Train Heartnet, the title lead of Kentaro Yabuki's Black Cat (Viz), is a boyish young man with wild hair, a belled collar on his long neck and a Roman numeral XIII tattooed on his chest. A former assassin for Chronos – a shadowy organization that controls 1/3 of the world's wealth – Train now works as a "sweeper" with his partner Sven Vollfied. Licensed bounty hunters, the duo travel the globe looking for miscreants with big rewards attached to 'em. In Book One's first character-establishing commission, they attempt to bring in a former gangland accountant who has both the law and the mob looking for him.
Train faces off against the mob hit man sent to silence the accountant, and we get our first glimpse of his abilities and personality: like his feline namesake, he can leap amazing heights and is able to play a variation of bullets-and-bracelets with his especially crafted "orichalcum" pistol. Though impulsive and filled with boyish enthusiasms (for good food, for instance – being one of those characters who can eat anything and still keep his catlike figure), he's also capable of killing his ruthless adversary with a small smile on his face. Chain-smoking Sven is the pragmatic half of the partnership. Wearing an eye-patch and the kind of peach-fuzz facial hair that make him look like he only just recently passed into pubescence, he's the one who handles the business end of things, though he also gets to show his soft side when the pair hook up with a little girl who also happens to be a programmed killer.
What starts out as a fairly straightforward action series (for the first two contracts at least) quickly morphs into familiar Shonen Jumpy science-fantasy formula. Commissioned by a young woman named Rinslet Walker – a professional thief-for-hire prone to form-hugging outfits that flatteringly show off her gams – to travel to the Republic of Sapidoa (one of those countries that seems to perpetually have a big festival going on its streets) to bring in a crime boss called Torneo Rudman (love these names – are they Yabuki's or translator Kelly Sue DeConnick's?), they learn that Rudman is trafficking in the development of human weapons. His foremost creation is an orphaned 12-year-old named Eve who has nanobots in her system that allow her to change body parts into anything she wants: like transform an arm into a long, body-impaling blade. Our heroes wind up freeing her from Rudman's clutches in Volume Two, and she quickly becomes part of the bounty hunting team. Not so Rinslet, who one suspects will waft in and out of our heroes' lives whenever it suits her own selfish purposes. Some dames are like that.
The Rudman contract leads our team into first contact with Creed Diskenth, a former Chronos assassin like Train, and the man responsible for the death of the Black Cat's "dearest friend," a lady sweeper named Saya. Creed is an androgynously pretty figure with a major thing for Train; plotting to double-cross and overthrow Chronos, he attempts to enlist the sweeper, but our footloose hero wants none of it. With the appearance of Creed and his underlings, the sci-fantasy elements get upped even further: each one, we learn, has the ability to manifest their chi in powerful ways. One henchman, for instance, is capable of creating bee puppets that can sap your will when they sting and put you under their creator's control. Much of this talk of chi sounds very similar to the mystical gobbledegook that fuels Naruto's fight sequences – not much different than the catch-all of "mutation" used to buttress Marvel's X-books, actually – though when you get down to it, all the whys-and-wherefores are less important than the sight of a swarm of mechanical bees honing in our hero.
Yabuki's art (as with other manga digests, we get to briefly meet his three art assistants in a set of one-page strips appended at the end of each volume) is clean and cartoony in places (as with other manga series, he thinks nothing of rendering bumps on the head that are almost as big as the character's head itself), crisp during the action sequences when it needs to be (I found the fight sequences much easier to follow than, say, some of the dust-ups in Naruto) and serious when it needs to be. Though the series' tone is predominately devil-may-care, it occasionally strikes a tone of melancholy, most typically when Heartnet recalls his doomed dearest friend Saya.
If Yabuki's protagonists look too fresh-faced to carry the weight of the world, it's a small quibble; his crew is deft at rendering appropriately debauched or careworn secondary characters. There's a Creed henchman who steps forward in Volume Three, for instance, who looks like he could be a young goth updating of Will Eisner's Mr. Carrion. His chi power: to take the dripping blood from his body and transform it into a gloppy weapon that he aims at his enemies. Now that's an out-there super-ability.