If there are two things that are eternally popular on the internet, it’s cats and the 1980s. Makoto Kobayashi’s What’s Michael? is a comic about cats from the 1980s, so it should be a grand slam, and in a lot of ways it is. What’s Michael? Fatcat Collection Vol. 1 collects six previously-released volumes of feline hi-jinx that make a great way to spend a lazy afternoon with your cat on your lap, though the collection doesn’t add anything that’s not found in the older editions.
The first thing most people will notice about What’s Michael? is the artwork; the broad ’80s style of the human characters and the cute and cartoony yet detailed appearance of the cats. Kobayashi into making sure Michael and his costars look and feel like real cats and not the weird tiny humans like in Cats. Even in the fantasy segments where the cats do act like tiny humans in tiny human clothes, they still remain, essentially, cats, and these stories usually highlight a difference between people and cats.
Something that surprised me about this omnibus edition is that it’s still presented in the flipped-art format that it used when the individual volumes were first published in the ‘90s, meaning it reads from left to right like an American comic. There’s nothing wrong with this and it certainly makes things a little easier for non-manga readers, but it’s also very unusual for a book released in 2020. All of Dark Horse’s other comics originally published in the ’90s, like Oh My Goddess!, have been restored to their original orientation in newer editions.
Unlike the later Weekly Morning cute cat comic Chi’s Sweet Home, What’s Michael? isn’t a traditional serialized comic. Michael and the other cats featured in the comic are more archetypes than characters, and Michael is depicted living with various owners or being a stray cat as the story calls for it. Stories jump back and forth between these, so one chapter might show Michael as the pet of a Yakuza, while the next shows him with a young couple. While there is some continuity between the stories featuring the same human cast, each chapter is entirely self-contained and you could open the book almost anywhere and read a story without being lost.
Most of the appeal comes from the cuteness with which Michael and the other cats are drawn, but the comics do have a lot of genuine humor and charm to them. I found myself being reminded of my own pet cats by a lot of the chapters I read, and you can tell that Kobayashi spent a lot of time around cats while he was writing it.
What’s Michael? isn’t a sprawling epic or even a continuing story; it’s simply a collection of short, loosely connected, slice-of-life stories about cats and the people living with them. It’s not a work of genius, but it is cute and will bring a smile to the face of anyone who loves cats. It’s also a good value — this omnibus edition weighs in at a hefty 500+ pages for a cover price of $20. Also, despite being published in Weekly Morning, it’s mostly appropriate for children, with only a few light swear words and no sex or violence at all.