Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jun 14th 2009
Black Jack, the world's greatest unlicensed surgeon, continues to perform medical miracles wherever he goes. His latest surgical exploits involve attaching arms and hands, reconstructing a deformed face, repairing internal organs, and in one case even replacing the fingerprints of a criminal. Along the way, Black Jack meets complete strangers and old friends, and is constantly reminded that the doctor's ideal of saving lives sometimes leads to unexpected results. In fact, few things are as unexpected as the occasional cover-up mystery or a run-in with the supernatural...
Of the many curiosities in the world of Japanese comics, one mystery still endures: Why do manga pundits in the Western world take Osamu Tezuka's work so seriously, when even Tezuka himself didn't feel that way about it? Clothed in too-hip-for-you covers, a thesaurus of laudatory adjectives, and fawning hero-worship, the fifth volume of Black Jack is a perfect example of this disconnect: the actual content of the book is just as likely to involve silly name puns, pulpy story twists and forced moral lessons as it is to contain profound insights on the human condition. Neither a soaring epic nor a historical thriller, this work says more about Tezuka's ability to create pure entertainment than his capacity for masterpieces. Not that there's anything wrong with pure entertainment—it's just that, when working in that field, even the "God of Manga" can be hit-or-miss.
It's not too hard to pick out which chapters are hits: just look for the ones that do something different from the standard "Black Jack performs ridiculously difficult surgery, saves someone's life" formula, and that's probably a story that has something interesting to say about life, death, and the medical profession. "Yet False the Days," about an injured celebrity who needs her spine reconstructed, is one such chapter, taking the above formula and applying one heart-wrenching twist that brings our hero to his knees. Chapters where surgery doesn't actually happen also fall into this category: "Two at the Baths" and "Pinoko's Mystery" show the range of Tezuka's storytelling, with one being a thoughtful slice-of-life piece and the other an over-the-top thrill ride (which unfortunately fizzles out with a non-committal, cop-out ending). More outlandish stories like "Wolf Girl" and the supernatural-themed "A Snowy Night" also help to excite the imagination beyond the average medical procedure.
Unfortunately, average medical procedures are also in plentiful supply here, showing that even the greatest comic artist of all time just didn't feel like it on certain weeks and decided to mail in 20 pages of slush for his next chapter. Stories like "Quite a Tongue" (disabled child overcomes insurmountable odds), "Hospital" (arrogant hospital director gets what's coming to him), "Imprint" (criminal trying to conceal identity gets what's coming to him) and "Country Clinic" (rural doctor with dark secret gets ... well, you figure it out) all rely on familiar and easily reusable formulas. Even more disappointing are the inconclusive chapters where Tezuka is clearly trying make some kind of moral pronouncement but never quite gets to his point: "The Last Train" and "Asking For Water" fall into this wishy-washy category, where something happens but never develops into a fully constructed story. Oh well, there's only so much to be done with 20 pages.
Oddly enough, artwork is probably the area that's the least inconsistent in this series—superficial readers might complain about the cartoonish style and archaic character designs, but behind it lies a remarkable confidence of line developed over years of practice (Tezuka's career had already spanned a good two decades-plus when Black Jack was serialized). The surgical operations are, of course, meticulous in their detail, along with a couple of handy diagrams to explain more complex medical concepts. Then there's the variety of character designs, which may seem annoyingly caricaturish to some, but also reveal a creator who could think up new characters at will—no restrictions on age, gender, looks, or background. The layouts, too, show a complete understanding of how to bring out the story first and foremost: even with mostly rectangular panels, the constant changes of shape, size and alignment keep things visually interesting. If there are any true faults to be found, it's that the dated methods of old-school manga-ka lead to a lack of depth and contrast. Screentones are a rare occurrence, and hatching becomes a clumsy tool for generating shade and texture.
A sure-handed translation helps to bring the dialogue to life even when the storytelling falls flat. There are no awkward turns of phrase to be found here, and the occasional use of slang and dialect fits in well. Footnotes are sprinkled throughout the book to explain various cultural and linguistic points, which becomes especially handy when Tezuka tosses in his dorky brand of wordplay: incompetent doctors and hospitals get disparaging names, while street and store signs pop up in the background as playful jokes. See? He wasn't trying to create a masterpiece with this series—he was just having a little fun, while putting together short stories about the field he originally studied before going into comics. Yet this edition is clearly overdressed, with thick matte covers and a $16.95 price tag, which is sort of justified by the 300-plus pages. Still, the similarly-sized Dororo retails for three dollars less. Explain, Vertical!
That, then, is probably the most pernicious result of fawning hero-worship: a mildly entertaining manga gets slapped with a price tag that can only be described as "Tezuka tax." It'd be worth it if it were, say, one of his soaring masterpieces about the fate of the universe or triumph of the human spirit. But this volume, like most of the others in the Black Jack series, is no more or less than what it is: a collection of tales, some good and some not-so-good, about the world's greatest unlicensed surgeon. In the good tales, Black Jack might stop to think about the meaning of his profession, or about how fate whimsically changes the human lives that he saves. In the not-so-good tales, Black Jack just turns in another expert surgery and lets the predictable gears of plot fill in the rest. But no matter where this medical drama heads next, one principle holds true: it's probably best to wait for a discount before springing for this series.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B
+ Thought-provoking stories, a variety of characters, and sure-handed artwork provide some enjoyable moments.
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