by Osamu Tezuka
published by Vertical; $16.95 US
I like this Osamu Tezuka manga for its entertaining medical craziness. Behind stories of insane, unbelievable surgeries lies a strong sense of morality and justice.
Former site writer Rob Vollmar has talked up the works of Osamu Tezuka, “God of Manga”, here before, but none of them clicked with me until now. (Big thanks to David Welsh, whose contest got these books to me for free.)
Black Jack is a rogue surgeon, an unlicensed doctor who refuses to kowtow to the medical establishment. He requests immense fees to accomplish the impossible, such as treating sores that form faces and talk or transplanting a brain to a new body so an artist can finish his life’s masterpiece. (His treatment methods can also be extreme, as when he shoots a possessed patient to knock him out for an operation or treats uterine cancer with a sex change.)
Customers think he’s only in it for the money, but he’s more noble than that … although being rich also helps insulate him from those petty officials and selfish egomaniacs who want him stopped. There’s a kind of Randian individualism to Black Jack’s choices. He can do amazing things, and he has little patience for those who get in his way because of their own fears and insecurities. Hypocrites and the corrupt think of him as one of them, but he’s far from it.
Tezuka majored in medicine in college, which gives him enough background to give these crazy operations somewhat plausible grounding. The real point of the stories is a moral message. Black Jack uses his skills to play god sometimes, bringing a just end to those who deserve it when no one else can.
For example, in the first story, a rich man’s spoiled son has destroyed himself in a car crash. He’s so far gone that another body is needed for replacement parts. The tycoon has no problem framing a poor man for murder, then delivering him to be cut up, but instead of rebuilding the son, Black Jack uses plastic surgery to make the innocent man look like the now-dead son, thus neatly defeating the corrupt.
The characters are caricatures, showing their personalities through their features. The wealthy patriarch is hawk-nosed, with sharp edges and curling hair resembling a crown of feathers. The cowering hospital head is all big nose and balding head, a comedy figure. When we first see Black Jack, it’s a striking pose, cape-like coat blowing in the wind, scarred face and two-tone hair showing how distinctive he is compared to others. The pacing is perfectly suited for action and suspense.
The over-the-top premises of the stories are engrossing. It’s unbelievable that a woman can get visions from a cornea transplanted from a murdered donor, or a famous woman’s psychic “living tumor” could become a doll-like companion to Black Jack. (Katherine Dacey talks about the problems with Pinoko in her review.) Even the Christmas story involves amputation and a rare romance. (Love isn’t treated kindly in this series.) I can see this appealing to fans of shows like CSI or House.
The publisher’s website has previews available. Vertical plans to bring these books out every other month until the whole thing is collected, at least 17 books’ worth. They need your support to follow through on these plans, and the material is deserving of readership.