So why, you might ask, am I now reviewing volume 8 of Black Jack when I was only just reviewing volume 9? Happenstance, mostly. Somehow I ended up missing volume 7 in a mail mix-up, although when that comes in I’ll be sure to fill in the gap. For now, I’m walking backwards.
And as I did with 9, I’ll say the most important part first: This is one of the better volumes in the series. That doesn’t come from the cleverness of the conundrums Black Jack gets to untangle, or because he’s extra-dexterous in the operating room this time around (because, when is he ever not like that?). The reason the better stories in Black Jack are the better stories is because they serve all the more to underscore how Black Jack stands apart from the world he’s torn between serving and exploiting.
Consider “Cold Disdain”, a story from the middle of the book. The setup’s pretty vintage stuff: Black Jack’s been called in by a top Japanese hospital to deal with a patient with mysteriously recurring arterial blockages. The solution — which they only stumble across after having their patient flatline on them a couple of times — involves replacing the very blood vessel that the doctors lanced into repeatedly. The vessel itself was the cause. When it’s all over and the doctors ask Black Jack for his data on the affected vessel, his answer is blunt: he doesn’t have any. He’s a doctor, not a researcher. And besides, why would a hospital that only accepted his ostensibly tainted help after much griping now suddenly want his ostensibly tainted research? That’s Black Jack as we know him at his best: take him as he is, or don’t take him at all.
This part of his personality gets pushed to the fore constantly through this volume. Good thing, too: it’s the biggest part of what makes Black Jack (the character and the series) so consistently fascinating. “On the Way” pits the good (?) doctor against a father-and-son pair of criminals from Spain, neither of whom take Black Jack seriously when he tries to counter-extort them. Their mistake. The same goes for the assassin in “A Visit from a Killer” (another chapter adapted into the recent Black Jack TV series), who has no idea what he’s really dealing with when he holds Black Jack at gunpoint to keep him from interfering with the death of a president.
The other thing that comes through most clearly this time around is Osamu Tezuka’s moral conceits. Much of Black Jack was custom-tailored to show off such things, but the series wears them so well we scarcely mind. Consider “Accident”, where a truck driver named Akira mistakenly runs down a woman (car accidents seem to be the #1 killer in the Black Jack universe), but fights the urge to flee from the scene and avoid responsibility. He delivers the girl instead to Black Jack, currently in his early, pre-renegade period. (There’s a great moment where Akira looks at the doctor and grouses “Isn’t there someone, y’know, a little older?”) Then Akira’s given another possible reason to ditch her: turns out she’s lost her memory. But instead he sticks with her, works his butt off to pay for an operation he knows she’s going to need … and then there’s a reversal of fortune in store for both of them which seems less like a gimmick and more like the final test both of them need to pass.
I feel slightly ashamed that I had more to say about Black Jack at its not-so-best than I do when dealing with it at its near-best. But it’s true: when a series like Black Jack is at the top of its game, you’re better off just experiencing it at its best instead of taking my word for it.