"Black Jack": Jack of All Trades, Master of All.
As a meager, part-time reviewer, I am somewhat daunted by the prospect of once again critically appraising the work of Japan’s greatest comic legend. I’m only an unwelcome personal literary adjudicator to the work of Osamu Tezuka. Why should simple old Jimmy Em to be putting him on trial once more?
Anyhow, right or not, here is my latest assessment of Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack original comic book series, neatly bound in a handy shelf-sized paper tome by Vertical. Black Jack is our story protagonist—and occasional antagonist. He is a brooding, unlicensed surgeon who performs illegal operations for whoever can pay, and in most cases they are expected to pay very well. Each tale stands largely alone, and the series features only a few recurring characters. The narrative is unsurprisingly drenched in medicine and ailments, and the author enjoys making social commentary and the occasional pop-culture in-joke. Black Jack had a long life, and mutated into other media, but this is the original, untainted source.
So after four previous volumes of Black Jack, do the stories show any sign of becoming stale? Well it would make my job easier if they were. I could slice and tear away at the book with colourful, snarky metaphors if that was the case. Unfortunately, like the previous volumes, Black Jack Volume 5 is consistently perfect throughout.
It maybe out of pure happen-stance, or simply my own perceptions, but I’d say that the stories in this volume are a little darker on the whole. Sometimes they are somber, sometimes bitter-sweet, occasionally tragic; but overall, I would submit this is the most emotionally burdened volume so far. That said, there is a light peppering of gentler tales, from the light, near-farcical “Pinoko’s Mystery” to the uplifting struggle-against-the-odds tale of “Quite a Tongue”, to the bizarrely festive ghost story “On a Snowy Night”. But be the tale dark or light, Tezuka treats the audience to fiction that is both dignified and fulfilling.
Favourite stories? I’ll select a couple. I love the sad darkness found in “Wolf Girl”, a tale of a girl shunned for her horrendous deformity and the true horror of beauty. “There was a Valve!”, where Black Jack is not just pitted against time to diagnose his patient, but against his ideological enemy, Kiriko, who is the patient’s son. One looks to bring him life, the other to release him from pain. It’s an intimate and quite horrific story. Though for art alone, I also recommend the sad yet gentle tale of “Two at the Baths”: some beautiful renders backed by a strong, sequential visual narrative.
A particular bonus in this graphic novel is a reprinting of a few pages of Dororo, another of Tezuka’s masterpieces that carries some parallels to Black Jack. Given that Vertical have released Dororo Volume 1, maybe the more cynical would call this no more than an overblown advertisement for another of their books—and, yes I suppose I would be hard pressed to argue with that point. But these pages arerelevant to Black Jack. For those who have been following the Black Jack volumes, you’ll find in them an interesting comparison with the birth of Black Jack’s odd sidekick Pinoko (detailed in Black Jack Volume 1), and if that encourages you to purchase more of Tezuka’s work, well, I’d say that’s hardly a bad outcome.
So with Black Jack Volume 5, we have pretty much more of the same. Tezuka’s art direction and vivid illustrations enrich the tales as always, the humour and pathos are all there, and it is all neatly bound in the series’ unique quarter-and-stitched covers. It’s rare that I can say that any product that is simply “more of the same old” is a good thing, but when you’re at the top of your league, its possibly the best compliment one can offer.