March 2, 2010

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Black Jack Volume 1

Written by Osamu Tezuka
Illustrated by Osamu Tezuka
Vertical

With so many creators and series to read across the world of comics, it always seems like I have an artist or three whose work I haven't read, long after it would make sense for me to have done so.

Today's entry is Osuma Tezuka--you know, just the creator of one of the most recognizable manga series of all time. No reason why I should be reading his work, right?

Well, I took care of this glaring oversight a little bit ago, reading the start of this medical series featuring a rogue doctor with a horrible reputation and a heart of gold.

Not unlike the Fox TV series House if they were willing to delve into extremely speculative medical science, Black Jack goes from place to place saving impossible patients and reminding those who cure in the name of greed that they have forgotten the role of the doctor in society. Interestingly enough, Black Jack does all this while having a reputation himself for only taking cases if he is paid an extraordinary fee. Only the reader and a few select people know the truth.

Each chapter is self contained, and comes from a part of the ongoing series. As a result, it is easy to pick this book up and read it in pieces, if you are so inclined. We get a short set up, Black Jack finds his way into the case, and by the end, the case is solved--though not always quite how the reader expects.

The short stories are extremely well written. Using about 22 pages each (the average size of a Western comic), Tezuka tells a complete story that gives us a chance to feel for the character or characters involved by only knowing a little bit of their history. There's not a lot of time wasted with finding Black Jack or how he manages to keep practicing without license. It's just understood that he's in the right place at the right time, and knows just how to cure the patient.

In this age of television, novels, and comics trying to be as realistic as possible, it's actually pretty refreshing to see a series that works under the premise that anything is possible if it makes for a good story. In one story, Black Jack creates a human being from the parts of a cystoma, who then becomes his sidekick. In another, a "face sore" is the conscience of a very bad man. Heck, there's even a story where Black Jack must cure a computer doctor before he kills the patients of an entire hospital (with Tezuka getting in not-so-subtle commentary about machines replacing human in the process).

There's quite a bit of Black Jack that's medically impossible, but unlike a typical medical drama, Tezuka is not trying very hard to stay within the bounds of the norm. Black Jack is a super hero like any other larger than life character--he just wields a scalpel instead of a shield. After all, since he isn't legally allowed to practice, he's ever bit the vigilante that, say, Spider-Man is. It's an interesting way to set up a protagonist in a medical drama.

One of the things I like best about this series so far is Black Jack himself. He is completely in control, even when the situation appears to be getting out of hand and knows what to do better than anyone else around him. In some ways, we see mirrors of his drive ("Lady Black Jack", for instance) but they cannot do what he is able to accomplish. He's also the embodiment of the realm of the possible. While other doctors call his feats impossible (and let's be honest, they *are* impossible in real life) and give up, Black Jack will always fight to win--even if his mentor might caution him about his arrogance. Lastly, however, despite appearances to the contrary, Black Jack is extremely human. He ties hard not to show it to others, but his actions, whether saving the life of a boy framed so he can be harvested boy body parts or pursuing a killer to save the life of a patient, belie the image he portrays.

Tezuka's artistry is typical for the time period. The characters are small and cartoonish, and stock characters are wildly exaggerated. It's a little bit like reading a storyboard for a Warner Brothers cartoon. Rival doctors have huge hair or noses. People's bodies are way too fat or thin or short. Unfortunately, this also means that any characters of a different race are portrayed in a manner that will make any modern reader wince. Because many of these stories were written in the 1970s, Tezuka's characters wear wide ties, loud shirts, and other period clothing.

The art style is both a source of amusement and wonder, at least for me. It's obvious that Tezuka is a very good artist, but he is drawing in a style that meets the needs of his audience. Despite the cartoonish look, Tezuka is using very striking camera angles and panel structure.

The art style definitely takes a bit of getting used to if you haven't experienced reading older comics (manga or otherwise) before. I've read Lupin III so I was pretty much ready for how older manga was drawn. As a frame of reference, think of reading a Western comic from the 1940s--or even as late as the 1960s. Readers looked for and expected a drawing style we'd never accept today, unless we knew the author was trying for a retro feel.

There are visual tricks we'd never see today in a mainstream comic. Hooked noses for bankers? Yikes! However, just as good writers shine through despite the racial tropes of pulp fiction, Tezuka's creativity breaks through these barriers and presents a compelling story with artwork that uses the genre's quirks to emphasize his points. If you want to read older material of any kind, sometimes you have to step through a few conventions that were acceptable at the time. That's the case here. If you are initially turned off the art style, I ask you to take a second look with context in mind. The stories are worth it.

With a nifty book design that sets it off from other manga on the shelf, Vertical's reprinting of Black Jack for a modern audience is every bit as worthy of praise as Fantagraphics' reprinting of Peanuts for a new generation. Like Charles Schultz, Tezuka is an artist for the ages who uses the conventions of the genre to tell wonderful stories that you'll want to re-read over time. I recommend this for anyone who likes classic comics, medical drama, and even near-future speculative fiction, given the way Tezuka handles medical science. I'm glad to finally be on the Osamu Tezuka horse, and I intend to keep reading as much of his work as Vertical will republish for me for a long time.