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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Black Jack

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CII: Black Jack

In a manga world where every artist tries hard to create the most memorable character with the craziest hair, Black Jack is an icon among icons. That scar. That hair (too bad it's often concealed under a surgical cap). That suit. That job. It's nothing special to have a hero that looks like a villain, but it's incredibly rare to have a hero whose power doesn't involve killing; the opposite, in fact. Black Jack, the outlaw doctor, has waded through as much blood as anybody, but he only cuts people open to make them better.

Osamu Tezuka has written more serious manga with longer, more epic plots, but IMHO, Black Jack is the best thing he's ever done. From 1973 to 1983, Black Jack's adventures appeared in Weekly Shonen Champion, where it has the distinction of being the classiest manga ever to appear in that magazine, whose more usual fare is My-HiME and Baron Gong Battle. In the very first story, we discover that Black Jack is a creepy, mysterious doctor without a license, who performs incredibly difficult surgeries for outrageous prices. He has a bad reputation, and people fear and hate him. ("You're a doctor just for rich folks!" "He's a black-market, money-grubbing pariah!") But his skills are legendary; there's almost nothing he can't do, whether it's operating on a patient from memory in the dark, or operating on himself in the middle of the Australian outback while using his free hand to fend off vicious dingos. (When he needs to fight, Black Jack flings scalpels like darts; his scalpels are incredibly sharp and sturdy, probably since they are forged like katanas by a traditional Japanese swordsmith (as seen in the story "Two at the Baths", Vol. 5).) He deals with mysterious diseases, impossible surgical operations, and occasionally outright supernatural stuff. When there's a medical mystery or an operation to perform, Black Jack is the only person to call; and although his fees are terrifyingly high and his bedside manner needs some work, when a poor person really needs his services, they usually find themselves getting the help they need. Beneath his cold exterior, he's a good guy deep down; but more often than not, his stories end with him wandering the streets alone, his sacrifices unappreciated or unknown.

When he's not traveling the world, Black Jack lives in a lonely house on a cliff above the sea. Although there are many stories where he adopts some cute animal as a counterweight to his sinisterness—dogs, birds, cats, killer whales, even a suspiciously Kimba-like white lion—his only permanent companion is Pinoko, a little girl who does the housework and assists during surgeries (although she's too short to reach most things). In fact, Pinoko is technically 18 years old, but she spent the first 17 years of her life as a parasitic twin in a lump inside the body of her sister. Black Jack surgically removed her and, after a few stiff drinks, reassembled her disconnected jumble of organs into an artificial body. For giving her her life, Pinoko loves Black Jack. No, I mean really loves him; she insists that she is his "wife" (Black Jack disagrees) and sometimes gets jealous when he spends too much time away or operates on other ladies. Several stories involve Pinoko's attempt to get a grown-up body, but it never works. For her childish lisp, her silly slang, her adult loves, and her amazing combination of "18-year-old brain in less-than-one-year-old, fetal doll body", Pinoko is the most loli character ever. And hey, she cooks and cleans!


That's all established in the first few chapters, and really, to understand Black Jack, that's all you need to know. But when you're actually reading it, there's so much more. One of the best things about Black Jack is that, unlike, say, House MDwhere every episode has essentially the same plot (there's a medical case, they make a false diagnosis, the patient gets worse, they make the correct diagnosis at the last minute), there is no set formula for Black Jack stories. If you don't like one, it's no problem, because the next one will probably be completely different.

Most of the stories, of course, involve some kind of bizarre medical case. Osamu Tezuka studied to be a doctor before he became a mangaka, and in Black Jack, his surgical fantasies come to life. In one story Black Jack surgically fuses a mother and child so the mother's heart can provide blood to the child's weak system. In "The Painting is Dead!" (Vol. 1) Black Jack straight-up performs a brain transplant on a painter whose entire body is riddled with cancer because of nuclear radiation. Once it's established that Black Jack can perform a brain transplant, it's a little less impressive later on when he performs an arm transplant ("Two Loves," vol. 1) or a finger transplant ("Tetsu of the Yamanote Line", vol. 4), although perhaps even more impressive than a brain transplant is the story "Quite a Tongue" (vol. 5), in which Black Jack transplants arms onto the undeveloped limbs of a thalidomide baby. The stories usually have some medical facts to make them seem plausible, and Tezuka's medical-textbook drawings of severed limbs and close-up surgical blood and gore give the story an intense realism which clashes excitingly with the cartoony artwork. In "Wildcat Boy" (vol. 12) Black Jack rehabilitates a feral child raised by animals. But Tezuka also happily ventures into occult pseudo-science, such as the stories about "face sores," images implanted on the retina, and psychic powers (even Kinoko has psychic powers when she's a parasitic twin, but sadly, she apparently loses them after she gets her own body). In one story Black Jack meets Hari Adra, a psychic surgeon, who has the power to reach into people's bodies and pull out their tumors and sicknesses, an idea which is just too awesome to not be real in manga, although in real life it's a total hoax. This story is also notable for its gruesome ending; it's no surprise that, when it first started out, Shonen Champion classified Black Jack as a horror manga.

