Manga-ka: Osamu Tezuka
Rating: Teen (13+)
Release Date: May 2009
Synopsis: “From the creator of Astro Boy and Kimba comes the epochal work that has been the God of Manga’s most popular series among adult readers in Japan and most anticipated stateside release in recent years. Black Jack is a mysterious and charismatic young genius surgeon who travels the world performing amazing and impossible medical feats. Though a trained physician, he refuses to accept a medical license due to his hatred and mistrust of the medical community’s hypocrisy and corruption. This leads Black Jack to occasional run-ins with the authorities, as well as from gangsters and criminals who approach him for illegal operations.”
Famed as he is, I’d never really given my full attention to Osamu’s Tezuka’s work before now. Admittedly the retro artwork failed to catch my eye and the stories never described with that hook I needed… until now! Or I suppose should I say until Alison L. Roberts shared the quote: “If you enjoy House, M.D., you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of Black Jack, stat.” Hmm, a clear shout-out to me, but would the classic story of Black Jack really be able to satisfy my love of manga and medical dramas?
As a quick summary, Black Jack is the story’s title character: an unlicensed surgeon who, out of spite for a hypocritical medical world, performs complicated operations outside of legal practice with near-limitless skill… for a price. It’s the price itself however that often proves to make the most interesting arguments for the lead’s character.
Black Jack asks for money, but is that always the cost? Despite the sombre face he wears, Black Jack’s heart is much less icy, and though a firm believer in a person’s just-deserves, it’s these same morals that have him saving lives when the chequebook may not be satisfied in return. The contrasting nature of his character gives him that good-guy-bad-guy appeal that can often leave you on the fence with supporting his decisions but never without the willingness to follow him along whatever happens.
The medical aspects of the story are really interesting but never delve far enough into the scientific jargon to confuse readers, just enough to give you that ‘cool, he totally knows what he’s talking about!’ feeling as you watch Black Jack wield his trusty scalpel. What truly sets the series above other similar surgical stories is the cases themselves, which are anything but ordinary. In this volume alone he operates on a criminal to hide their identity, replaces the hands of a boy who’d lost them and even treats a patient he can’t even see, hear or feel! And while setting up the inevitable operations is a fun path to follow, the repercussions of each one after the fact is just as engaging.
To the reader unsure about hopping into a series mid-way, you’ve little, if anything at all, to fear here. The stories are episodic and didn’t require any prior knowledge of the series for me to leap right in and follow what was happening. Carefully placed reminders also litter the stories without ever being too obviously intended (“Yes, I’m the famous unlicensed surgeon.”). Even the recurring secondary characters, such as the young girl assistant-type to Black Jack, Pinoko, and his rival, the euthanasia-enthusiast, Doctor Kiriko, could’ve easily been introduced in this book (and for all I know they could’ve been) with the minimalist introductions that still tell readers all they’d need to know.
As a first-time Tezuka reader, the art style was off-putting for all of two seconds until the story briskly pulled me along. It has a definite charm, minimalist in that it only really delivers what it needs to and thus focus is left on the events, dialogue and characters who express themselves in a cartoon-ish but vibrant manner.
Vertical’s work on the book is just as simplistically charming and I found the cover work creatively eye-catching (though I would’ve liked a bit more distinction between the title and author). The translation reads smoothly with extra kudos to their handling of Pinoko’s speech patterns. No bells and whistles but it serves the book just fine.
Sleek pacing, a never-ending array of interesting plot devices and a lead character for whom seemingly shifting morals keep him constantly intriguing (if not oddly charming), this fifth volume of Black Jack was nothing short of an eye-opener for this reviewer who realizes something has been undoubtedly missing in her manga-reading life. Luckily, thanks to Vertical, she’s found it. Thumbs up for Black Jack, I’m officially hooked.