I was initially skeptical when Epic!, a provider of ebooks and online content for schools, branched out into the traditional publishing market. However, several of their titles have proven quite popular and over the past few years they have created several excellent graphic novels and chapter books. One of the tests of staying power is whether promised sequels of properties appear and Cat Ninja looks as though it is going to be a long-running series.
Originally published in print in 2020, Cat Ninja follows the adventures of Claude, a grey-striped cat who moonlights as Cat Ninja, a superhero in Metro City. The comic is episodic, including the first five digital issues released online, but does follow a rough storyline. The first collection introduces Cat Ninja and readers hear the origins of both the titular superhero and his first nemesis, Master Hamster. Humor abounds as the two balance their lives as pets with their dramatic battles, secret lairs, and gadgets, while a second story line introduces a mysterious villain and follows the family life of their owners. Leon and Marcie appear to be Asian-American and are dealing with their parents’ separation and divorce as well as the normal worries of school and friends.
The second collection, Cat Ninja: Time Heist, teams up Cat Ninja, Master Hamster (aka Mr. Squeaks), and a series of new villains and superheroes with a hatchling owl Hoot and a mysterious visitor from the future. The whole family will have to work together the save the day and find out who is mysteriously controlling superheroes and supervillains alike.
The first title is illustrated by Yehudi Mercado, the second by Chad Thomas. Bonus content is included in the print versions, including additional sketches and activities.
The illustrators do a good job of matching up their styles, so the reader hardly notices the transition. Mercado’s style is a little smoother and sleeker, while Thomas is more of a commercial illustrator with bigger eyes, thicker lines, and a slightly more exaggerated style. The art includes a diverse range of characters, both in the animal superheroes and villains and in the people in the city: Black; female police; passersby wearing hijab; and a diverse range of skin colors in the teachers at the kids’ school. Humor is the main focus here, though, with lots of weird gadgets, visual gags, dramatic reveals, and explosions. Mercado brings to life the immortal Fury Roach, a lumpy brown cockroach, with a hilarious montage of the roach’s costumes through the ages and the kids’ harried and caring but unobservant parents, always seen in scrubs or business suits. Thomas carries on Mercado’s depiction of various animals battling throughout the books, although emphasizes the cartoon aspect a little more in the second book, which keeps it from getting too dark. Their combined style keeps the animals from becoming just another set of cartoon creatures, though. Cat Ninja flies across the page with athleticism and enthusiasm, but he also has moments of just being a happy, purring pet or a soaked, miserable cat. Cynical Mr. Squeaks, an overgrown brown hamster with a perpetual sneer can show a softer side when he helps out his family, and fluffy little Hoot combines ultimate cuteness with ultimate destruction in her debut in the second book, with giant eyes, fluffy feathers, and the aimless flutterings of a newly hatched chick.
There have been a lot of Dog Man read-alikes in the past few years, but Cat Ninja manages to include the familiar humor, animal characters, and adventures, while being a unique creation of its own, emphasizing the importance of family no matter what it looks like. Parents who are reluctant to endorse the cruder humor of Pilkey will be relieved by the more light-hearted and situational comedy of this series, especially for younger readers. Available in paperback, paper over board hardcovers, or prebound editions, these are sure to circulate enthusiastically to elementary students in schools and libraries.
By Matthew Cody
Art by Yehudi Mercado, Chad Thomas
Andrews McNeel, 2020
vol 1 ISBN: 9781524860943
vol 2 ISBN: 9781524868086
NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11)