Even if you’ve never read a single page of manga before, the chances are you’re familiar with Osamu Tezuka – and if the name isn’t familiar, then it’s likely that his most famous creation Astro Boy, is. Even though she’s never, to my knowledge, read a page of the manga herself, my girlfriend’s most prized purchases during last year’s Tokyo shopping exhibitions where the t-shirts featuring the iconic robo-Pinocchio she picked up in Harajuku. But Tezuka – often referred to as the ‘God of Manga’ and the ‘Father of Anime’ – had an impact beyond his cute character designs and children’s adventure stories, with even Astro Boy at times exploring the darker sides and moral ambiguities of human nature, and perhaps his strongest vehicle for this being the character Black Jack.
Written in the 1970s and 80s, the Black Jack stories deal with an enigmatic but mercenary, unlicensed surgeon for hire. Drawing on his own experience training (though never practicing) as a physician, Tezuka combines what appears to be often sound medical details with Jack’s almost super-human surgical skills to create Japan’s most iconic anti-hero. However, it is not Black Jack’s amazing feats of medical prowess that are the stories’ real focus, but more his complex, often self-contradicting, moral standpoints and choices.
I’d first dipped into Black Jack years ago, so I was thrilled when US publisher Vertical sent me a copy of their fifth volume of their complete re-issue of the decade spanning series for review. Fears that entering the series at Volume 5 would leave me lost quickly disappeared on being reminded of the series’ format; these are short, 20 or so page stand-alone tales rather than an ongoing serial, and while there are re-occurring characters and themes it is easily picked up at any point, without any real prior introduction. They follow a fairly standard formula: Jack is hired to tend to a patient that, for whatever reason, requires aid that cannot be found within the normal, legal medical channels. For example, in “Yet False the Days” Jack is approached by a paralysed pop idol’s greedy management to perform plastic surgery on a girl to make her look like the famous star. But as with all the stories there is a twist in the tale, and even when Jack insists instead on curing the idol so she can perform again and the surgery is a near-miraculous success, the end result is ultimately tragedy. Elsewhere Tezuka takes aim at the medical establishment, portraying other surgeons and hospital administrators as bloated, self important buffoons – and this combined with Jack’s own, often mercenary, attitude seems to throw some light on the author’s own views of the world of medicine. Clearly fascinated by the science of surgery, Tezuka seems just as intrigued with the feelings of power and control that wielding this knowledge brings, and here he explores both sides in detail, perhaps also throwing some light on to why he never practiced medicine himself.
While it is hard to deny the concise efficiency of Tezuka’s storytelling, outside Japan some younger critic’s have taken issue with the style of his drawing. Clearly influenced by US artists such as Walt Disney and Grim Natwick, even though his work helped to craft what has become accepted as the modern style, it does at times seem removed from what we now instantly identify as manga. However, to criticise him, as others have, for being ‘old-fashioned’, ‘too American’ or ‘not-Japanese enough’ looking seems not only ridiculous to me, but blatantly inaccurate. Just flicking through the book reveals not only Tezuka’s detailed, graphic depictions of surgery, but also character designs that could be nothing else but Japanese in their origin, with visual elements and archetypes that can still be seen in every newly published manga today. Yes, Tezuka’s style may be different from today’s artists, but to dismiss or dislike it for just these reasons seems both infantile and narrow-minded, and a sad reflection on the tastes and mindsets of the contemporary manga fan that seems to value conformity and the familiar over variety and being challenged. It’s perhaps worth pointing out to these self-proclaimed foreign ‘otaku’ that back in Japan these distinctions are made far less often, and that widening your tastes beyond what you perceive and pigeonhole as ‘the manga style’ may open up some new, rewarding experiences.
But anyway – before I descend into frustrated ranting: this book is an excellent package. Vertical have done yet another fantastic job with the presentation, the quality of the print is excellent, and of particular note is the unique and stylish front cover. The book even includes a 12-page sample excerpt from Tezuka’s Dororo – seen as many as being the predecessor of Black Jack. As mentioned previously the short, episodic, stand-alone nature of the stories within make the book accessible to any reader – whether they are new to Black Jack, Tezuka or even manga itself, and based on this volume I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending grabbing any of the Vertical Black Jack editions you come across. An essential read.