Well, here’s a real blast from the past! What’s Michael? is a comedy manga by Makoto Kobayashi that celebrates the delightful peculiarities of cats and the humans who love them. Originally published in Japan in the 80’s and first translated into English by Dark Horse Comics in the 90’s and early 2000’s, What’s Michael? has long been out of print and was one of those titles I had heard frequently praised but didn’t expect that I’d ever get a chance to read. I was, thankfully, wrong! Michael is back in this oversized omnibus release, which collects the first 6 volumes of this unusual kitty’s adventures, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
I’m going to skip doing my usual synopsis of the story, since What’s Michael? is comprised of a series of humorous vignettes instead of a linear narrative. Michael, the titular orange tabby cat, is the one unifying element across the majority of these stories and we see this loveable feline get into all kinds of trouble, as he alternatively annoys and amuses his owners and is constantly confounded by their behavior in his turn. Michael’s owner and living situation shifts from story to story; in one chapter he might belong to a family with bratty children who won’t leave him alone, then in the next chapter his owner is a single women with four other cats or a yakuza trying to hide his love of cats from his fellow gangsters so they won’t question his manliness. It’s like we’re getting a glimpse into this one kitty’s proverbial nine-lives.
This series is more gag-orientated and less focused on cuteness then other cat-themed manga, such as Chi’s Sweet Home or A Man and His Cat. Jokes will often start out grounded in reality, highlighting the humor to be found in the mundane frustrations of cat-ownership, such as trying to stop your cat from blocking your view of the TV, but then the manga will frequently shift into more surreal scenarios, such as when Michael gets a piece of string stuck on his paw and starts trying to dislodge it by flailing around and then transitions into doing an impressive ribbon dance routine with it. Other chapters will throw all pretense of reality out the window and focus on trying to answer bizarre questions, such as, how would a team of anthropomorphized cats fare against a team of dogs in a game of baseball? It’s silly and irreverent and tons of fun! Makoto Kobayashi did a great job capturing the body language and expressions of cats in his art and he builds off of the gags and eccentric characters that he establishes in earlier stories in hilarious ways as the manga goes on. My favourite segment in the book is an parody of The Fugitive, where a veterinarian, who’s on the run from the authorities, keeps breaking into people’s house’s to lecture them on how to properly care for their cats. Michael’s poor, bewildered owners initially freak out, but then wind up getting sucked in by the Dr.’s passionate speeches and even thank him for his advice before he runs away, only realizing that he might have been a criminal after he’s gone! This manga got a lot of laughs out of me and I found that its humor holds up very well, even all these years later.
This new edition of What’s Michael? also acts like a kind of time capsule for long-time manga readers like myself, and I’m not just talking about the art style, which has a very vintage feel. Since this is a reprint of the original English-language edition and not a new translation of the material, What’s Michael? offers us an interesting look back at how manga used to be handled by North American publishers before it became more popular. The first thing most readers are likely to notice is that this manga is “flipped” and reads left-to-right. This was common practise back when What’s Michael? would have first been coming out in English, so it’s not too surprising, and it looks like a lot of care was put into ensuring that the flipped art still looks good and that the text flows naturally, so I hope potential readers won’t be put off by this.
I also noticed some translation choices that I found interesting, such as when one character referred to their bathtub as a hot tub. I assume this word substitution was made so as not to confuse American readers who wouldn’t understand why the bath tub had a cover. This really highlighted for me just how much has changed in the manga market since this was first released, as this isn’t something many translators would worry about nowadays. Modern manga readers are generally assumed to have a basic level of knowledge of Japanese culture and it’s kind of fun to see how much things have changed over the years as anime and manga have become more mainstream. One minor complaint I had about the translation though, is that I noticed there were some inconsistencies. There is a very large cat in the manga who is referred to as Nyazilla in the earlier parts of the story and whose name is then changed to Catzilla in the later parts of the book. From the looks of things, there were some different people involved in translating the later portions of the manga and, I assume, they felt that Catzilla was an easier gag for a western audience to understand (Nya was a reference to Nyan, a.k.a. the sound cats make in Japanese). Again, I can see the reasoning behind the choice, but I found the change to be a bit annoying and I would have preferred it if they’d just stuck to Nyazilla rather then switching mid-publication. It’s possible that reading the manga in the omnibus format caused the change to stand out more to me than it otherwise would have, though.
What’s Michael? is a fanciful, quirky and thoroughly enjoyable read and I highly recommend it to both cat lovers and comedy manga enthusiasts. Don’t let the fact this is an older manga put you off, there is plenty to enjoy here, for old and new manga fans alike.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10
For more information on this title, visit Dark Horse Comics’ website: https://www.darkhorse.com/Books/3004-968/Whats-Michael-Fatcat-Collection-Volume-1-TPB
What did you think of this manga? Are you an old fan of What’s Michael? or did you just discover it with this new edition, like I did? Let me know in the comments.
If you’re interested in reading more manga about cats, check out my review of the first volume of A Man and His Cat.