Ironically, the titular anti-hero takes a bit of a back seat in my favourite Black Jack story to date. Instead it is left to a company president and a construction worker to make the hard moral decisions in High and Low, taken from the first of these three latest Black Jack collections. Set during a recession, and highlighting the disparity in status – but also the common human bond – between corporate fatcats and the working class it can’t help but touch a nerve in today’s economic climate. A stunning example of Osamu Tezuka’s continued relevance, it’s tempting to call it a stand-out story, but in honesty that would be doing the other tales here a disservice.
I’ve been a busy man recently. The end of last year was hectic, and my review pile grew to near teetering point. Wracked with guilt, I grabbed the copies of Black Jack 7 and 8 with me as I headed out of the door on my way to Thailand. When I actually got to sit and read them I felt profoundly stupid at having not made the time for them sooner. I had a nightmare getting home from that trip, and the icy greyness of the UK weather brought me down to Earth hard, but it was all made a lot easier when I found a review copy of Volume 9 sitting on my doormat when I got back.
Some of you may remember how impressed I was last year on rediscovering Black Jack through Volume 5 of the Vertical Inc printing. For those that don’t or are new to series, a quick re-cap: Black Jack is an unlicensed, back street surgeon – who just happens to also be the best cutter in the world. As well as brief, effective bursts of action and medical drama the stories mainly focus on dark, often startlingly thought-provoking, tales of moral judgment. The enigmatic play off between Black Jack’s mercenary approach to medicine and his unwavering moral standards are all the more interesting when you learn Tezuka himself trained to be a doctor, and seems to be using his creation to reveal his own views on the medical profession.
But it’s far more than just doctors whom Tezuka is targeting in these volumes. Politicians, businessmen, lawyers, celebrities, property developers and even a writer unnervingly like Tezuka himself come under Black Jack’s scalpel, with their moral fibre being dissected as much as their damaged organs. As mentioned at the beginning of this review Tezuka’s tales feel shockingly relevant today, despite having been written over 30 years ago. Partly it’s because they focus on classic moral dilemmas, but also because they are presented in a setting that shows a unique understanding of the modern world. Over these 3 books Black Jack seemingly travels to every continent to ply his grisly trade, but even when out in the wilderness the setting seems contemporary and familiar, as though we are looking at a timeless snapshot of a world struggling with the conflict between capitalism and human dignity. To any reader today it’s an instantly familiar world.
That’s not to say it’s heavy reading; Black Jack’s greatest strength is it’s accessibility. Don’t worry about what order you pick the books up in; every chapter within is perfectly self-contained. The stories are short and immaculately punchy, their seriousness punctuated with bursts of action and comedy, often at the author’s own expense. Then there’s Pinoko, yet another Tezuka nod to Pinocchio, Black Jack’s somewhat freakish little girl creation, who provides light relief and and heart-wrenching tragedy in equal doses. As the comic was originally written for a young audience, the protagonists of the stories here are quite frequently children, but Tezuka never shies from giving both them and his readers the most grown-up of situations to face and the hardest of decisions to make.
Ignore the critics online that, inexplicably, fail to see the charm of Tezuka’s artwork; who say it doesn’t look ‘manga’ enough. You should be in awe of his ability to seamlessly mix, with often devastating effect, the cartoon with the almost stomach churningly graphic. Even if the art is not to your immediate taste, you should be in awe of his writing. You should be in awe of his pacing, and his powerfully succinct narrative style. And most of all, you should be in awe of his refusal to compromise his storytelling for what was thought his target demographic could handle. You should be in awe of a man tasked with writing for an audience of teenage boys, and not only managing to never once patronise, but to also weave moral tales that will question and provoke the most adult of minds. You should, in short, be in awe of his genius.