurp All Might, and such a lot of pressure was placed on him from a young age. His quirk was similar to Endeavor’s being able to wield and create fire, unfortunately, his mixed quirk also made him vulnerable to his own flames, as his mother quirk allowed her to control ice, because of that Toya was simply unable to keep up with his father’s expectations of him. (See where I’m going here?) Toya, a child who just wanted his father to be proud of him kept going and kept trying until one day in an incident with his quirk he was thought dead. He almost literally experienced burnout. (Side note: wouldn’t that have been a wicked villain name for Dabi?)
Burnout and its effects are growing more and more common in today’s culture and to see a character like Dabi rise from that burnout to his own kind of success is really nice to see. That’s why so many people relate so hard to him. He had his burnout and has come back stronger, and besides the fact that he’s literally a serial killer, his endgame of sorts honestly has a hint of heroic ambition in it.
As we all know Dabi’s joining of the League of Villains was prompted by the Hero Killer: Stain, and his vision for a world with true heroes, and when we hear and understand what Stain wants one could make the argument of Stain technically being a hero. When Dabi broadcasted to all of Japan just what kind of person Endeavor was you could make the argument that he did so to protect Japan from the Endeavor that he and his family know.
When you look at Dabi’s actions in that way it’s hard not to see the conclusion. Dabi is trying to be a hero. Kids who experienced burnout at a young age are still trying to fulfill their dreams, seeing a character experience that, and still be able to somewhat do it, even if it is in a different way than originally intended. Dabi does see himself as a hero and the best way to understand that comes from the classic line from 2008’s The Dark Knight “not the hero we deserve, but the one we needed.”
Dabi represents what a lot of ex-gifted kids see in themselves, and yeah maybe it is a little weird to relate to a fictional serial killer with an insane amount of daddy issues, (but seriously it’s only weird if someone related to him because he’s a serial killer,) but his story is pretty much a more dramatic retelling of gifted kids’ childhood. Obviously, not all of us had abusive fathers or faked our deaths, but we can relate to a character who is going through an extreme version of what happened in our own lives. Seeing that fear of failure in young Toya’s eyes really brings me back to when I was afraid to try new things because of that fear of failure. The legit fear of disappointing my mom when I brought back a test that I got a C on.