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Surgical Spirit: "Black Jack" Volumes 2, 3 and 4 Get a Clean Bill of Health!

ImageThere are some books simply too good to review— books that really don’t require the help of some meager assessor; that are happy enough to stand tall without third party endorsements. In essence, there are some books that make my job more without meaning than I could ever succeed at.

Vertical have been hot on the presses releasing more of their Black Jack collection. Toon Zone reviewed volume one earlier in 2008 and here we are again with volumes two, three and four putting me back in the hot seat looking for something more discerning to say about this range of graphic novels other than “Well, Black Jack is simply brilliant, innit?”

Of course the quality of Black Jack is hardly a secret. Written by manga’s legendary godfather, Osamu Tezuka, Black Jack is the long-running series of short stories that follow the extraordinary feats of surgery performed by an unlicensed Japanese doctor of the same name. The tales frequently carry a moral or sociological message, usually catalyzed by some emergency requiring Black Jack’s surgical skills. (Black Jack’s universe seems to exist on an abundance of car and HGV crashes throughout the four volumes.) The stories drift between resolutions of hope and despair, often ending on an abrupt coda.

Black Jack plays on a breadth of drama that weaves a tale around both simple and complex characters types. More often than not, Tezuka turns his critical eye upon the medical profession, taking the opportunity to pull the strings on a variety of doctor and intellectual stereotypes and making them dance to his satirical melodies.

Simply put, Black Jack is a joy to read. Aside from a few visual elements that prove a reminder of its vintage status, the stories remain relatively timeless. One story in volume three called “Your Mistake” requires a spool based tape recorder as a central prop—a reminder of the days before cassettes, CDs and digital downloads. You can read volume four without a single reminder of the time differential between ourselves and the author—only a few footnotes give away some of the minor satirical swipes at his contemporaries in Japanese manga.

ImageThe age of Black Jack does raise a question: how can a book dealing with a medical surgeon first written over thirty-five years ago possibly carry any significant value to today’s society? Strangely enough, many of the stories are indeed significant, particularly to our current climate, to coin a relevant pun. In volume two we have “Assembly Line Care” which questions the balance between bedside manner and hospital efficiency; “Where Are Thou Friend?” is about the malady that is mankind upon the planet. Volume three’s “Dingoes” questions the ravages of mankind on the animal ecosystem and in “Shrinking” we seen theological faith struggle against secular humanitarianism as our medicines save more people only to see others die under surplus demand upon resources. All of which are contemporary issues, all of which Tezuka was querying three decades ago.

Of course, many of the Black Jack stories simply stand the test of time by centering on the timeless moral issues. The question of euthanasia for instance is neatly explored in volume three’s “Two Dark Doctors”. The internal struggle between the family unit is a popular theme, and Tezuka enjoys examining blood relationships through a some surprising facets. In volume four we have a trilogy of family plights; “Burned Doll”, a tale of a gangster’s willing sacrifice for his son; “Lost and Found” focuses on dying wife and mother and her family’s desperate plight to raise the funds to save her, and “Heart of a Giant” looks at the risks a parent will put on his ill son for the sake of fame and fortune. Whether it be a broad sociological question or a very personal tale, Tezuka opens up the tender wounds found between human fragility and social morality.

While the stories avoid being trapped in the past, it’s perhaps Black Jack’s fantastical ability to perform feats of surgery that prevents the reader from questioning the book’s contemporary relevance. Black Jack can graft skin, re-attach limbs and even transplant bodies in ways no one can, and this little zest of fantasy completes the timeless illusion.

As always, Tezuka’s artwork is an eclectic blend of caricature and incredibly textured linework. The testament to his work comes in the decades of imitators who have drawn from his skills. His sequential narratives are almost faultless in visualization and pacing. There is little change within the artwork between the three volumes—Tezuka’s style for Black Jack is very much set from the start. In fact, the only evidence of change comes in volume four where there is a tiny modicum of self-referential humour that leaks into the story and visuals. It seems by the forth volume, Tezuka has become very aware of the restrictions of Black Jack’s story format and occasionally lampoons it—but never to the detriment of the tale itself.

Vertical have continued their unique and quite understated approach to the book design. The stories are bound with a stylish blend of block color and line art. The black and white stories themselves are laid out well with handy notes that help decipher the underlying cultural ambiguities—and, in one case, inaccuracies—to Tezuka’s work.

To look for fault in Black Jack would be just that: looking—no, hunting—for faults, just for the sake of a balanced review. There is no critical balance to be found in Black Jack; it’s simply damn good. If I were to impart a little personal ego into this review, I read volume four after having a wisdom tooth extraction—and there is nothing better to dull jaw discomfort than tales of people suffering far greater than yourself. Forget drugs, Black Jack was a great chemical substitute. Take that as my medical diagnosis. Now, go prescribe yourself a copy—or three!

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