In a fight between you and the world, bet on the world.
—Attributed to Franz Kafka
Except that some people likethat sort of thing. They get a charge out of bucking the odds—the worsethe odds, the bigger the thrill. They’re the embodiment of that Adidasad tagline Impossible Is Nothing, and it doesn’t matter if the endeavorin question is soccer, mountain-climbing, chess, kickboxing or theunlicensed practice of medicine. You see where this is going.
Truthbe told, it’s not just the fact that Black Jack is a risk-taker. It’sthat he’s beaten these odds before, can do it again, and doesn’t likepeople telling him otherwise. Through volume six of Black Jack hefaces one medical Iron Man triathlon after another, from braintransplants to brain tumors—but the real reason he flings himself soheedlessly at such outrageous jobs is to stand in stark contrast toeveryone who settles for having no hope. His biggest resentments arereserved not for those who want to stick him in prison and make sure henever practices again, but for quitters and cop-outs of all stripes …whether they’re rival doctors or his own patients.
He also reserves the greatest depths of emotion—even if he nevershows it—for those who also buck the odds. The opening story,“Downpour”(the longest story the book at 40-something pages),
places Black Jack in a remote island village where he’s gone topay respects to a fellow doctor, now deceased. That man had a sister,Kiyomi, also a doctor although of much lesser rank: she’s the schoolnurse and a practicing internist, and doesn’t consider herself anywherenear her brother’s level, let alone Black Jack’s. At first she findsBlack Jack rather insufferable, especially when an epidemic of foodpoisoning hits the island and she has to pedal hither and thither whilehe chooses instead to sit things out. But over time she grows to admirehim, especially after he dives in to save the school principal. This isthe first man she’s felt close to since her brother died, and thatwelter of emotion inspires her to rock the boat in a number of ways …including offering her skin as a replacement for his two-tone facialgraft as she lies dying. Black Jack, being Black Jack, has torefuse—but not because he’s ungrateful.
It’s also high time BlackJack had some kind of comeuppance from the powers that be. Actually,it’s happened from time to time throughout the series, but in thisvolume that conflict comes to the fore far more aggressively than itever has. Nowhere is it more explicit than in the story “Revenge” (thetitle serves plenty of notice), where Black Jack is offered amnesty bythe medical board of Japan. He refuses, of course, and they throw himin prison. Then a powerful Italian politician comes calling to beg thatBlack Jack be released to treat his son. The powers-that-be refusehim—and soon they find out there are certain people you just don’t sayno to. And in “Lion-Face Disease”, Black Jack is called upon by one ofthe very police detectives that’s hounded him in the past to cure a manwith a horrific disfigurement (shades of “Monmow Disease”, fromTezuka’s epic Ode to Kirihito). Black Jack’s lived his wholelife being a demon to some and an angel to others, but now it’s thedetective’s turn to learn firsthand what this means. Boy, does he ever.
Sometimesthe morality in question doesn’t relate to Black Jack directly, but asituation he enters as an outsider. In “The Old Man and the Tree”,Black Jack intervenes—rather abruptly—on behalf of the self-appointedguardian of a dying zelkova, who sees no reason to continue living ifhis beloved tree isn’t going to make it either. (The good doctor’salways been on the side of choosing life, not manners.)“Three in a Box” features Black Jack, a father and a son all trapped inan elevator with oxygen running out; the doctor has to choose who livesand dies—but as is the case with many such dilemmas, he finds a trulySolomonic solution. And in “Con Man, Aspiring”, he finds a clever wayto do an end run around both his own fees (he does that a lot) and afather’s short-sighted stinginess.
We’ve seen before howsometimes Black Jack’s brand of medicine veers closer to flat-outfantasy than factual science or even Crichtonesque extrapolation. Ithappens here, many times. At one point he performs a brain transplanton a child to place him into a body not ravaged by disease; in anotherstory, a scientific rival performs similar upgrades on a deer.(And it’s not cute or funny, either; in fact, it’s downright creepy.)But what matters most here isn’t whether or not someone could actuallypull off such a move; it’s the moral implications. With the former, abody donor is only available because the child’s father tried to“procure” a corpse … with disastrous results. The latter comes as partof a fairly typical Tezuka-style meditation on the way mankind exploitsnature, but the way it’s presented—and especially the way it’sconcluded, which is on a more ambiguous note than you mightexpect—makes all the difference.
