While at the Beguiling last week I picked up Vertical's new edition of BLACK JACK, Osamu Tezuka's medical suspense manga starring the mysterious unlicensed surgeon with the two-tone hair. Published in SHONEN CHAMPION from 1973 until the mid 1980s, BLACK JACK was Tezuka at his best; moving beyond his comfort zone, away from licenseable children's robot characters and cute animals into (for him) uncharted gekiga manga territory.
Black Jack is a renegade doctor with inhuman skill, a high price tag, and scars the envy of every modern tribalist. Seemingly detached and uncaring about the rest of the world, his true feelings are betrayed by a constant struggle to end human suffering. This usually takes the form of some sort of bizarre, painful, and incredibly disfiguring make-believe disease. At least, I hope these diseases are fictional, because some of them are pretty frightening. However, Black Jack fights back with outlandish and drastic surgical procedures that no other doctor on Earth would approve, let alone attempt to perform. When he's not deep inside some poor slob's intestines (rendered in slightly-too-realistic detail by real-life doctor Tezuka), Black Jack can be found uncovering criminal plots, revealing embarrassing lies, and generally behaving like a scalpel-wielding Columbo. Several times he manages to both fulfill his Hippocratic Oath and nab evildoers at the same time, winding up with stories that read like a cross between Rex Morgan M.D. and the twist-ending E.C. crime comics of the 1950s.
Vertical's new release is not the first time Black Jack manga has appeared in English - Viz released two volumes of manga in the 90s and serialized Black Jack in their MANGA VIZION anthology - but this new Vertical edition is certainly the classiest. A direct reprint of Akita Shoten's 1987 BLACK JACK collection, Vertical's version is printed slightly larger. The Diamond Comics Exclusive Hardcover release - available only in your local comic book shop- contains an additional story, which until now has never been reprinted. Why? Because it's freaking depressing, that's why.
The book includes the first Black Jack story, "Is There A Doctor" - a class-war tale of exploitation and revenge - and rolls right along through the first appearance of the doctor's assistant Pinoko, a story about Black Jack's lost medical school girlfriend, one tale reminiscent of a sushi-themed version of the Michael Caine horror movie "The Hand", and the intriguing tale of the beautiful ice-queen lady surgeon who specializes in amputations, paging Dr. Freud. Some of the stories go a little deep into science-fictional territory; one sequence about a hospital run by a super-computer is a bit Crichton-y. But here's where Tezuka's loose, cartoony style shows its advantage. The outlandish and the mundane are both given the same big-eye treatment and the reader is left not really concerned about the reality of brain transplants or computer-doctors. Anyway, when these stories were written, limb transplants were a hope for the future, and now they're performed regularly. Who can say mix-and-match surgical hijinx aren't coming?
The one minor detail missing from the Vertical editions are the slick, ultra-realistic covers sported by the Akita Shoten volumes. I love seeing manga characters rendered in photorealistic style, every pore and (in Black Jack's case) stitch scar glistening and making us all just a little queasy. I don't think these covers would sell at all in the American market, so it's probably a wise move to have Peter Mendelsund design new jackets. So here's my treatment regimen; hie yourself down to your local comic shop and pick up BLACK JACK VOLUME ONE from Vertical. For a full dose I recommend the hardcover version. You don't need a doctor's prescription and there's no complicated follow-up medication or painful physical therapy - just some serious entertainment from the pen of one of the world's masters of comics.