by Osamu Tezuka
published by Vertical; $16.95 US
Now that I’m no longer astounded by the sheer medical craziness of this classic series about a rogue doctor, I’m reevaluating why I read these stories. They do, at times, bear signs of age (especially in the treatment of female characters and women’s roles; I found book 4 particularly bad in this respect). And the stories have started making winking allusions to being comics — early in this book, characters left at the end of a long string of people say, “We don’t even get our faces drawn in” — which tend to annoy instead of amuse me.
Now, that said, they’re still wildly imaginative and ridiculously dramatic. As mental popcorn (or maybe caffeinated soda is a better metaphor), a new book is fun to see just what Black Jack will do next to break the laws of anatomy and logic and establish his own brand of justice.
The first story here is remarkably timely in its portrayal of medical bureaucracy ignoring the needs of the patients. A hospital is run by a graduate of a prestigious university who is treated like an emperor. If employees didn’t go to that school, they’re treated as second class. No one questions the leader, and his decisions ignore patient wishes. In this case, it’s a talented young pianist with a growth in his arm. Fancy Doctor says “amputate,” which would give the boy no reason to live.
A young doctor at the hospital asks Black Jack for advice in solving this dilemma. He wants to acknowledge the boy’s wishes, but he also wants to keep his job and not cross the big boss. Black Jack, as expected, tells the doctor it’s not his problem and to make his own decision. (He also kind of rubs in his independent status in that he doesn’t have to deal with the politics of a big hospital.) It’s only when Black Jack overhears the big man insulting the doctor that saved his life, resulting in the scars on his face, that he becomes interested in assisting, just to show up the blowhard.
That’s one of the factors that I suspect keeps people reading about Black Jack: his super-human surgical skills are the only comic-booky thing about him. Otherwise, he’s selfish, greedy, and motivated by the kinds of drives you don’t normally see in a comic book hero. (Were it created in a later era, I think we’d also see him sleeping around and never calling again.)
As in some other Tezuka works, big issues are tackled in sometimes superficial ways. Does the hospital head learn anything from being shown up? No, he fires the doctor friend of Black Jack’s, who’s out on the street for finding a better choice. If there any long-term effects, we won’t see them, because these are single-chapter stories. Once we hit the common punchline — Black Jack can do things other doctors can’t — that’s it, move on. Artistically, there’s also a conflict, with simple, cartoony people having very detailed insides.
A story about a determined boy (an abacus champion, of all things, and thalidomide baby) given new hands from a corpse is similarly full of contradictory points. A reporter wants to cover the medical miracle, to “give hope to all handicapped children”, but Black Jack, who isn’t about to help them all, says no, because they’d only be jealous of the kid who got assistance they won’t. As he departs, viewers sum him up:
Who was that?
A brilliant surgeon named Black Jack.
A bit of a jerk, though.
Part of the message of these stories seems to be that if you’re skilled and determined enough, you will be able to do things others won’t. If you’re a musical prodigy, and your doctor insults him, you will get your arm back. If you’re best at the abacus, you will magically regain your hands. If you’re the best surgeon, you can annoy people all you want and they’ll still need you. Thinking about the bigger picture — what about other deserving patients? — is foolhardy, because chance means they won’t be able to obtain Black Jack’s services.
Then again, maybe looking for a message is pointless. Taking things to extremes keeps the readers entertained, even if the result is a mass of contradictions. For example, there’s an over-booked hospital owner who kicks his mother out every time he needs an extra bed. She’d been staying with friends, but they’re all getting sick of seeing her. When a disaster occurs, Black Jack is given the opportunity to sell her back to the negligent son. This strays from the other stories in that Black Jack acts unselfishly at first, as a force to teach a needed lesson. Since he doesn’t use his medical talent, it reads as though it could have been part of a different series with insignificant changes.
The next story is even more uncharacteristic, as a cat gets the better of the doctor, scraping him up (although with his face, it’s hard to tell). It’s all about the will to live, and how doctors can’t make those decisions for patients. I found the Black Jack shown here had more in common with the blowhard of the first story than the independent who showed him up. But that’s what happens when collecting stories told over a period of decades — sometimes the comparisons shed new light on interpretation.
Also in this volume is another appearance of the Black Queen, the female doctor who resembles Zephyrus. This story ages particularly badly, as Black Jack forces her into quitting her successful surgery career so she can be with her husband overseas. She is happier that way, but she didn’t have the strength herself to make the choice. What old-fashioned rubbish it all is. She even hits on Black Jack, which contradicts the author’s supposed message that she needs to remember her true love.
One story suggests that doctors should never give patients a peaceful death, that they should respect life — which sits oddly with Black Jack’s tendency to refuse people who want to live who can’t pay him. Then again, somehow, they always come through, so maybe the message is that if life is at stake, you’ll find enough money to pay even the most outrageous bills.
Some of the stories — an alternate history for Pinoko, a visit to the master swordsmith who keeps Black Jack’s scalpels sharp, a bug that infects people with water — I’m not even sure I even understand. Others are simple trials of loyalty, as when Black Jack replaces a criminal’s fingers to change his prints, or when he assists a former teacher who’s going blind. In the latter story, other doctors want to force out the old man by making him operate to reveal his weakness. That this would sacrifice a patient doesn’t seem to matter to anyone. Others — a girl with a cleft palate on the border of a repressive country, a ghost surgery after an airplane crash — are over-the-top melodrama, although they have lovely art that strongly establishes the necessary moods.
I think many of my quibbles are due to the frequency of publication. Vertical has been releasing volumes of the series every two months:
I appreciate getting them out on a relatively timely basis, but for me, more time between the volumes would better suit my reading pattern (and allow me to recover in between). I need to remind myself that if I don’t want to read them that quickly, I don’t have to. They’ll be ready whenever I want another hit of medical insanity. And yet, book 6 is on its way to me, because I just can’t quit! The wackiness is just too enjoyable.