Black Jack Vol. 16 (Vertical)

Osamu "God of Manga" Tezuka offers up another volume of medical morality tales starring the infamous outlaw surgeon Black Jack.

 

298 pgs., B&W; $16.95
(W / A: Osamu Tezuka)
 
Before he became the "God of Manga," Osamu Tezuka studied medicine at Osaka University. He obtained his degree but never practiced medicine, taking his mother’s advice to "work doing the thing you like most of all," and instead became one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. All those years of studying were not a loss, however: Tezuka put his medical knowledge to work in his manga, most notably in Black Jack, a series about a brilliant outlaw surgeon who claims only to love money yet is guided by a strong moral sensibility.
 
The Black Jack manga, originally published in the 1970s, consists mainly of short, self-contained episodes organized around some medical situation with an interesting ethical twist. Vertical is reissuing these manga in collected volumes, and volume 16 includes 11 short episodes (each about 20 pages) plus one novella-like story of about 100 pages. Each story stands on its own, so you can begin reading Black Jack in volume 16 as well as you can in volume 1—and once you start, you may well find yourself hooked, because the lack of continuity allows Tezuka to set off on some incredible flights of fancy. The fast pace of the Black Jack stories and their carefree clash of high- and low-brow culture gives the series a manic pace all its own, informed by a cultural literacy rivaling that of The Simpsons.
 
"Anaphylaxis," the first story collected in Vol. 16, is a good example of how the Black Jack stories work. A cartoonishly blustering general requests Black Jack’s services to heal his son; the young man, wounded in combat, needs surgery to remove a bullet shard lodged in his coronary artery, but is allergic to every known anesthetic. Black Jack demands ten million yen to do the operation, then offers to forfeit his own life if the surgery is not successful. He devises a workaround (note: these stories are not strictly bound by the possible), you get some close-ups of the surgery in progress (nothing to make you lose your lunch, but pretty detailed considering the overall goofiness of the art), and after the expected outcome the story takes a twist that expresses an ethical dilemma totally trumping the difficulty of doing heart surgery without anesthesia. 
 
Among the characters you will meet in these stories are a street punk with an infatuation for an apparently random, seifuku-clad school girl; a tycoon who wants to regain his youth, but not for the reason you might expect; an actor in a tokusatsu series who begins to resemble the character he plays on TV; and a child who prefers impending blindness to his current daily life of constant bullying. The one-off format frees Tezuka to throw anything and everything in these manga, including references to classic movies (Frankenstein, Giant, Village of the Damned) and lots of medical factoids. It’s true that some of the individual stories seem overly dashed-off, but with so many to choose from, that’s not really a fatal flaw for the collection.
 
Readers familiar only with realistic styles of comic art may find Black Jack tough going at first, because the silliness of many of the panels and character designs seems so out of sync with the serious issues that are the basis of each story. The important things to remember here are that Tezuka began publishing in the late 1940s, and that one of his formative influences was Walt Disney cartoons of the Sleeping Beauty era. Even if you find Tezuka’s artistic style off-putting, however, I’m willing to bet that after you read a few Black Jack episodes, the art will just become part of the universe of the stories, and you’ll start to realize how subversive this series really is. The message delivered, again and again, is that there is a moral standard above and beyond that expressed by conventional people who play the game, follow the rules, and are generally held up as models of civic virtue. In the Black Jack universe, it’s the outsiders, people who appear to be beyond the moral pale of conventional society, who are capable of confronting and resolving complex ethical issues, while the respectable people are left eating their dust. | Sarah Boslaugh

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