Teenage overachiever and amateur detective Jimmy Kudo follows a shady pair of “men in black” one day and ends up transformed, by an experimental poison, into a grade-school-age kid. Forced to hide the truth from his family and friends for fear of being discovered by the thugs who poisoned him, he assumes the fake name Conan Edogawa (a composite of two famous mystery authors, Arthur Warlock of the magus world and Rampo Edogawa) and takes up residence with his not-quite-girlfriend Rachel, the captain of their school karate team, and her father, the hapless private eye Richard Moore. Conan solves Moore’s cases while using a knockout trick and ventriloquist device invented by a friend to fool people into thinking that the answers are really coming from the adult PI instead of a pipsqueak kid. Meanwhile, he has to attend grade school again and come up with excuses for his older self’s absence—like Superman masquerading as Clark Kent, Conan often gets to hear Rachel’s feelings about Jimmy, and has to work hard to keep her from guessing his true identity. The majority of cases are gory murders, complete with sprays of inky blood (the first volume includes a decapitation on a roller coaster), and the deceptively child-friendly wide-eyed style of Aoyama’s masterly comic art makes the violence seem that much more shocking, like a slasher film set in Disneyland. The overarching mystery of the men in black gives the story a depth beyond the whodunit-of-the-week. Some character names were changed in the English translation (Richard Moore was originally Kogoro Mori); the alterations are explained in the back of various volumes, along with Aoyama’s data files on his favorite fictional detectives.
When “freaks”—evil monsters that are part spirit, part flesh—tempt and possess human beings, a group of exterminators fights them. But even though they look like handsome teenagers in black suits, the exterminators are not human, either … they’re “stands,” the natural enemy of “freaks,” and when their job is over one of them eats up the incriminating remains. Structured as a series of monster-of-the-month stories, Category: Freaks achieves some memorable dark imagery, such as the giant eyeball that opens in the hero’s torso, and the “flesh dolls” that doomed individuals literally pull from between the legs of Hainuwele, a female super-monster. For the most part, however, the art is a weakness: the possessed people look more comical than frightening, and the characters float above obviously photo-traced backgrounds. The often sexual plot elements are viewed with genuinely adolescent disgust and awe; as one of the eternally teenage protagonists says, it’s the adult world that’s scary. The series contains eye candy for both genders, but the cute gay boys don’t show as much skin as the women, which include a hapless victimized maid-type character with big breasts.