Tezuka, Osamu. Black Jack. Vol. 1. Trans. Camellia Nieh. New York: Vertical, 2008. Summary
: In the shadows of the international medical establishment labors an unlicensed doctor of Japanese extraction with a lurid scar across his face, known only by the alias “Black Jack.” And in return for an exorbitant fee, he will perform surgical miracles of the likes that no one has ever seen before. Included are twelve standalone tales that detail a handful of the doctor’s medical achievements and explore a bit of past—with his mentor, with the woman he loved, and with his current sidekick Pinoko—in the process. The Diamond Comics Previews Exclusive edition of the first volume also features an additional bonus story that was not reprinted even in the otherwise definitive Japanese edition of Black Jack
: Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack
may already be a familiar commodity to veteran English-language manga fans. Selected chapters of the manga were originally published a decade ago by Viz and released in graphic novel form. However, Vertical’s trade paperback reissue of the series is the first time that the exploits of the rogue surgeon are slated to be published in the United States in their entirety. And in addition, hardcover variants available exclusively from Diamond Comic Distributors will feature alternative cover designs and include material that has not even been made available in the otherwise definitive Japanese Akita Shoten editions upon which Vertical’s books are being based.
The twelve chapters have been arranged here in Tezuka Productions’ preferred order, which does not seem strictly chronological, either from the standpoint of plot development or original Shounen Champion
date of publication. Thankfully, this is not a particularly important quibble. Everything is arranged conveniently and linearly enough that you never feel set adrift, as is the case in Dark Horse’s edition of Astro Boy
. Also, since this is a mature work produced relatively late in Tezuka’s life, the stories overall seem more carefully and skillfully constructed; even if you do not start at the first page of the first volume, chances are you will not be at much of a loss. Prior to Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball
, it was virtually unheard of for a shounen manga to be constructed as continuous, multi-volume epics. How easy it is to forget that episodic and modestly contained most—with Black Jack
no exception—used to be.
Yet it strikes one now as almost a shame that the older standard has been so thoroughly abandoned in mainstream manga. It might be good to return to manga such as these for inspiration. Of course, the artwork looks superficially dated, but connoisseurs will immediately notice that the illustrations are beautifully rendered and stylistically consistent throughout. More importantly, the chapters vary considerably in their respective degrees of mystery, grotesquery, and profundity, and are all quite accessible. They do not demand the voluminous background knowledge of plot points and cast of characters that even the most popular series these days such as Naruto
do. You can commit to Black Jack
as casually or as religiously as you desire and partake equally in its pleasures either way. All you really need to know is that Black Jack is a highly talented, unlicensed surgeon with a strong, personal sense of justice.
Still, easily the most remarkable thing about this volume, whether you read from cover-to-cover or just a chapter here and there, is its range. Some of the stories seem dated, such as “The Legs of an Ant,” which features a boy with polio, or “U-18 Knew,” about an ailing super-computer created for medical purposes. Others seem too heavy-handed in their moralizing, such as “Is There a Doctor?” Still others are beyond bizarre; whoever heard of a scalpel calcifying in a patient’s body or a vestigial twin turned into a miniature girl with a lisp? “Confluence” in particular combines the worst of all possible worlds—it is doubtful that anyone in the industrialized world these days would argue that a reasonable reaction of a woman to having a hysterectomy would be to become a man! But on the other hand, there are also excellent stories to be found, with “Black Queen,” about the woman who might have been Black Jack’s partner, the best of the lot.
The bonus story included in the Diamond exclusive edition of volume one is “The Two Jans.” Originally published in 1974, Vertical notes that it has not been re-released until now due, among other reasons, to “excessive morbidity.” It is about a set of conjoined German twins whom Black Jack separates. One of the twins is kept alive as a brain in a vat of fluids. Black Jack chides his colleagues for their hubris and disapprovingly remind them that Germany has a dark history of unethical human experimentation. (So does Japan, but Tezuka does not deign to mention that.) In any case, he need not have bothered complaining; the remaining twin breaks the vat and kills his brother, declaring that they decided before the operation that they would not be used for scientific experiments. The end. As you may be able to glean from this summary, it is not a particularly interesting story, never mind the morbidity. The hardcover will be necessary only for completists. Other readers should be more than content enough with the regular trade paperback. Rating
- A vintage series with plenty of historical interest in a beautiful, must-see package.