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‘What’s Michael? Fatcat Collection Volume 1:’ Advance Trade Paperback Review

In his introduction, writer/translator Zack Davisson discusses the accidental beginnings of the feline character, Michael, who appeared in a How to Draw Manga instructional guide by Makoto Kobayashi in 1982.  The cute feline was a departure for Kobayashi who had been writing/illustrating sports-oriented stories targeting young boys.  His editor knew that Michael was special and, as a result, the What’s Michael? series was born.

The What’s Michael? manga was originally published from 1985 – 1989 in nine volumes.  Two OVAs (original video anime) were released in 1985 and 1988, and 45 anime episodes aired on Japanese television in 1988 – 1989.  This collection contains the original 1 – 6 volumes plus the following stories: “Michael’s Album,” “Living Together,” “Off the Deep End,” “A Hard Day’s Life,” “Michael’s Favorite Spot,” and “Michael’s Mambo.”  All of the stories, or vignettes, have been out-of-print until this new Dark Horse release.  

Each story generally fall into one of two types.  In the first type, the narrative is told from the perspective of Michael’s human owners and tends to be more realistic portrayals.  For example, in one story, a woman doesn’t want to disrupt her sleeping kitties, so instead of moving them from her bed, she goes and sleeps elsewhere in her home.  Other stories include the challenges cat owners face when taking their fur babies to the vet.  

In the second type, cats are portrayed with anthropomorphic characteristics, including wearing clothing, talking with each other, dancing on two legs, or having their thoughts revealed as they interact with humans.  For example, readers learn why Michael doesn’t like the way the husband interacts with him.  Although the manga is about an orange tabby named Michael, he is often portrayed as representative of an every person feline, so that is why his owners and environment change some times.  

On a personal level, as a cat parent, many of the stories are humorous and solicit laughter as a result of identifying with Michael’s behavior that Kobayashi narrates and illustrates so well.  Often, these stories convey just how much cat owners are owned by their cats, but always in a tongue-in-cheek tone; however, the lighthearted humor is replaced by sad commentary in the stories about Bear, the dog.  Kept outside all the time, the neglected canine craves attention, and his efforts to solicit pats by acting like a cat result in smacks from his owner.  Although the owner’s daughter chides his mistreatment, she herself resorts to scolding Bear when he buries an expensive bone she buys him and doesn’t eat the fancy food she gives him.  The portrayal of blatant mistreatment is jarring, but also a reminder that our furry companions are an important responsibility that should not be taken lightly.

These stories matter (See Fanbase Press’ #StoriesMatter initiative.) in a larger, global narrative, as well.  For example, Kobayashi makes references to films and television popular in the U.S. and Japan:  The Fugitive, Field of Dreams, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and, of course, Godzilla.  There’s also reference to Michael Jackson and the RCA logo. (The dog is replaced by a cat.) While Jackson makes sense, the other references are surprising.

Additionally, stories that convey Japanese folklore and contemporary social issues are important for their insight into another culture.  For example, in one story a woman refuses to allow her husband to keep a litter of found kittens, and as a result of her cruelty, she becomes possessed by the abandoned kittens.  Additionally, Kobayashi seeks to challenge stereotypes. In a series of stories, readers are introduced to Yakuza (Japanese mafia) and one of its leaders.  Tough guy, K, secretly has a cat (rather than a dog), subscribes to Cat Fancy, wears pajamas, and sleeps with his cat.  In another story, a young female journalist reporting on a new coffee shop with live-in cats is completely dumbfounded when it is revealed that most of the clientele are men rather than women.

Although What’s Michael? was written and illustrated over 30 years ago, the stories – even those with pop culture references – do not feel dated and out of touch with today.  While the age range starts at eight, a parent and/or adult should mediate some of the stories’ messages, particularly those about Bear.  Cat owners/lovers will thoroughly enjoy and get lost in the 500+ pages of this volume that is presented in a left-to-right reading format rather than the traditional manga format.

Creative Team: Makoto Kobayashi (art/story); Alan Gleason, Hisashi Kotobuki, Dana Lewis, Jeanne Sather, Lea Seidman, Toren Smith, and Elin Winkler (translation/adaptation team); L. Lois Buhalis, Amador Cisneros, Pat Duke & Radio Comix, Tom Orzechowski, and Amy Stella (lettering/retouch team); Philip R. Simon (editor); Joshua Engledow (assistant editor); Sarah Terry (designer); and Ann Gray (digital art technician)
Publisher: Dark Horse Manga
Click here to purchase.

Michele Brittany, Fanbase Press Contributor



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