Left Hand of God, Right Hand of the Humanist

Black Jack Vol. 1 (of 17)

This might be out in big box bookstores right now; you'll find it everywhere worthwhile soon enough. It's the long-awaited start of Vertical Inc.'s biggest Osamu Tezuka project yet - a large-scale reprint of the manga legend's beloved series of adventures for a scarred, unlicensed surgeon, a man who can do almost anything with his hands when the price is right, or his still-whole heart is somehow moved.

Tezuka began the series in 1973, and it ran for roughly a decade, racking up almost 250 self-contained episodes. Vertical's softcover release -- this initial volume being $16.95 for 288 pages -- is based on Tezuka's own plans for a deluxe reprint series, concocted just prior to his death. As such, most of the stories are arranged in the artist's preferred (if not necessarily chronological) order, while a few have been left out entirely; some of those 'lost' stories will be included as bonuses in limited edition hardcover releases of the first three volumes, to be distributed only to Direct Market retailers.

I've written about Black Jack elsewhere; it's been around North America for a while in anime form, and VIZ attempted to translate the manga series in the late '90s, though all that resulted were two small collected editions. And if you've got those old books, you're gonna run into some overlap; of the 12 stories contained in this new edition, half initially appeared in the VIZ Vol. 1. Camellia Nieh's translation is new, however, and besides - it's never too much to revisit these odd, vibrant comics.

Says it all, really. There's some more background in that piece I linked above -- and that Ron Paul joke is fresh as ever -- but it's important to note that Black Jack probably held some special resonance for Tezuka, an insatiably curious man who became licensed to practice medicine in 1952, but opted instead to draw comics forever.

Black Jack the character may have a feverishly shōnen origin -- a boy sewn back together following a horrible injury, subsequently vowing to become the world's greatest healer -- but the adventures of his adulthood surely play to his creator's fondest self-regard, a human wonder (and money-making powerhouse) operating outside of polite society, gifted with the opportunity to observe all of humanity's tics and foibles and unstoppable beauty. These comics are all about medicine, but they're also comedy, melodrama, action, horror, sci-fi, social satire - patches from the whole scope of an art form, stitched up by Tezuka like the anatomy of his titular hero.

In other words, if one young robot Atom represented Tezuka's ideal for the future of Japan, it may well be that Black Jack was a more private extreme, an ultimate alter ego.

And while these comics may lack the philosphical heft of Phoenix, they're maybe a better embodiment of what I call Tezuka's berserk entertainment aesthetic - laughs and cruelty and pathos, not merely juxtaposed but often stuffed into the same panel. Tezuka's visual style is well-developed by this point, capable of flitting from graceful displays of movement to slapstick expressions of distress to solid, genuine pain.

That last bit is of special importance, because while Tezuka's characters might squash and stretch like the beloved cartoons that inspired him, he can never not see them as human, and they must then be syrup and viscera inside. Surely there's nothing in this series more continually striking than the artist's relentless, guaranteed depictions of surgery itself, happy rubber skin always peeled away to show realist meat and bone, minutely detailed organs mended or transplanted, then covered up again in the stuff of effortless napkin doodles. It becomes like a sort of mantra, a visual metaphor for the man's whole life's work, repeated again and again.

He's working in short stories too, most of them less than 40 pages long, which affords him close walls off which to bounce his tone. I can't say every tale in this book is a great one -- Tezuka does have a tendency to get awfully drippy with the bathos, particularly when having his hero observe a polio-stricken young lad on A Very Inspiring Walk -- but all of them rattle with the desire to be anything and everything, to go anywhere people might be hurt: everywhere.

And so, Black Jack sees and does many things. While armed with some realistic images, this is not what you'd call a 'realistic' series. Often, the mystery doctor performs miracles, sometimes fetishistically alone. He transplants a brain from one body to another, he transforms a potential lover from a woman to a man, and, in a moment taken from Tezuka's earlier Dororo, he builds a globulous youngster a full-scale prosthetic body. The new little girl then becomes Our Hero's kid sidekick; hey, people have to live somehow.

Often the plots stretch to present afflictions as veils for aspects of life. A sinister man's face becomes consumed with a sore in the form of the tumor monster jinmenso, but its ugliness may be more utilitarian than Black Jack suspects. A young girl undergoes a cornea transplant and begins to see a phantom (yep, like in The Eye), a handsome devil that's every guy that might be (really) bad for her - only Black Jack's perfect scalpel throw can save the day with heartbreak. An artist's out-of-the-way creative reverie is interrupted by a literal nuclear explosion, prompting a body switch that robs him of his desire to capture the horror of his experience; only the ache of death can truly power his creative urge, says Tezuka.

The best of these stories is surely the loopiest. An American hospital is fully controlled by a mighty computer, one advanced enough that it's grown self-aware. When it malfunctions, it declares itself 'sick' and demands a real doctor to help it out -- you know who -- on the threat of death for all its hundreds of patients. Among the panicked staff are the computer's pretty inventor, various impotent guards and, oh yes, a black man with skin the hue of ink, lips and chin smeared in blackface style with a featureless snub nose hanging above, like a lump of coal glimpsed in the negative. But a funny thing happens - as Black Jack makes his way through the tech support 'operation,' analogizing his actions to medical procedures the whole time, a doctor-patient bond develops, enough so that the man's pride and duty cannot allow the procedure to stop, even after a reasonable person would let the mad machine be sent to scrap. That is the passion of excellence.

It's a troubling piece, in several ways. How could Black Jack feel such respect for someone (or thing) that threatened to kill so many? Further, how can the modern reader fully reconcile Tezuka's application of rather gross ethnic caricature with his oft-bellowed humanism? The latter can be 'answered' (if not excused) by history, place, time - a man of good intentions working in a wildly homogenous society, inspired by an older iconography possessed of a racist bite he may not have been in much of a place to fully appreciate, all that outer skin, his detail turned inside.

The former is easier to handle, because this is Tezuka, and we know his machines can be people too, and the worst can become great, with understanding. Some may find these stories to be slight, but I found even the least of them fascinating examples of an artist casting his net especially far, secure in his talented hands and firm in his fame - ready to confront any malady, striving to cut away any harm, instrument tips sharp for making flesh whole.