External Book Reviews: Black Jack Vol. #1

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2008-09-23 02:48:24 No comments

Word has it the guy was nearly blown to bits when he was a kid, which explains that ugly piebald face and that mess of scars all over it—none of which is completely hidden by that also-ugly shock of white hair. The string tie and the cape he’s always wearing only make him seem all the more aloof. Small wonder people only go to him, with suitcases full of cash in hand, when they’re desperate. No one hires Black Jack, the underground doctor, unless they absolutely have to. And even when you do hire him, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get exactly what you ask for.

Consider the case of Acudo, son of the billionaire Nikula. The kid was a bad seed; nobody disputed that. Drove his car right into a phone pole and ended up a barely-living pile of meat. Nikula threw around money like it was falling leaves to get someone to heal his son—and sure enough, he got Black Jack to do the job. Trouble was, even Black Jack couldn’t do anything for the kid without some donor parts … and so Nikula was only too happy to railroad some poor kid, a tailor named Davy, into “providing” his body for the noble cause. What Nikula didn’t expect was for Black Jack to pull a switcheroo on everyone and give that poor Davy a way out. That’s Black Jack for you: two-fisted surgeon of the underworld and equally covert humanitarian. He may not tell you he cares, but he’ll show you … that is, if you’ve earned it.

“Iconic” doesn’t begin to sum up Black Jack’s importance in the world of manga. It also barely comes close to summing up the equal importance of its author and artist—none other than Osamu Tezuka, who almost twenty years after his death is only now getting the attention he deserved in English-speaking countries. At one point Viz issued two volumes of Black Jack stories that had been culled from his archives—something of the same kind of “best-of” mining that they later did, more successfully, for Golgo 13— but it had only been issued as one of their original line of trade-paperback format printings. When they switched to the far more successful tankōbon-style format with $7.99-to-$9.99 price points, the market for manga exploded, but a great many of their earlier titles (including Black Jack) never made it back into print.

Now Vertical, Inc. has filled that gap, with a mammoth multi-volume reissue of all theBlack Jack manga—over a decade’s worth of material—including stories that originally never made it to the page. And as with all of their previous Tezuka projects, it tries to seek a good balance between being fan-friendly and mainstream-friendly, and mostly finds it. I might have my own differences of opinion for how things were done here, but they’re minor quibbles, not deal-killers. Black Jack’s a title that deserves both a wide audience and a thoughtful one, and in this edition it should find both.

The tone for the series is not something you can encapsulate in any one episode, but the opener—“Is There A Doctor?”, summarized above—hits most of the emotional notes seen in the rest of the book. There’s broad visual comedy, Black Jack’s outlandish adventures on the operating table, and underneath everything else the constant sense that action without moral guidance is futility. Sometimes there is no explicit moral lesson, just a riveting story—as with the second chapter, where Black Jack performs a corneal transplant on a young woman and discovers that she may now be seeing things she should not. (The plot of Danny and Oxide Pang’s The Eye, and to some degree the Madeleine Stowe film Blink, hews amazingly close to what happens here.)

A man of Black Jack’s ilk would nominally work alone forever, but by the third story he acquires an assistant—and both the way he acquires her and her very nature are entirely fitting. When a patient is brought to Black Jack’s villa for a clandestine bit of emergency surgery to remove a giant cystoma, he finds inside it an unborn twin to the patient—a collection of body parts floating loosely around in a womblike sac, but with a mind of its own and all the intelligence of its host. Black Jack saves the pieces and assembles them, Frankenstein-style, into “Pinoco”—a cute-as-a-button girl with a charming lisp. The two of them contrast and complement each other throughout the whole series: Black Jack the cynic and opportunist (although not without warrant) who sees Pinoco as a daughter he never had, and Pinoco the optimist and prankster who now considers Black Jack her husband (!).

Other encounters show how Black Jack tests others, and is himself tested. When a man with a grotesque disfigurement comes to him, he operates—only to discover the lesions on the man’s face have a mind of their own, and not the mind he thinks they have. A package from an old mentor arrives, and with that Black Jack finds himself trying to save the man who once saved him. An old flame of sorts returns—a woman now no longer a woman, due to the drastic work Black Jack needed to perform on her to save her life. Women and Black Jack definitely do not mix: apart from Pinoco and his original love, there’s another story involving a female surgeon who prides herself on being at least as hard-nosed as the Jack himself. He’s impressed—maybe not just by her skill, but also by the fact that someone has used his example to achieve greatness—and repays her complements in a wholly unexpected way. The series also doesn’t confine itself to the realm of medical possibility, as when Black Jack performs a brain transplant on a patient to give him a new body. What matters most in that story, though, is not scientific veracity but the underlying theme, where a new lease on life doesn’t automatically translate into fulfillment.

