By Makoto Kobayashi. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Weekly Morning. Released in North America by Dark Horse, originally in six separate volumes. Translated by Dana Lewis, Toren Smith, Jeanne Sather, Alan Gleason, Hisashi Kotobuki, Lea Seidman, and Elin Winkler.
This is the first of two huge re-releases of Dark Horse’s What’s Michael? collections, this one containing the first six volumes. Despite that, it’s only 530 pages – they weren’t big volumes. They’re compiled as they were in the late 1990s, so don’t expect the book to read right-to-left or the missing chapters with violence and nudity to be put back in. That said, I’m not particularly concerned, as it allows this marvelous creation to come back into print after all this time. What’s Michael? is not only a joy to read if you love cats, but it’s also a wonderful experience for those who love its creator, Makoto Kobayashi. This is his most famous title, though Dark Horse did also try to publish his early 90s host club comedy Heba! Hello-chan (aka Club 9), which also desperately needs a re-release. Kobayashi’s cartoonish, rubbery humans are even more fun than his cartoonish, rubbery cats.
Michael is the titular cat, and is the sole recurring character in every chapter. The series has a sort of semi-continuity, in that there are a series of households, any one of which has Michael as their pet for the duration of the 6-page chapter. He doesn’t travel around from house to house – you’re just supposed to say “ah, this time it’s the young OL who owns him”, and then a new chapter happens and “ah, this time it’s the couple with the kid”, etc. Kobayashi picks the owners that best fit the mood of the chapter. Sometimes, although not nearly as often as its reputation suggests, we also see an “all-cat” chapter where Michael and other cats act like humans, as he’s interrogated by police, has a boxing match, etc. For the most part, however, Michael is a cat who acts like a cat here, albeit a cat who can be quite eccentric. Kobayashi has clearly enjoyed a lot of cat-watching creating this series, and owners will find much to identify with here.
There are a few running gags throughout the series, such as the tough guy yakuza who tries to hide how much he loves cats (his talk about the danger of the “Kodansha gang” reminded me of Pop Team Epic’s treatment of Takeshobo), and the burly guy who’s just trying to live a catless life but finds the neighborhood cats constantly wandering into his house to hang out with him. Reiko, the OL, is the most frequently seen owner, and with her Michael is one of about ten cats that she has, most of whom sleep on top of her and make it impossible for her to get a good night’s sleep. On the other hand, the married couple have Michael as a father with a wife and kid (an early chapter sees them buying a female kitten for Michael, and she grows up rapidly to fit the role). As I noted, the series is curated to be all-ages, with the possibly exception of one chapter where Michael ends up at what is clearly a cat brothel, but I think adults may find this funnier than kids for the most part.
I believe that Dark Horse released 11 volumes total, so the next collection should have the remaining five. They’re an absolute must get for cat lovers, and for those who want to experience the unique eccentricities of Makoto Kobayashi.