Of my favorite stories in thebook, one is pure entertainment and the other is pure character.“Brachydactyly” presents the doctor with what looks like an incurablecondition, but which turns out to be a combination of jealousy,blackmail and—most tragically—sheer pigheaded stubbornness. And in“Twice Dead”, Black Jack’s drafted in to save the life of a man whowill most likely die in the electric chair anyway. He sees it coming,he knows it’s inevitable, but that doesn’t mean he takes it lying down.The same could be said for how he faces everything, really.
Art: BeforeI go into my usual dithyramb about Tezuka’s style, which is likely toput most of you to sleep, kick everyone that nodded off and tell themto keep reading because I’m writing this part specifically for them.E.g., you. What is it about Tezuka’s style—or the art style of mostevery manga-ka who came on the scene before, oh, 1996 or so—that soturns people off?
Chalk it up to lack of exposure, if nothingelse. It’s the same with any art form: when it comes in a package youdon’t quite know how to unwrap, your fingers get a little twitchy.Parallel example: I’ve had friends who refused to watch black-and-whitemovies, or any movies not in English, and were indifferent to thepossibility that they were missing out on some of the very bestfilmmaking out there. After I showed them Casablanca and The Seven Samurai, that barrier fell over with a thud.
Samegoes for Tezuka, and his self-admittedly early-Disney derived artwork.Some people take one look and it’s like someone rubbed a lemon on thebridge of their noses. It’s too simple, too cartoony forthem. But then they start to read, and they realize the style isdesigned to deceive. It’s one of the ways Tezuka gets you to drop yourguard, which is something any good artist attempts to do no matter whatthe medium.
Now. That out of the way, 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’tlimit him, though: over time he added many of his own flourishes, suchas using contrasts between a simplified style and a more detailed,meticulous look to achieve emotional resonances. All of that is ondisplay 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 thingsthat are epic in their own microcosmic way, like a sequence where ascalpel mistakenly left inside a human body slowly accrues a protectiveglazing of calcium. And existing Tezuka fans (e.g., me) will smile whenthey see all of Tezuka’s trademarked visual in-jokes—hiscorner-of-the-frame cameos, his curious visual inventions like his“patch-gourd” character, and, well, Black Jack himself, who is about astotemic a character as you can get.
Translation: Last yearwhen I chatted with Vertical, Inc. publisher Ioannis Mentzas about thecompany’s approach to Tezuka’s books, I learned something rathersurprising: The Tezuka estate actually prefers to have hismanga published in the reformatted left-to-right printing order, sincethis makes it more accessible to Western readers. Many previousVertical treatments of Tezuka titles have been presented this way: MW, Apollo’s Song and Buddhahad all been reworked in this manner. The reworking was alsoundistracting enough that even someone like me didn’t mind. (For asimilarly-elegant left-to-right job, check out Blade of the Immortal.) Black Jack,on the other hand, appears in the original right-to-leftformat–presumably as a concession to the fans, although the rest of thepresentation is a mixture. Some signs are annotated, others relettered;ditto the sound effects. My guess is that the most difficult-to-editmaterial has been left intact while the simpler stuff has beenreworked, but I would have preferred a more consistent approach.
Thetranslation itself has been capably executed by Camellia Nieh, and outof 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 beencompletely reworked. In the first volume, when Black Jack originallyconfronted the cyst that contained Pinoco, he declared “Is it you,‘Bumpie’?” Here, it’s simply “You lump!”, which is more direct and lesscontrived-sounding (and potentially confusing). Also, culturalreferences which had been completely rewritten or omitted in theoriginal translation have been restored, along with footnotes toexplain them. Sound effects are also annotated directly on the pagewithout being fully retouched. (My two favorite models for how thissort of thing is done are Del Rey and Dark Horse, but the way Verticaldoes things here is quite laudable.)
Most of Vertical’s issueshave been without bonus material, and that’s been a bit disappointing.I liked, for instance, the editorial commentary in the back of theTezuka / Urasawa crossover-cum-collaboration Pluto. Nothing like that here; the presentation has been as consistently minimal and spare as printings of The Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps, now that I think about it, that was the idea?The Bottom Line: After the sometimes-dodgy quality of the stories in the last book,it’s great to see Tezuka and Black Jack both back in high form. Thefact that there’s still around ten more volumes after this is an evenbigger appetite-whetter.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind