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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Manga Review: Black Jack GN 1 & 2

Black Jack volumes 1 and 2
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Vertical Manga
Vol 1.: 288 pages; Vol 2.: 304 pages

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. Black Jack charges exorbitant fees for his services, the proceeds from which he uses to fund environmental projects and to aid victims of crime and corrupt capitalists. But because Black Jack keeps his true motives secret, his ethics are perceived as questionable and he is considered a selfish, uncaring devil. The Black Jack series is told in short stories. Each volume will contain 16-20 stories, each running approximately 20-24 pages in length.

Black Jack is recognized as Osamu Tezuka's third most famous series, after Astro Boy and Kimba, the White Lion. (Source: Goodreads)

Spoiler warning: Spoilers for the Black Jack series so far in the following review. Read on with caution!

Content warning: The Black Jack manga contains explicitly drawn scenes of surgery and medical procedures. If you are sensitive to these things, you should probably avoid this series.

Certainly, if anyone is qualified to create a dramatic medical manga, it would be Doctor Osamu Tezuka, doctor turned manga-ka who eventually put his scientific know-how to the page – and in the process, created one of the most memorable and mysterious characters in animanga history. 

The image of Black Jack is one of those classic figures in the pantheon of animated characters; how can a reader easily forget the lanky white-and-black haired man with the scarred face who wears a dark cloak and travels with his bag of medical equipment? Exactly.

As someone who watched the Black Jack OVA dubbed on AZN TV – back when there still was an AZN TV! – it was an absolute thrill and a half to read the original manga and see the origin of such an iconic Tezuka character. Naturally, I was not disappointed by what I found. 

Black Jack is a hodge-podge of comedy and drama, tragedy and romance that is classic Tezuka in both storytelling and character design. There’s just something about the fast pacing of these stories that makes it so compelling to read, it’s hard to put ‘em down before you are done.

The Black Jack manga, much like the various anime adaptations (Black Jack 21 withstanding), is very episodic in nature. The only common threads running through each chapter is Black Jack and, after a couple of stories, Pinoko. Honestly, I think not having a full-length plot that runs over multiple volumes does Black Jack better than having one. After all, we become like BJ in a way that we see these patients, see their troubles, watch as the good doctor saves their lives, and never sees them again. 

The only character that is seen multiple times that isn’t part of Black Jack’s permanent party is Doctor Honma – and that is only because Honma is such an integral part of the surgeon’s back story, being the man who literally put the boy back together from the brink of death.

I think my favorite part of the series so far is learning more about Black Jack as a person. We see how he became a surgeon, why he became a surgeon, even how he came to have such a distinctive face (part of a chapter that is surprisingly progressive given how racist Tezuka’s works can be). Despite all of these revelations, Tezuka keeps well in mind how important the overall mystery of BJ is, so he still keeps the true man in the distance from his readers. 

We also see how Black Jack is literally the creator of Pinoko – and her origin story absolutely blows my mind. Poor Pinoko! It’s a shame that no one believes how old she really is, but not surprising, given she looks like a grade school kid.

Overall, Black Jack really is a masterstroke in the pantheon of Tezuka’s manga as well as a personal favorite of mine. It can be fun and hilarious at one point but swiftly turn around and give a horrifyingly accurate commentary on what’s wrong with society. I can’t wait to read more of Black Jack and Pinoko’s adventures, and I am forever grateful to Vertical for bringing it to my shores in English.

Anyone interested in this manga can check out the Black Jack page on the Vertical website, where you can read info and reviews of the series as well as purchase all seventeen volumes.