Story & Art: Makoto Kobayashi
Translation & Adaptation: Alan Gleason, Hideshi Kotobuki, Dana Lewis, Jeanne Sather, Lea Seidman, Toren Smith, Elin Winkler
Lettering & Retouch: L. Lois Buhalis, Amador Cisneros, Pat Duke & Radio Comix, Tom Orzechowski, Amy Stella
Editor: Philip R. Simon
Assistant Editor: Joshua Engledow
Designer: Sarah Terry
Centuries before they were asking if they “can has cheezburger,” cats have been fascinating ailurophiles from all backgrounds and cultures. Throughout the world, comics have been an effective medium for conveying the charm, mystery, and absurdity of the feline. Orange tabbies are especially popular, with the wise-cracking likes of Heathcliff and Garfield once grinning up from newspapers all over the United States. And Japan has their own favorite orange tabby: Makoto Kobayashi’s Michael, who graces the pages of Dark Horse’s new “Fatcat” reprint of every cat-fancier’s soon-to-be favorite manga, What’s Michael?
The titular Michael is not an individual character so much as he is an avatar for all tomcats, an archetype who traipses through the pages of the episodic manga along with both feline and canine companions, illustrating the different scenarios in which cats and the people who love them often find themselves. The massive manga opens with that most familiar of scenes: a cat is stalking something and, when he goes for the pounce, completely misses his target. Anyone who shares their home with a cat will instantly recognize the way he acts as though he never intended to catch his target in the first place. However, while most cats will simply walk away, as if to say “I meant to do that,” Michael hops up on two legs and performs a little dance, one associated with the cat-monster of Japanese folklore, the bakeneko.
There is a rotating cast of human characters as well, like K, the yakuza thug who doesn’t want any of his associates or enemies to know that he dotes on a cat, and M, a rival yakuza heavy who doesn’t want anyone to find out that his one weakness is a paralyzing fear of felines. Or there’s the vet who was framed for murder, on the run and hiding in the homes of unsuspecting cat owners, teaching them how to better care for their pets before escaping as the police close in on him. And because Kobayashi seems to particularly enjoy poking fun at men, there is a running gag wherein a tough-looking crowd of serious gents show up to a cat cafe, or in droves to adopt kittens.
The cats also exist outside of their relationships to people, showing up as gangsters, cops, criminals, mahjong-players, salarymen, boxers, and hostesses. They act out human dramas in distinctly cat-like ways, getting distracted from an interrogation by a bug flying by, or winning at cards because they can manipulate their dog opponents more easily than they can be manipulated themselves. There is no end to the imaginative scenarios posed in each chapter, and the mix of absurdity and genuine observation of cats drive the comedy to rollicking heights.
Dark Horse originally published What’s Michael? in the 90s, in thin paperback volumes. With this rerelease, they have compiled the first six of those volumes into one, resulting in over 500 pages of cat antics. They have chosen to keep these volumes in the left-to-right format, instead of adhering to the more common right-to-left for manga, as well as keeping their original translation. As such, this volume has some inconsistencies in it; for example the fat female cat is sometimes referred to as “Catzilla,” and other times referred to as “Nyazilla,” the “nya” being the Japanese equivalent of “meow.” These hiccups are mildly confusing, but they do not make the volume unreadable or any less enjoyable.
Kobayashi is clearly a keen observer of the feline population, so precise are his interpretations of cat behavior. His ability to capture that distinct expression on a cat’s face when he is shocked, or bored, or excited for food is impeccable. Aside from his feline gestural prowess, his human characters are also amazingly fun to observe, all expressive caricatures of people whose lives are governed by their proximity to, affection for, aversion of, and/or affinity with cats.
For those who crave some frisky feline fun in their future, the first Fatcat Collection of What’s Michael? can be pre-ordered through Dark Horse’s website ahead of its February 12, 2020 release date. It is highly recommended to read this manga with a cat curled up in your lap, ideally preventing you from getting up to use the bathroom partway through.