No deceased manga authors have received near the attention in the English-speaking manga world as Osamu Tezuka has, especially in the last couple years. It’s funny that his more adult and obscure works have received most of the attention, and only recently have his most popular works finally been issued (or reissued after being long out-of-print). Dark Horse recently released a huge double-volume Astroboy trade, and now what may be the most anticipated manga of the year (at least for “older” readers) is finally available. Black Jack is probably Tezuka’s most popular comic ever for adults. Vertical Inc. has promised 17 volumes of Black Jack to be released every other month over the next three years. That seems like a bold commitment, until you start reading the stories.
The series title character is a brooding doctor who is introduced as all the best mysterious characters are: with no back story and no introduction. (Think Clint Eastwood from the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s.) Quiet and brooding this unlicensed doctor is a slave to his skills on the operating room table. That alone is not enough to carry the 12 individual stories that appear in Volume 1, and this is what makes Black Jack the story so intriguing.
Unlike Buddha, MW, or the other long Tezuka tales we have seen recently, each chapter of Black Jack is a stand-alone tale. Dororo is the other recently released work that is also like this, but there is a grander back-story that carries Dororo (though I would be surprised if that also didn’t happen here). Not only is each story a medical mystery Dr. Black Jack must try to solve, a moral dilemma is also introduced. There is also usually a sci-fi or medical peculiarity (it wouldn’t be very interesting if Black Jack was doing appendectomies every chapter).
It is this combination of medical “eww”, and ethical ambiguity that makes each chapter doubly rich in mystery. Black Jack is charges huge fees, but is unlicensed, and that point is made almost every chapter and for good reason. Being well-trained but unlicensed not only allows Black Jack to treat the unique ailments he sees in unconventional ways, more importantly he is not committed to the Hippocratic Oath. Let’s just say Dr. Black Jack never loses a patient he likes…
Speaking of unique ailments, in the first volume alone we see some doozies. From sores that look faces (and talk, too) to eyes that see ghosts, the busy doctors on “E.R.” never had to deal with any of these unique patients. Osamu Tezuka was trained in medicine before he became a manga writer, and his attention to detail on close-ups of surgeries and strange growths makes for some rubbernecking horror hard to turn away from.
The two things I didn’t love about Black Jack were the occasional ambiguous ending and the cover. And that’s only because I am forced to look for something to criticize.
The best thing about Black Jack is that it isn’t a one-shot. We have 16 more volumes to look forward to.