March 29, 2010

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Black Jack Volume 3

Written by Osamu Tezuka
Illustrated by Osamu Tezuka
Vertical

Physician, Heal Thyself might be a good alternative title for this collection of done-in-one stories about the notorious Doctor Black Jack, a brilliant but unlicensed doctor who shows off his skills far and wide in this third collection by legendary manga artist Osamu Tezuka.

There seems to be a theme of people doing harm to themselves in this trade, in which even Black Jack himself is a patient a couple of times. Doctors get hurt trying to solve cases, a nurse must soul-search about her calling, and at least two other people are the cause of their own suffering. The common link is Black Jack, who just so happens to be in the right place at the right time to works his magic to save them--if even he can manage the task.

Since these collections are pulled from the entire history of the series and not in chronological order, I cannot help but this this is intentional. Either way, it makes for compelling reading as Tezuka is a master of writing a compact story that finishes in roughly 20 or so pages without leaving the reader feel cheated. Like the Western comics of old, he's using the limitations of his medium to tell a good story, rather than ignoring the need to satisfy someone who may only be reading that particular issue. There is some limited continuity, but nothing that prevents a reader from picking up any volume in the series and enjoying it.

For comparison's sake, imagine picking up a comic today in the middle of an arc. It's nearly unthinkable, regardless of whether it's manga or a capes comic. You'd be terribly lost if you had no frame of reference.

In addition to the idea of helping yourself, Tezuka has a lot of social commentary slipped in here and there. We've got references to overpopulation and a Doctor Kevorkian stand in, years before either were at the top of anyone's radar. Family ties obscuring incompetence also gets a feature, as does the idea that sometimes people want things to come easily, when that's just impossible. If you want to know what Tezuka was thinking about a topic, crack open a volume of Black Jack, and you're likely to find the answer.

This does lead to a few moments that seem to force Black Jack into a stand in role, which is awkward. I can't see him shouting at God, and his frustration at not being able to help some of his patients this time around feel a bit at odds with the cooler head we saw in the first two volumes. This is the downside to the meshing of the stories based on theme rather than date--it's hard to tell if Black Jack is maturing or changing to fit Tezuka's needs.

Several of the themes remain family, however. Black Jack is like Doctor House, able to find solutions to problems no one else understands. He's reviled by the medical community, except when he's needed. There are concepts in these stories that are far beyond reality, just like on the TV show, but they always look grounded in a logical idea that actually exists. Plus, even though he is a jerk to those around him, Black Jack has a good heart that always seems to lead him to do the right thing. Whether or not anyone else knows the truth (including Black Jack himself) is less important than the reader understanding that fundamental concept. It's an idea we see over and over again.

As with the first two volumes, Tezuka's art is fluid and reminds you of an older animated cartoon, even when dealing with more serious issues such as famine or chronic disease. His characters feature exaggerated noses, hair, eyes, and anything else the artist can think of make them look different. This is especially true in the case of people we are supposed to dislike, such as a bank robber or a cruel father. After awhile, some of these drawing themes begin to repeat each other, but there's only so many ways to draw wild hair. While very different from what we're used to seeing today, Tezuka's art, like that of early Eisner, reminds of what later generations used to inspire themselves.

From aiding an ailing robin to grafting people together to save bad lungs, Black Jack is full of medical drama, with characters who play their parts well. I'd definitely recommend reading the whole series, but you can easily pick this manga up anywhere and be able to follow along. I highly recommend that you do so right away!