Some episodes don’t involve Black Jack’s work directly at all, but are still built around his character in some sense. One chapter has Black Jack spurning a case in favor of a doctor of great ability but no political ambition; his own hospital doesn’t seek him out because he’s not a leader or a self-promoter, and only almost too late do they realize that it is they who have to come to him and not the other way around. Not long ago I found and saved a quote from Swami Vivekananda that could serve as a frontispiece for the whole book: “The greatest men in the world have passed away unknown … they are the pure Sattvikas, who can never make any stir but only melt down in love.” In the same unassuming, for-him-and-not-for-me fashion, Black Jack himself aids a young boy crippled by polio who is making a painful cross-country trek to arouse awareness for his illness.

Black Jack is in some sense a bridge between the two domains that made up Tezuka’s work. On one side were lively, friendly, universally-accessible works likeUnico, Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu in Japan), and Kimba the White Lion. On the other side were stories that fueled by cosmic dread and solemn wonder, and tha seemed to be boiling up out of someone with a totally inapposite worldview: MW, Ode to Kirihito,Apollo’s Song, Buddha, and Phoenix. Black Jack is not so dark that it alienates conventional readers, but also not so fluffy that it alienates those looking for Tezuka’s usual gamut of deeper meanings. It’s—here comes the cliché—the best of both of his worlds.

Art: I love how across all of his works, Tezuka’s art is always identifiably his. The wide-eyed Walt Disney look that he used as his basic model didn’t limit him, though: over time he added many of his own flourishes, such as using contrasts between a simplified style and a more detailed, meticulous look to achieve emotional resonances. All of that is on display here in Black Jack. It doesn’t use the same epic visual scope as, say, Buddha or Phoenix, but it doesn’t need to. That said, there are many individual things that are epic in their own microcosmic way, like a sequence where a scalpel mistakenly left inside a human body slowly accrues a protective glazing of calcium. And existing Tezuka fans (e.g., me) will smile when they see all of Tezuka’s trademarked visual in-jokes—his corner-of-the-frame cameos (see pages 186-187 for a perfect example), his curious visual inventions like his “patch-gourd” character, and, well, Black Jack himself, who is about as totemic a character as you can get.

Translation: Last year when I chatted with Vertical, Inc. publisher Ioannis Mentzas about the company’s approach to Tezuka’s books, I learned something rather surprising: The Tezuka estate actually prefers to have his manga published in the reformatted left-to-right printing order, since this makes it more accessible to Western readers. Many previous Vertical treatments of Tezuka titles have been presented this way: MW, Apollo’s Song and Buddha had all been reworked in this manner. The reworking was also undistracting enough that even someone like me didn’t mind. (For a similarly-elegant left-to-right job, check out Blade of the Immortal.) Black Jack, on the other hand, appears in the original right-to-left format–presumably as a concession to the fans, although the rest of the presentation is a mixture. Some signs are annotated, others relettered; ditto the sound effects. My guess is that the most difficult-to-edit material has been left intact while the simpler stuff has been reworked, but I would have preferred a more consistent approach.

The translation itself has been capably executed by Camellia Nieh, and out of curiosity I compared her approach to the original Viz version (produced by Yuji Oniki). The Viz translation was actually quite good, but the Vertical one is slightly better in a couple of respects. Certain things that didn’t translate well the first time out have been completely reworked. When Black Jack originally confronted the cyst that contained Pinoco, he declared “Is it you, ‘Bumpie’?” Here, it’s simply “You lump!”, which is more direct and less contrived-sounding (and potentially confusing). Also, cultural references which had been completely rewritten or omitted in the original translation have been restored, along with footnotes to explain them. One reference that didn’t make it to the page in the Viz version was a nod to a previously-deleted story.

The Bottom Line: I see a lot of Tezuka fans reaching for their wallets—not just for this volume alone, but for the whole of Black Jack as it’s finally being re-released in the English-language edition it has always deserved. It was, and will be, more than worth the wait.

Tags: Japan Osamu Tezuka manga review