Black Jack is a shonen manga created by Osamu Tezuka. It’s about an unlicensed doctor what lives and works in the underworld. A “scalpel for hire”, he will take on any surgery, anytime, anywhere, for anyone that is willing to pay his price. It’s an episodic series, with each chapter being a self-contained story about some situation Black Jack gets involved in. Much like most TV shows, there’s no origin story or over-arching plot to follow.
Black Jack’s background itself is a mystery. Though, throughout these volumes, we meet people from his past that lets us start to piece his story together. The Doctor that saved him and became his inspiration to become a doctor himself. The boy that reminds him of his own rehabilitation. The boyhood friend that donated skin to Jack that gave him his distinctive facial coloring. The stories are scattered, so that in order to get the whole story on Black Jack you have to read them all. The stories aren’t linear either, as some chapters in volume 2 have Pinoko being able to cook properly, while other stories in volume 3 have her just learning. But this episodic approach to the title is the perfect way to tell the story of not just Black Jack, but also the achievements and folly of man’s faith in science.
I’m still a newcomer to the world of Tezuka, and heard a lot about this series before receiving a review copy. A lot of what I heard was how outrageous Black Jack’s abilities were, and how awesome the series was. What put me off from it was word that it was said to be gory as well. It is a medical drama, so there would be some gory scenes. I wasn’t looking forward to it too much, until I actually received a copy. I knew I was in for a great read, when, just flipping through the first volume, I stopped at a chapter, and before I knew it, I was three chapters in! It was impossible to put down!
The most obvious reason to read Black Jack is for Black Jack, of course. He is an interesting study in contradictions. Seemingly cold and calculating to the people who come to him, he is actually very passionate about his work, and puts saving a life above all else. Even though he puts a price on his skills, he isn’t above doing a job for free. He can be softhearted when he sees someone truly in need, and is always willing to help out an old friend and/or colleague. He enjoys showing up the established medical community that scoffs at his lack of license. Tezuka often portrays them as being officious and callous toward the needs of the patients, and putting prestige over welfare. To them, he does the impossible, such as reattaching a piano prodigy’s fingers, or performing an operation and leaving no scar. It seems there’s nothing Black Jack can’t do. He’s even performed an operation, on himself, while sick, in the desert, surrounded by hyenas! The one thing he can’t do is stop death.
Several times throughout these volumes, Black Jack is presented with situations where someone dies even after he has done everything in his power to save them. He can not accept the fact that he can’t conquer death, and it visibly upsets him. In the last panel of the story “Sometimes Like Pearls”, Tezuka sums Black Jack up in a sentence.“For us humans to crave control over life and death is sheer arrogance, don’t you think?” It was that line that sold me on this series. Black Jack is presented with this time and again, and each time he refuses to accept it. This arrogance is most obvious in “Yet False the Days” in volume 5, where he gives a celebrity who was paralyzed in an accident back the use of her limbs, only to have her kill herself to get out of her contract. Black Jack’s blind belief in his skills never took into account her wishes.
But, death is inevitable and some wish it to come sooner than later. Enter Doctor Kiriko. We first meet him in volume 3. He is Black Jack’s rival, believing that the way to end a patient’s suffering is to end their life. They are like two sides of the same coin. Along with Kiriko, who reappears in volume 5, there are other recurring characters. Pinoko is in every volume of course. First appearing in the chapter “Teratoid Cycstom” in volume 1, Pinoko was originally a teratoid cystoma, an unformed twin in her sister. She is given a prosthetic body by Black Jack and becomes his assistant. She wants to be thought of as his wife, but he really sees her as a daughter. Pinoko was very annoying through the first few volumes, to the point that she dragged down the stories she appeared in. But by volume 4 she was tolerable.
There have been other women in Black Jack’s life. Konomi Kuwata, called the “Black Queen”, or “The Woman Black Jack”, almost found a beau in Black Jack, before he found out she already had a boyfriend. We get an update on her in volume 5. And then there’s Kei Kisagari, also a Doctor, and as we find out, also Black Jack’s first love. Tragic circumstances keep them apart, but he has never forgotten her. He probably even still loves her. The stories with these characters show another side of Black Jack and help to flesh him out as a man and not some surgery machine.
The art is typical Tezuka. The characters are drawn fairly realistically, in general, though some are more prone to comedic moments than others. But his more cartoonish style contrasts to the realistic detail he puts into the organs and operating scenes. Now, I’m a squeamish person by nature. I can’t even watch someone getting a shot. But I strangely was not repulsed by the realism Tezuka put into the operations. He considered being a doctor, majoring in medicine in college, so he knows the subject well and can portray it accurately. Tezuka treated the operating scenes clinically, so there was some detachment which, for me, made it easier to look at. Though, I’ll admit to some uneasiness at one amputation. There’s not a lot of blood either, mostly just on Black Jack’s gloves, and maybe his smock.
Overall, I found Black Jack to be a compelling read. Tezuka balances the comedy with the drama perfectly, and while I don’t recall any moments of breaking the fourth wall (something I find annoying), there are several self-referential moments I did enjoy. Mostly they are of Black Jack reading Shonen Champion, the manga magazine that the series was serialized in. I also really enjoy the layering of the stories. On top, Black Jack is the story of an amazing doctor who lurks in the shadows of the underworld, performing operations for the right price. Underneath that is a philosophical look at life and death, and man’s need to control it, as well as some social commentary on the established medical community. It’s this multi-layered approach to the stories that makes it appealing to both kids and adults, and makes Black Jack more than a typical shonen title.
Black Jack is a title anyone can pick up and start reading. There’s no complicated plot or back story. It’s just Black Jack, a few friends, and the patients. The stories are all self-contained, and one could pick up any volume and get into it easily, though there are more rewards for reading them all. If ever there was a title to introduce manga to general audiences, then Black Jack is it. I can’t recommend it highly enough!
Review copies provided by publisher