By Makoto Kobayashi. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Weekly Morning. Released in North America by Dark Horse.
I've mentioned Kobayashi before, usually in the context of the weirder than weird Ero Comedy Chichonmanchi, aka Stairway to Heaven. But that's more of a pipe dream. What he's really known best for here is What's Michael?, which Dark Horse released ages ago in 11 volumes. While many of the volumes are out of print, it's continued to make an impression on readers who come across it. So I thought I'd take a look at Volume 1 and see what it is about Michael that makes you want to read more of him.
When you're talking about Kobayashi, his faces are what people usually think of first, even more than the cute cats. (And really, with Michael and company, the word 'cute' is debatable.) He has a very rubbery-faced character design that lends itself well to caricature and comedy, but means that few of his characters are what one would call conventionally pretty. This was also a problem with his other major (if unfinished) release over here, Heba! Hello-chan, which was released as Club 9 by Dark Horse. The combination of striking features (I hesitate to say ugly, though many of them certainly are intentionally drawn as such - they're just far from the manga norm) and strange, strange people made for a hard sell, especially as both came out in the 'pre-manga' boom.
Certainly What's Michael? has its large amount of weirdos. Michael and his fellow cats, bizarre as they are, usually end up being the normal ones in the cast. This is especially true in this first volume, where we get very little of the 'cats playing humans' humor that is the other side of What's Michael? Aside from one story featuring Michael as a criminal being grilled by police, everything here is very much about cats being cats. It's their owners who are strange, ranging from the guy who wants his cat to be like a dog and run with him every morning, to the scatterbrained young Office Lady and her five hungry cats, to a yakuza who has to hide the fact that he's secretly a huge cat lover from all his underlings.
What's Michael? doesn't necessarily provide a lot of belly laughs - you might look to Garfield for that, a comic strip that Michael has been compared with frequently. But its humor is wry and observational, and while you aren't laughing all the time you read the entire volume with a smile on your face, and sometimes a snicker or two. The fact that Michael does not have a designated 'owner', but instead revolves from person to couple to whoever depending on the needs of the plot gives the manga a certain freedom, and part of the appeal is simply never knowing what kind of story you're going to see next. It's a blank canvas where Kobayashi can draw whatever he wants, as long as it has cats in it somewhere.
I picked up the Japanese omnibus release of this title recently, which seems to be in 4 volumes. (Be warned if you get them, they're small - even smaller than regular manga volumes, more like a light novel size. Dark Horse uses a much bigger size. Of course, they also are about 220 pages each (36 chapters per volume), which is a nice improvement on the initial 96 pages we see here. This is a late 90s title from Dark Horse, which means there's a greater chance of missing material here - much like Viz with its 90s releases, where they dropped chapters that were just too Japanese to flip and translate. There are several chapters that were part of the volume in Japanese that were dropped from this Volume 1 here. The first chapter of What's Michael? had the cat shoved off a building to his death; the second had him doing a photo shoot with a nude woman, and defecating in front of her (she returns the favor later by farting in his face, in one of the funnier things I've read in Kobayashi manga); in another, an assassin's profession is discovered by his girlfriend, and he then kills her, Michael, a bunch of baby kittens, and then sets out on a cat massacre; a Japanese game show imagines what the world would be like if humans behaved like cats (including women with eight breasts); and Michael is the subject of a scientific experiment on whether cats like girls' underwear. Dark Horse also drew a bra onto the sleeping office lady's breasts in one chapter they did release here. I'm not sure if Dark Horse added any of these chapters in later volumes (I'm still tracking down OOP copies), but certainly they all seem to have been edited for content, in an effort to make Michael more appealing to a broad range of readers.
As noted, What's Michael? is no longer in print, the last of its 11 volumes having come out in 2006. It's also flipped, being very much a product of what American manga companies were doing in the mid to late 1990s. I'd love to see Michael released uncut and unflipped in an expanded omnibus edition by Dark Horse. Do I think it will sell? Mmmm, probably not - especially if it is unedited, which means they'd lose the kids' market (remember, this was published in a men's magazine in Japan). But hey, I want it anyway. A man can dream, after all.