Thursday, January 01, 2009


(Originally Written for Toon Zone News)

Long before House M.D. whipped out his cane there was a maverick doctor who was regularly getting his scalpel wet. Every week in fact, in a serialized manga strip in Weekly Sh┼Źnen Champion. The tales continued for a whole decade before leapfrogging to anime in the eighties.

I talk, of course, of the unlicensed skills of Black Jack, in the manga of the same name by manga master Osamu Tezuka. The first compendium of Black Jack short tales has just been released by Vertical.

For those with virgin ears, let me be the first to nurture such naivete into full enlightenment.

Black Jack is an unlicensed surgeon: indisputably the best in the world. His skills are so honed that this doctor can do more than repair a disfigurement or heal a diseased body—his hands can do the truly fantastical. Black Jack can swap brains, limbs and even create bodies for un-housed organs to live in. His fee is high, but he carries a hidden set of scruples. It's not rare to find Black Jack slyly working for a fee far less than he would usually claim.

Osamu Tezuka is considered one of the original masters of manga, and rightly so. His hand and mind were behind such greats as Astro Boy, Kimba, and my personal favorite, Ode to Kirihito. He is a master of stylish, well-paced visual narratives. Perhaps his mastery lies in that rare art in creating truly timeless tales. In all his tales I have read, I never feel their age. Black Jack began in 1973, thirty-five years ago, and you couldn’t tell it by looking at it.

Black Jack: Volume One contains twelve black and white short stories, each as fascinating and perfect as the last, neatly bound in a uniquely conceptualized and stylish exterior. The tales are simple and effective. Medical fact and heightened fantasy are neatly sewn together by a rich skin of solid storytelling. The stories are diverse, never compelled to remain focused on the lead character, and always ready to push the boundaries. One of the most truly bizarre tales, "U18-Knew," has Black Jack having to play surgeon to a medical computer. Nearly four decades of technology later, somehow the tale still works.

Favorite tales? The well-crafted and subtle "The Legs of an Ant" documents the inspiring struggle of a polio-riddled boy attempting to overcome his disability and follow a legend’s marathon pilgrimage from Hiroshima to Osaka on foot. "Two Loves" is a bizarre tale of how one sushi maker has to overcome the loss of his arms to make his mother the best sushi meal ever. Strangely, the tales are rarely bleak despite their subject matter. Tezuka never lets the story simply focus on the tragedy of ailments, but uses them as a catalyst for his plot. As always, his story resolutions are rarely perfectly happy endings, but they lean toward being bittersweet rather than dark or depressing.

His artwork for this volume is an interesting blend of comic and literal renders. It's not quite as mind-blowing as his work for the likes of Apollo’s Song or Ode to Kirihito, but it keeps the short stories flowing.

Any criticisms? Well as timeless as Black Jack is, there will be occasions where-well seasoned readers will see where the stories are going. Thirty-five years of comics is going to tune the reader to the tricks of the comic trade far quicker than in 1973. That said, even if the reader does manage to make the occasional leap ahead of the story, it never spoils Tezuka's craft.

Black Jack is the epitome of the perfect manga, taking a rich understanding of fantasy and mixing it skillfully with the illusion of real medicine. It is crafty, inspiring and humorous. Black Jack is a tome that should be a mandatory inclusion on any comic lover’s bookshelf. Make a surgical incision into your wallet and donate some financial plasma in the name of the infamous Black Jack.