There is no one best thing about Vertical, Inc.’s ongoing reissues of Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack. It’s a panopoly of good and best things. Not only are we getting a pivotal manga title in English, it’s one from a man without whose work we probably wouldn’t have manga as we know it. It also serves as a crash course in old-school / roots manga reading — if you like this, there’s lots more to like in the same vein, and not just from this author — and, before I get too swamped in what sounds like an academic discussion, it’s fun. If the story of a black-market surgeon who gets paid in suitcases full of banknotes and heals the parts others doctors do not reach doesn’t turn your head, then go get yourself checked out; you’ve probably stopped breathing.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Black Jack by now, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly — even if some of those fools come in the form of his paying patients. Or, as is the case at least as often, patients who don’t pay, but whom he treats out of his burgeoning sense of duty. It’s easier for him to say that seeing someone in pain offends his sensibilities than to admit he’s an idealist. Consider “Lost and Found”, the episode where Black Jack uses a little under-the-table emotional manipulation to ensure one of his patients pays up — although it’s more for the sake of convincing the other man about what’s really most important in his life. Or “From Afar”, where Black Jack uses competition between surgeons as a ruse to save an innocent boy’s life.
Innocents aside, Black Jack’s favorite patient seems to be someone who doesn’t just lie there and take the cure, but is a veritable co-conspirator. In “The Scream”, a young girl with a beguiling voice undergoes surgery when she’s on the verge of going mute, and Black Jack has to all but trick her into not undoing his hard work. The closing line — “I like patients who fight tooth and nail” — caps off the attitude we’ve seen building through the whole of the piece.
Sometimes Back Jack just savors a challenge. In “Pinoco Love Story” (the title’s something of a red herring; it refers to a wraparound plot element in that chapter), he encounters a young boy born with all his organs on the “wrong” side of his body: his heart’s on the right side, and this asymmetry with the rest of the species has devastating consequences not only for his health but for Black Jack’s expertise.
Tezuka scarcely lets a book go by without exploiting the endlessly rich possibilities of Black Jack’s past, and there’s a wealth of that kind of plot material in book four. In the opening episode he attends his own elementary school reunion (where we learn his real name, “Kurō Hazama”) and is roped into administering a bit of tough love to everyone’s favorite teacher, now a down-on-his-luck junkie. There’s a lot more to the teacher’s story than just bad luck, though, and it’s fascinating to watch Black Jack claw his way through the other man’s misery and self-deprecation to get to the truth, and in the end more than a few illusions about the people involved are shattered.
In another episode, Black Jack hears from an old flame — Kisaragi, the only woman Black Jack could be said to have loved, and now biologically no longer a woman due to the work Black Jack did on her to save her from ovarian cancer. Now she has written to Black Jack to vouch for a young man who was in her care, a fellow with tattoos over most of his body — and who’s decided that he wants them off. This isn’t the kind of work that Black Jack considers worthwhile, but soon the “kid” (as he calls him) is able to provide the good doctor with exactly the excuse he needs to do that work for nothing.
Given Tezuka’s notorious predilection for being a workaholic, I’m surprised at how consistently good so many of the episodes are throughout all of his works. To date I think there have been only two mediocre episodes in all of Black Jack. One of them’s in this book (it’s a throwaway bit where Pinoco mistakenly gobbles a cyanide pill and Black Jack has to use some quick thinking to get to it before it dissolves), but there’s so much other good stuff that I can hardly call that a reason not to pick this up.
Art: I love how across all of his works, Tezuka’s art is always identifiably his. The wide-eyed Walt Disney look that he used as his basic model didn’t limit him, though: over time he added many of his own flourishes, such as using contrasts between a simplified style and a more detailed, meticulous look to achieve emotional resonances. All of that is on display here in Black Jack. It doesn’t use the same epic visual scope as, say, Buddha or Phoenix, but it doesn’t need to. That said, there are many individual things that are epic in their own microcosmic way, like a sequence where a scalpel mistakenly left inside a human body slowly accrues a protective glazing of calcium. And existing Tezuka fans (e.g., me) will smile when they see all of Tezuka’s trademarked visual in-jokes — his corner-of-the-frame cameos, his curious visual inventions like his “patch-gourd” character, and, well, Black Jack himself, who is about as totemic a character as you can get.
Translation: Last year when I chatted with Vertical, Inc. publisher Ioannis Mentzas about the company’s approach to Tezuka’s books, I learned something rather surprising: The Tezuka estate actually prefers to have his manga published in the reformatted left-to-right printing order, since this makes it more accessible to Western readers. Many previous Vertical treatments of Tezuka titles have been presented this way: MW, Apollo’s Song and Buddha had all been reworked in this manner. The reworking was also undistracting enough that even someone like me didn’t mind. (For a similarly-elegant left-to-right job, check out Blade of the Immortal.) Black Jack, on the other hand, appears in the original right-to-left format–presumably as a concession to the fans. As the volumes have gone on, though, the rest of the presentation has become more consistent than it was at first. Most background details are left as-is and are annotated to the side, much as they are in Del Rey’s titles.
The translation itself has been capably executed by Camellia Nieh, and out of curiosity I compared her approach to the original Viz version (produced by Yuji Oniki). The Viz translation was actually quite good, but the Vertical one is slightly better in a couple of respects. Certain things that didn’t translate well the first time out have been completely reworked. In the first volume, when Black Jack originally confronted the cyst that contained Pinoco, he declared “Is it you, ‘Bumpie’?” Here, it’s simply “You lump!”, which is more direct and less contrived-sounding (and potentially confusing). Also, cultural references which had been completely rewritten or omitted in the original translation have been restored, along with footnotes to explain them. Sound effects are also annotated directly on the page without being fully retouched. (My two favorite models for how this sort of thing is done are Del Rey and Dark Horse, but the way Vertical does things here is quite laudable.)
The Bottom Line: I push hard for people not familiar with Tezuka to pick up Black Jack, partly because it’s such a great series in its own right and partly because it’s a gateway drug to all the rest of Tezuka’s work, great and small. And because Black Jack consistently shapes up as a magnificent anti-hero: the more you watch him, the more you want to watch him, just to see what he’ll do next.