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Black Jack is the world's greatest unlicensed surgeon, an enigmatic doctor whose skills with a scalpel are as legendary as his exorbitant fees. No operation is too difficult for him: reviving a man who's been vegatative for the last 70 years, restoring the face of a boy swallowed by a whale, repairing a damaged pair of eardrums, even delivering a baby on a river raft. So great is Black Jack's international renown that even American war veterans, superstar movie directors, and distant African nations call upon him. Yet there are some who want thwart to Black Jack's plans, going so far as to plot his death by gunshot or sleeping pills. None of this seems to faze him, though; the only things that shake Black Jack's conscience are the links to his past ... or people who remind him too much of himself.
Black Jack's format of stand-alone short stories, each about 20 pages long, is in many ways a blessing. Readers can jump into the doctor's adventures without having to backtrack through earlier volumes, there are no complex character arcs or fantasy worlds to read up on, and if one particular chapter just isn't clicking, well, everything will be totally different in the next one. But this format also has its downsides, as Volume 14 shows. This is the mixed-bag edition of Black Jack, offering a sampler of everything Osamu Tezuka is capable of, but never letting the reader get a full taste. Great ideas lead to shoddy conclusions (or none at all), and prefabricated plot devices seem to be the solution to everything.
Right from the first chapter, Tezuka puts on a showcase of how to use story gimmicks to find the easy way out. Black Jack has to treat a young man whose twin brother sympathetically feels the pain of surgery, and his solution to the problem is a psychological trick that's a bit too easy to figure out. Other predictable twists abound: a terminally ill patient's final wish is to get married, and guess who the lucky groom is; a dispute between an ailing manga artist and her selfish lover gets a hokey ending; an estranged mother and son reconcile in a flash of soap-operatic melodrama. It's as if Tezuka had been picking up ideas from cheesy pulp novels instead of putting his brilliant mind to work.
Then again, Tezuka's original ideas and personal thoughts aren't always the greatest, either. The politically motivated "Captain Satan"—a screed against American military action in Vietnam—finishes in a violent, disturbing way that comes off as a crude revenge fantasy. A baby delivery aboard a rowboat is less frightening, but this odd storyline is basically a metaphor about the bittersweet life of salmon—and not a terribly well-executed one at that. Sometimes the series even delves into realms of fantasy, with a boy swallowed whole by a whale, or a patient in a coma who's been fifteen years old for the past seven decades. Wacky premises like these clash against the more serious and realistic tone of the series.
Indeed, the only good stories are the ones that explore the essence of Black Jack's character: performing a surgery for the sake of a former colleague, or standing up for his personal pride when the infamous euthanasia doctor shows up, or seeing a warped mirror of his personality when he meets another money-driven surgeon. While Tezuka delights in creating new characters and building stories around them, it's still the title character of the series who provides all the highlights. How unfortunate that this volume doesn't have enough of those highlights.
All right, so the ever-rotating cast of characters fails to deliver on the story end. From an artistic standpoint, however, the sheer variety of that cast is a wonder to behold. Exaggerated facial features and simplified bodies may not suit everyone's taste—come on, this was the 70's!—but no one can ever accuse the series of cookie-cutter design, not when there's a full range of men, women, children, young adults, and the elderly starring in each chapter. Broad facial expressions and elastic gestures also give every page a sense of liveliness, although this might be considered a failing during serious moments, where Tezuka's inability to tone down his cartoony style takes away some of the emotional weight. Yet he's obviously capable of serious art when it comes to inanimate objects like body parts and medical equipment; surgery scenes are always rendered with pinpoint accuracy and subtle technique. Each page has a fairly high panel count (typically five or more), but rectangular layouts and simple backgrounds make the visuals easy to follow.
Since Black Jack is a man who doesn't mince words, the dialogue in this volume is straightforward as usual. The only tricky vocabulary to be found is in the medical jargon, and the stories are still easy to understand without necessarily knowing all the terminology. This translation does well in bringing out Black Jack's blunt manner of speaking, while also highlighting the contrasting personalities of other characters (especially the belligerent war veteran and the outspoken movie director). However, the regional accents and Pinoko's baby-speak push things a bit too far, looking more like mangled English instead of just a speech inflection. Despite that misstep, there's still plenty of respect for the Japanese language and culture here: sound effects are left in their original form with translations placed next to them, and footnotes explaining various puns and cultural details can be found in the margins.
Perhaps it's Volume 14, and not 13, that turns out to be the unlucky number for Black Jack. This collection of stories, while still demonstrating Osamu Tezuka's boundless imagination, also demonstrate his ability to take cheap shortcuts, leave endings hanging, and generally use whatever plot gimmicks are available. As a master storyteller, he knew what it took to be good. But he also knew what it took to just get by, and a lot of times this volume feels like just getting by. The art may be consistent, but the stories are all over the place, with hokey romantic twists and beat-you-over-the-head political arguments and boys being swallowed by whales. Apparently even the greatest fictional doctor of all time has his off days.
Overall : C
Story : D
Art : B
+ Excellent drama in stories that focus on Black Jack himself. Lively artwork features a variety of character designs.
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