This is the last volume of Black Jack, the manga. It is also not the last volume of Black Jack, the manga. Not the last volume that Vertical, Inc. will be publishing in English; and not the last of such stories that was originally published in Japan, either.
It’s complicated. So much so that at the end of the volume, the editors have to step in and explain why there will be more Black Jack even though the final story does feel very much like a sign-off: there was such a clamor for more Black Jack that Tezuka filled orders for more stories in the series, on and off, for half a decade after it was officially shuttered. To that end there are several more volumes to come, which explains why the ending we get is a non-ending — and why it might be best to start there and work my way back through the book.
For every manga that ends with a good solid concluding chapter, there are at least as many that don’t. The last chapter here is not for plot closure but emotional summation, a way to shut the door in our hearts while leaving the one in our heads slightly ajar. It’s done though a trope as old as fiction itself — the Dream Parade, where a slumbering Black Jack encounters all the major figures from his life (his mentor, his first love, his rival, his “wife”, etc.). But this trick also leads us full circle in a fitting way — some of the last words in this story were also spoken at the very beginning of the series, and we’re even treated to a moment when Black Jack comes face to face with himself as a boy dying on an operating table. It’s a metaphor for how Black Jack has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps.
Then there is the rest of the book, which is a mixed bag if only in the sense that the series itself contains both highs and lows. I liked the stories that revolved most directly around Black Jack’s moral convictions, as when he uses a dead dictator to provide his citizens with a service that he never did in life. Some episodes are a mix of his cynical ideals and too-convenient plot management, as when he reunites a baby with the wrong mother but escapes immediate consequences because of her colorblindness. (Yeah ... no.) And then there’s the stuff that doesn’t work at all — but is still interesting because it’s Black Jack being Black Jack, as when he brings a dead woman back to life by implanting a tape recording of her voice into her dog, which has horrible consequences for her boyfriend, and for us as well.
After eleven volumes, I’m not surprised Tezuka started to repeat himself or run short. With a few striking exceptions, I felt the stories from earlier in the series were on the whole more adventurous and compelling, and after a while I could see more and more ideas being reworked in slightly different forms. I don’t blame him: it’s tough to sustain that kind of output and be consistently creative on top of it, especially since Black Jack was episodic and not a single, continuously unfolding arc of a story like most of the popular manga titles today. But what a thrill it is to see all of it, and not just an editorially-chosen subset. The remaining volumes should be fascinating no matter what their provenance or place in the Black Jack chronology. Bring ‘em on.