It's a horror-comedy manga with the most adorable mad scientist ever. Franken(stein) Fran is a genius surgeon who wants nothing more than to advance science, save lives and make the world happier. Fran can do anything. Revive the dead? Regularly. Stick a man's head on a dog's body? The guy's name's Okuda and he's the least disturbing of her home-made assistants. Transplant a murder victim's brain so that he's looking out of the back of his killer's head? She's done that too. Sew together two dozen dismembered victims into one screaming Cthulhu-like monstrosity that must surely be begging for death? Absolutely, with a smile on her face. You see, she thinks she's helping people.
You'll never see a more brilliant doctor. She's also a sweetie pie who can be reduced to tears by her patients' sob stories. However she gets excited by new opportunities for horrific experiments, she has disturbing moral and ethical boundaries and she'll save your life whether you like it or not.
Oh, and she herself is a Frankenstein's creation, with bolts in her head and a mouth that probably goes right around her head, if you include the scars. She adds extra limbs to herself when about to conduct surgery. She thinks nothing of doing horrific things for gangsters if they're paying customers and won't necessarily turn a hair even if you're committing murder in front of her. She's not evil, but she's... um, focused. She's still a sweet girl, though. Also pretty, in a Nightmare Before Christmas way.
A typical story involves Fran's good intentions giving rise to horror, tragedy and some of the most stomach-freezingly evil denouments I've ever seen. These stories have an unusual tone. They're lovably gruesome. They're never aiming for fear, but instead for the kind of satisfying black irony you'd get in old EC Comics stories. Fran's generally pleased with the results of her experiments, which doesn't seem unreasonable since she's as a surgeon she's a miracle-worker. As a reader, one sits back happily to await horror. The most memorable stories are those with the most tragic or appalling endings. Those that work less well include:
(a) More conventional horror, with Fran as one of the victims under attack by zombies or whatever.
(b) Stories driven more by ideas than by twisted human nature. Franken Fran is unusual horror for its readiness to venture into idea-as-hero SF. Most of its chapters are inspired by some obscure point of medicine or zoology, to the extent that I'm a little glad I didn't buy it in Japanese because I'd have struggled with all the scientific explanations. Chapters like 26, 28 or 30 strike me as cool ideas that haven't quite managed the transition into becoming successful stories.
(c) The superhero chapters with Sentinel (23, 32, 42, 51, 58). The problem is that the characters are deliberately being written as walking cliches, which is a barrier to being able to see them as people. That's the point. Superhero conventions are being taken to extreme places. The moral inversions can be funny, but I didn't care about the characters.
The manga's also occasionally willing to venture into territory that in the West would surely be unpublishable. Say hello to rapists and paedophiles. The end of ep.21 will break your brain. I'm not joking. Seriously. There's also nudity, although nothing on a par with the fanservice-ridden covers. (After I'd asked Tomoko to buy this interesting-sounding manga for me, we both got a shock from what you'll see if you look it up on amazon.co.jp. Crumbs. Tomoko didn't buy it.) Occasionally the nudity crosses into gratuitousness, but mostly it's justifiable in context (e.g. a patient on the operating table) or violently anti-sexy (e.g. corpses on meat hooks).
The writer/artist is female, by the way. Just mentioning.
Over time, the manga builds up a small regular cast. It's always episodic, but that doesn't preclude returning characters. There's dog-boy, Okuda. Fran also has two sisters, created by the same mad scientist who built her. Sister 1 (Veronica) is a sullen, introverted assassin and it took me a while to warm up to her, although she can be funny. Sister 2 (Gavrill) though is psychotic, indestructible and gets her rocks off from killing. In ep.49, she's forced to take a job as a schoolteacher and some of her advice to her pupils enters that "unpublishable in the West" territory I was talking about.
My favourite supporting character, though, was Adorea the walking organ bank. She's covered in zips and wrapped in bandages. If Fran needs a spleen, for instance, Adorea will get one out for her. She's also a eldritch abomination and her introductory chapter (ep.16) is the second scariest portrayal of Fran in this series. (That's a strong statement. Do not crash in the mountains with those two.) Incidentally, this series's most horrific final twists tend to involve a normal, sympathetic policewoman called Kuhou. This lady has the extreme fortune of getting involved with Fran a lot. I don't usually buy the readiness of H.P. Lovecraft characters to go mad, but I honestly think you'd have to be psychotic not to go insane if you experienced ep.13. Ep.54 is nearly as brutal. That was brilliant.
It's not a perfect manga. It's inconsistent. It has weak chapters and I can see why the author ended it suddenly instead of trying to drag out a format that was already threatening to run out of steam. However it also contains genius. Step right up if you're looking for nightmare fuel, played absolutely straight and yet also for laughs. Its comedy can be to die for. Heh. Fran is a glorious character. I find it inspirational.