by Osamu Tezuka
published by Vertical; $16.95 US
I’m astounded that this second book contains even more far-out stories than Book 1. I didn’t think there could be such a thing.
The first, “Needle”, shows one of the rare occurrences when the rogue doctor Black Jack is defeated. We get a hint that this might happen on the first page, where a wise older doctor (with a huge fluffy beard) cautions the rogue to humility:
Don’t underestimate the human body, or else. … When you’re trying to treat [it], it isn’t always receptive to reason.
We’re thus ready to expect something unreasonable to happen, to provide the needed lesson. The resulting behavior of a broken needle is flatly unbelievable, but then, so are most of Black Jack’s operations. I think the former is harder for me to accept because it’s focused on what’s normally an inanimate object.
The following story, “Granny”, moves far in the opposite direction, emphasizing human willpower and loyalty. A greedy mother-in-law is always demanding money from her hardworking son’s wife, who complains without ever finding out why. The old lady is hilarious to look at, almost a stick figure with a few squiggles to mean hair and a ridiculously jutting jaw. There’s also a strange panel where the son recognizes Black Jack because he’s “read about you in a comics zine at the barber’s.” That’s a self-referential indicator of Black Jack’s fame in his world, that he has his own comic series. The lesson of the story is to give old people the respect they deserve and the benefit of the doubt, but as an American, I also found myself dismayed by the idea of lifelong slavery due to outrageous medical debts, especially as the cycle keeps repeating itself in the creator’s idea of payback.
The next story is my favorite, since it demonstrates Black Jack’s ridiculous consistency. He takes his cutesy-pie talking tumor “wife” to a secluded cove, where he tells of treating a killer whale who paid him in pearls from the bottom of the ocean. At a time of extreme seclusion and loneliness, the sea creature was his only friend. (You haven’t seen angst until you’ve seen a scarred super-surgeon tell a half-naked talking doll by the ocean waves how alone he was.) The whale, who was either overly aggressive or accident-prone, kept showing up, and Black Jack kept talking to him, including the immortal advice, “Don’t cry! Males don’t.” Finally, the doctor had to choose between his friend or his species in a harsh conclusion.
There are 11 other stories in this volume, all with their own skewed view of life and honor. Some, such as the one where a kid worried about his grades watches the surgeon stitch limbs back on an honorable man, have lessons that reiterate values we still hold dear. Another makes fun of the craven gutlessness of men who value money over honesty. Some are hard to interpret, as in the one where the doctor, a kindergarten teacher, and her class are trapped in a cave-in. By the end, it seems that virtue doesn’t get rewarded and no one’s done exactly the right thing.
A much older story (judging by the rougher art style — remember, these stories are reordered) tells of how Black Jack’s face wound up scarred in a tale very much of its time with its grafted-on environmental message. There’s an action-adventure tale with a kidnapping and the need to treat another country’s president, and another with a faked suicide and a race against time. Pinoko’s attempts to find a school where she fits in is a extremely dark comedy, while a couple, including the blind acupuncturist, just left me shaking my head in uncertainty. The diversity of tone and approach, though, is another of the series’ strengths.