I first read this book as a teenager: I think my mother found it among the remaindered books at a local bookstore and brought it home for me, as she had so many other books I fondly remember. It’s gonzo parody featuring a samurai cat named Miaowara Tomokato adventuring as he avenges the death of his master—accompanied, at times, by his homicidal little nephew Shiro.
The world of these books—it’s a series—is a patchwork jumble of pop/geek culture franchises and canonic works tossed it into a blender with Norse mythology and Japanese history, except with (a few) anthropomorphic cats. It opens in 16th century Japan, but then satirically crosses over into a pseudo-Middle Earth (overrun with D&D players), a Lovecraftian town named “Outsmouth” haunted by evil gods such as Isaac Azathoth and K’Chu, the Hyperborea of Con-Ed the Barbarian, and finally Ragnarok (which Miaowara Tomokato prevents).
Later books go to a long list of “places” (referentially, as much as geographically): King Arthur’s Court, Barsoom, the Star Wars universe, our world’s history, a number of popular blockbuster movies (including The Terminator, Alien, The Magnificent 7, and The Wizard of Oz), Dante’s Inferno… Samurai Cat apparently ranges very, very widely, literally cutting a wide swathe through whatever caught Rogers felt like parodying.
The writing is very much in the vein of 80s comedic parody writing: if you read Mad magazine, it’ll feel familiar. In the first book, there’s a recurring gag where people marvel at Tomotako’s feats and say, “What a stud.”
I’m guessing that alone will should tell you whether or not the text of these books might appeal to you. It’s a greasy, delicious cheeseburger, not Wagyu beef, but there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you know what you’re getting into and are happy to please your internal twelve-year-old for an hour or two. I don’t know that I take the idea of a “guilty pleasure read” seriously: I don’t feel guilty reading or being amused by these, even if the most they demand little of me as a reader.
However, I would not be doing justice to the Samurai Cat series if I didn’t talk about the art. It’s… at least half of the appeal, at least for me, because it’s heavily illustrated, too. (I’m still kicking myself for not having picked up both of the portfolios of Samurai Cat art when I could. I have one, though, and since Rogers’ passing away in 2014, they’ve gone up in price significantly—and become more rare on the ground, too.)
Rogers’ website has gone offline since his passing, but I was able to find some images from a few (now long-gone) sites via the Wayback Machine’s archive.
There’s some more thoughts after the cut, too, following the images.
Yes, seeing that closer-up: that’s an anthropomorphic cat in full samurai armor with a katana drawn and a grenade clutched between his teeth, carrying a juvenile cat with a machine gun.
Some of those other images are from other books in the series, mind you, but they give you a picture of another part of the appeal of the Samurai Cat series: they’re heavily illustrated and the art is utterly gonzo and hilarious. It’s not surprising that Centipede Press did a re-release of the entire (?) series.1
I have half the series here, and will be receiving the other books relatively soon. They’re far from literary masterpieces, of course—but they never aspired to be that. They were about amusing and poking fun and about celebrating., mashing together, and smashing apart treasured bits of popular culture. I read them much more quickly than I read others—as I write this, I’ve already finished the second book, which was just as silly and just as pleasurable as the first—but they make me chuckle more than a lot of things I’ve read lately, and have definitely become “comfort” entertainment for me. And it’s not just nostalgia: I only read the first one as a kid, after all, so the rest are new to me, but I enjoyed the second book enough to just want to read the rest of them. (The latter half of the the series seem to have fewer illustrations and only greyscale ones—which Rogers originally painted in shades of black, white, and grey, interestingly—so I guess we’ll see how they hold up.)
My son is currently far too young for these books, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him: he’s already very interested in them. Alas, the art is often too gory for me to feel comfortable showing it to him, but I’ll have them around for when he’s a bit older. Then again, by that point, a lot of the snarky references will be so out of date that I suspect they’re fly over the heads of even most teenagers in the States, let alone folks like us who have no good reason to know what’s behind the reference to Con-Ed (Rogers’ snarky riff on the name of Conan the Barbarian). I mean, some of these kinds of references only make sense to me because I used to read Mad (and its lesser imitator, Cracked) as a kid…
I guess that’s less a review than a comment. I can see a lot of people loving these, and can see a lot of people baffled that anyone over the age of twelve would like them. But I’m glad I picked up the ones I did, and will be reading the rest soon, as they arrive one by one. (Some are… challenging to find, if you want to pay a decent price but can only order them online. Still, I managed it somehow.)
I’m also considering maybe working on some kind of book series with this kind of illustration, if a potential collaborator I’ve been talking is interested. I think Simon Stalenhag’s success shows that there’s room for this kind of project to come back: the Tales from the Loop books are beautiful, and heavy illustration means shorter texts, something I think appeals to people who are much busier and reading more online and less off the page now. I don’t know, it’s a thought.
Well, the series has six books, and they did five, but I’m not sure if they dropped a volume or just reshuffled the contents into five books instead of six? I don’t know.↩