Black Jack Volume 1
By Osamu Tezuka
$16.95, 288 pages, Paperback
Published by Vertical Inc.
Reviewed by Christopher Butcher
When I was younger, I wrote diatribes about how Japanâ€™s comic industry was something to be aspired to. Among my arguments was the assertion that in Japan, there were comics about everything, and for everyone. Comics for boys, girls, teens of both genders, young men and young women, salarymen and housewives, even the elderly! And the genres tooâ€¦ we had never seen anything like â€œbusiness man comicsâ€ in North America, Dagwood Bumstead was about as close as we got. Hell, they even had a whole genre of comics about risky surgery, thatâ€™s something! So now, many (many) years later, I hold in my hand Black Jack Volume 1, likely the originator of the brilliant surgeon comics genre (echoed today in seriesâ€™ like the thriller Monster). Iâ€™m pleased to report that my teenage ranting was not for naught, that I understand how a whole genre, hell an industry could spring up around the enigmatic titular character.
Originally serialized from 1973-1983, Black Jack is from the same period of work that saw Verticalâ€™s other more mature Tezuka releases including MW, Apolloâ€™s Song, and Ode to Kirihito, although this one was serialized in Shukan Shonen Champion, a popular manga magazine amongst boys and teens. It remains some of the maturity and reality of the gekiga-influenced mature graphic novels by having the characters interact with the social and medical ills of the day, though it isnâ€™t afraid to take a younger and more crowd-pleasing tone. In fact the first story in this volume features some of the most extreme super-deformed expressions Iâ€™ve ever seen from Tezuka, which sets a strange tone in a story thatâ€™s ostensibly about grisly injuries and sicknesses, and the smorgasboard of humanity that Black Jackâ€™s operating table becomes. Further, fantasy and outright science fiction drop in when the stories call for it, with psychic communication and a self-aware computer driving the action in some of the more memorable stories. Black Jack has all of the commentary on the human condition of someone like Tatsumiâ€™s work, but with all of the grit sucked out and replaced with a shonen adventure comic; itâ€™s timely, itâ€™s affecting, itâ€™s got bizarre stories to keep everyone entertained, and no one has to fish an infant corpse out of a sewer.
The storytelling is interesting, as it comes from one of the most celebrated and accomplished points in Tezukaâ€™s careerâ€¦Tezukaâ€™s attention to detail in the surgery scenes is thrilling, and the few action sequences (in particular the one beginning on page 124) are almost elegant in their telling. Tezuka also composes a page beautifully, and although the book is printed in its native right-to-left format, Tezukaâ€™s storytelling is marvelous at moving the eye across the page. Check out the first two pages of the book here, presented right-to-left:
Although this collection is based on what would be considered the Japanese â€œperfect collection,â€ much like the Dark Horse release of Astro Boy the stories here donâ€™t appear in the order that they were originally serialized, and so the art does move back and for a little. Some faces and expressions are more confident, some of the storytelling is smoother, the stories vary wildly in tone, and most telling, a sidekick character and domestic situation are introduced for Black Jack very early on, which intermittently disappears from the stories that followâ€¦ It looks like in this collection, Black Jackâ€™s annoying-but-fan-favourite sidekick is introduced much earlier than the original serialization, and then they go about pretending sheâ€™s just off-panel for some of the stories that clearly took place before that event. In fact, further complicating viewing this as a historical work is the fact that it really is based on a â€œPerfect Collection,â€ and as my own visit to the Tezuka Museum in Japan revealed Tezuka would often extensively re-draw characters, scenes, and whole stories for new editions of his works, and thatâ€™s clearly present here.
Black Jack doesnâ€™t really work as a historical record, or a reflection of the time in which it was created because of the re-drawing and re-sequencing, and I think that the earlier Vertical Tezuka releases are where you would want to go for thatâ€¦ But considering Verticalâ€™s ultra-contemporary book design choices and packaging, it seems that they arenâ€™t interested in presenting Black Jack as a historical document anyway. The bold graphic design on this book is almost non-representational, a small piece of Tezukaâ€™s art depicting the inside of a body is obscured and cropped so as to appear nearly abstract; the back cover features a sprawling futuristic industrial complex built from Lego. This is not being presented as a record of mangaâ€™s glorious past, but as a vital and engaging contemporary work. It reminds me of Vizâ€™s handling of their recent release Cat-Eyed Boy, actually, in eschewing a historical connection almost entirely. To that end, volume one of Black Jack is entirely devoid of any sort of historical or academic contextâ€¦ the stories run right to the very last page of the book, endpapers be damned. I understand this decision of course, but I ultimately disagree with it: the stories donâ€™t work presented as contemporary entertainment. Theyâ€™re simply a little too unsophisticated for a generation of readers who are familiar with shows like â€˜House.â€™ The formula is exactly, exactly the same of course, with the mysterious taciturn brusque brilliant surgeon solving the rare medical condition of the week, but the lengths to which Black Jackâ€™s surgical prowess are stretched could snap a suspension-bridge of disbeliefâ€¦ But theyâ€™re totally fun, totally engrossing. Black Jack is a page-turner of the highest order, and I blew through 280+ pages and Iâ€™m hungry for more. I just feel that, seeing as this is the 20th-or-so Tezuka graphic novel Iâ€™ve read, Iâ€™m one of the initiated, Iâ€™m on board. As such, Iâ€™m the kind of reader that wants to know as much about this character and this world as possible, and I want a killer piece of Tezuka art on the cover too!
Of course, everything Iâ€™m asking for might actually be present in the limited-edition hardcover version of Black Jack, arriving in comic stores everywhere tomorrow (September 24th). That one actually has a picture of Black Jack on the cover, and an extra story that was excised from the Japanese perfect collection (perhaps it was too silly even for them!). Iâ€™ll be buying that one tomorrow, and every volume thereafter, because despite whatever conceptual problems I have with how the work is presented, the work itself is still great, still enjoyable, and a record of one of the most popular and beloved comics and characters of all time. Who could pass that up?
Black Jack artwork Â© 2008 by Tezuka Productions.
Images from top: Black Jack soft cover Volume 1 cover, Black Jack Volume 1 pages 6-7 excerpt, Black Jack hard cover Volume 1 cover.
Review based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher. For more on Black Jack including two full stories to read, check out the Vertical website at http://vertical-inc.com/blackjack/index.html.