26 Oct, 2008

Black Jack, Vol. 1

By: Katherine Dacey

By Osamu Tezuka
Vertical, Inc., 320 pp.

After nearly twenty years in publishing limbo[1], Vertical has resuscitated one of Osamu Tezuka’s most beloved works: Black Jack. This awesomely weird medical drama liberally mixes macabre humor with pseudo-science and social commentary as it chronicles the adventures of a slightly amoral but supremely talented doctor who’ll take any job… for the right price.

Like the best of Tezuka’s work, the art is crisp, the pacing brisk, and the stories nuanced. Tezuka’s own medical training is evident in the detailed drawings of muscle tissue, livers, hearts, and brains, yet these images are beautifully integrated into his broad, cartoonish vocabulary and never seem like tracings. Tezuka stages medical procedures the way John Woo choreographs shoot-outs, with extreme camera angles, flying bodies, and a hero who maintains his composure no matter how much blood flows.

At the same time, however, a more adult sensibility tempers the bravado displays of surgical acumen. Black Jack’s medical interventions cure his patients but seldom yield happy endings. In “The Face Sore,” for example, a man seeks treatment for a condition that contorts his face into a grotesque mask of boils. Jack eventually restores the man’s appearance, only to realize that the organism causing the deformation had a symbiotic relationship with its host; once removed, the host proves even more hideous than his initial appearance suggested. “The Painting Is Dead!” offers a similarly bitter twist, as Jack prolongs a dying artist’s life by transplanting his brain into a healthy man’s body. The artist longs to paint one final work—hence the request for a transplant—but finds himself incapable of realizing his vision until radiation sickness begins corrupting his new body just as it did his old one.

The only thing that dampened my enthusiasm for Black Jack was the outdated sexual politics. In “Confluence,” for example, a beautiful young medical student is diagnosed with uterine cancer. Tezuka diagrams her reproductive tract, explaining each organ’s function and describing what will happen to this luckless gal if they’re removed:

As you know, the uterus and ovaries secrete crucial hormones that define a woman’s sex. To have them removed is to quit being a woman. You won’t be able to bear children, of course, and you’ll become unfeminine.

Too bad Tezuka never practiced gynecology; he might have gotten an earful (and a black eye or two) from some of his “unfeminine” patients.

I also found the dynamic between Jack and a recurring female character inherently problematic. Early in volume one, Jack transforms teratoid cystoma into a short, slightly deformed child-woman whom he christens “Pinoko.” Though Pinoko has the will and libido of an adult, she behaves like a toddler, pouting, wetting herself, running away, and lisping in a babyish voice. She’s mean-spirited and possessive, behaving like a jealous wife whenever Jack mentions other women, even those who are clearly seeking his medical services. These scenes are played for laughs, but have a sexist undercurrent, as if Tezuka is saying to us, The little woman is such a shrew that she isn’t even grateful that our hero saved her! Thankfully, these Pygmalion-and-Galatea moments are few and far between, making it easy to bypass them altogether. Don’t skip the story in which Jack first creates Pinoko, however; it’s actually quite moving, and at odds with the grotesque domestic comedy that follows.

It goes without saying that Tezuka junkies will want to add Black Jack to their libraries (preferably the hardcover Diamond edition[2]), but I also think CSI, House, and ER fans may find Black Jack’s mixture of medical mystery and melodrama irresistible. Think House is a good doc? Just wait until you see Jack remove a parasite from his own intestines while being menaced by dingoes in the Australian outback. Now there’s something they don’t teach you at Harvard Medical School.

1. When Viz published Black Jack in 1988, it released selected chapters from the series first as floppies, then as trade paperbacks. Both the floppies and the TPBs are out of print, though a patient person can find copies on eBay.

2. The paperback reproduces the definitive Japanese edition of Black Jack, while the hardback includes stories cut from the authorized version for “excessive morbidity.” I actually liked the bonus story (despite its downer ending), and thought the hardback edition was worth the extra money, both for the sturdier binding and “The Two Jans.” I liked the cover design better as well.

Volume one of Black Jack is available now in a paperback and a hardcover edition (available only through participating comic book stores). Click here for previews of volumes one and two.

5 Responses to "Black Jack, Vol. 1"

1 | MangaBlog » Blog Archive » Monday quick links

October 27th, 2008 at 8:04 am

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[...] Butcher begs to differ at Comics212. Katherine Dacey reviews the deluxe hardcover edition of vol. 1 of Black Jack at Manga Recon. Kate also points us to Comic Book Club’s video reviews of Papillon and [...]

2 | James Moar

October 27th, 2008 at 3:07 pm

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I’m wondering if the Pinoko scenes would come off better if the stories were being printed in their original order (they’re completely shuffled). Judging by the descriptions on the Tezuka website, it looks like a few establishing stories about her have been left for further down the road.

3 | Katherine Dacey

October 27th, 2008 at 4:06 pm

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That’s a great point, James–I don’t know how I’d feel about Pinoko if we learned more about her in the first volume. I admit I’m not too keen on characters who speak about themselves in the first person, so I’m sure that also colored my perception of her.

4 | *Black Jack Book 1 — Recommended » Comics Worth Reading

January 6th, 2009 at 8:55 am

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[...] tumor” could become a doll-like companion to Black Jack. (Katherine Dacey talks about the problems with Pinoko in her review.) Even the Christmas story involves amputation and a rare romance. (Love isn’t [...]

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