8 Volumes (complete)
Body horror is something that’s always treaded a very fine line between leaving its audience throwing up in a mixture of disgust and fear, and throwing up because they laugh so hard that their stomach sends its contents up their esophagus just to shut them up. For every chestburster that makes the viewer shrivel in fear, there’s a million abruptly exploding heads to pick up the comedic slack.
Don’t let the increasingly provocative cover art deceive you; Franken Fran is not about the fanservice, unless you find cosmetic surgery, schadenfreude, and body mutilation arousing. It’s a manga about the extremes of medicine and biology, where the phrase “For science!” is all the justification one needs for creating organic theme park mascots, or to change the makeup of someone’s cells so every part of them turns cancerous. It’s a collection of extremes sewn and stitched into a pulsating mess of science fiction, where a girl created from spare body parts can become a world-renowned surgeon and push the boundary of ethics with few consequences. And I’ll be damned if it’s not bloody entertaining.
It’s the closest thing that manga has to The Twilight Zone, each chapter a darkly humorous vignette of either Fran coming across an oddity, or her turning somebody into one (often ending in gruesome death) at their request, using a common biological occurrence for the basis of her outlandish procedure—for instance, taking the ordinary process of cell division and using it to duplicate multi-celled organisms such as people, or using the idea of pheromones to keep teenage guys from feeling horny 24/7. As can be expected, nothing ends happily, with Fran’s procedures either working too well, or causing her clients to transform into globs of messy, tortured goo.
Fran herself straddles a fine line between legitimately caring for the future of her clients (often where love is concerned), and being ruthlessly psychotic as the plot demands. Though she can veer between the two extremes multiple times per chapter, she’s at least consistent in her inconsistency, and it lends further credence toward her brilliance being a symptom of mental instability. One chapter in particular melds this beautifully, with her giving organs to people with severe injuries that she happened to have on hand in an apparently philanthropic gesture, but only so they’d stay alive long enough for her to harvest their native ones.
Franken Fran works because it has no pretentions toward trying to prove a point, instead embracing its premise to make any character that isn’t Fran as miserable as physically possible. It’s humorous when it should be, and surprisingly poignant when it decides to take a break from dicing up peoples’ innards, while keeping the potential for overkill reined in. Things occasionally drag during the few story arcs, like one involving a vigilante hero that Fran helped to create, but the good far outweighs the bad, and the pure imagination devoted to each rather short chapter makes for a consistently engrossing and fresh creation.
However, the impact is diluted somewhat by vague, sometimes overly-detailed artwork that makes the goings-on in a particular panel hard to puzzle out without accompanying text. It’s effective once you know what’s happening, but reaching that point and puzzling out what’s happening breaks flow at its most crucial. The gruesome detail borders on tasteless without quite crossing the threshold; this isn’t something you want to read while eating a hearty chili dinner, and some of the panels will stick mentally a long time after reading.
If my bias in its favor hasn’t shone through, it probably will when I say that Franken Fran is my favorite manga. Though the science is questionable at best, it still feels like a series of cautionary tales of the follies of man with enough of a devil may care attitude to provide appropriate levity. That, and Fran is really adorable, even when her body parts are falling out every which way. All in all, if one can get past the gruesome, if occasionally iffy artwork, there’s a lot to like here.
Recommended Chapters: Chrysalis, Two-Dimensions, Hold Me Tight, Unhappy Birthday, Her Pet Dog, Octopus, and Adorea