But hey, it isn't all blood and guts. There's lots of cute animals, lots of heartwarming tales, and some sheer action-adventure. Many stories involve Black Jack performing surgeries under adverse conditions, or in the middle of some disaster—a plane crash ("Stradivarius", vol. 2), a bus trapped in a collapsed tunnel by an earthquake ("Dirtjacked", vol. 2), a sewer, a ship at sea. Illness and injury make for great human drama. Black Jack is technically a criminal, so he often ends up operating on fellow criminals, lowlifes and outcasts; yet it's the rich and powerful who are always the real bad guys, like Mr. Matsukata in "Ashes and Diamonds" (Vol. 10), who has a fortune in diamonds implanted in his body but won't donate a dime to the poor. Black Jack has to be a rebel because the world is corrupt, controlled by money; many stories focus on the corruption of doctors and the hospital system in particular. Professional doctors hate Black Jack, in Vol. 3's "Black Jack in Hospital" our hero is injured in a car crash and left at the mercy of a doctor who hates him. ("Well, isn't this an honor! I get to operate on the famous charlatan, Doctor Black Jack! How many million yen have you leeched with this arm, you scoundrel?") With just a slip of his scalpel, he could end Black Jack's career for good…

Many of the recurring characters are doctors, including Dr. Kiriko, a former military field doctor turned euthanasist. Kiriko is Black Jack's opposite, a Dr. Kevorkian type who specializes in giving people a painless death. ("For the right price, I end them. We're not so different, you and I.") Another rival 'doctor' is Biwamaru, a blind acupuncturist whose skills are superior to Black Jack's in their own way. But running counter to the theme of the super doctor is a theme that there are some cases no doctor can fix. (Imagine if other shonen manga were like this—Yugioh saying "There are some hands no mortal can win with…") In a few stories, like "Sometimes Like Pearls" (Vol. 1) and "Needle" (Vol. 2), the human body turns out to have miracles that medical science can't understand. Some things are out of human control. "Doctors aren't gods. Our patients die, people curse us." Sometimes Black Jack loses a patient, and he broods in guilt, or shakes his fist at God, asking "What are we doctors for?"

Unlike Golgo 13, the world's greatest doctor does have a backstory. When he was young, he was in an accident and lost most of his skin. A half-African friend gave him skin grafts ("Where Art Thou, Friend?", vol. 2), and ever since, Black Jack has had a patchwork face, light and dark. The same accident that tore off half his face also made him a cripple, and he spent many years in recovery, during which he vowed to become a doctor himself. During this whole time, young Black Jack was living with his mother, since his father had abandoned the family to run off with a woman he met in Macao ("The Mask Chosen", Vol. 10). In that chapter, Black Jack reencounters his long-lost father, and other chapters feature other people from Black Jack's past, and even old loves. The fact that Black Jack does have a past, that he was once a normal person, makes him much more three-dimensional; imagine if Batman kept running into his old middle school classmates who remembered him when he was an awkward, orphaned 12-year-old.

Osamu Tezuka's manga are hard to write about, unless you're Fred Schodt. He's just too famous. Reviews of his stories tend to either be "OMG HE'S SO GREAT HE'S THE GOD OF MANGA BLAH BLAH BLAH GUYZ DIDN'T YOU KNOW" or "OMG he's so sexist!" (And yeah, he is sexist; I'm thinking especially of the story "Confluence" (Vol. 1), in which a woman with uterine cancer, who's had her ovaries and uterus removed, decides to live as a man because without them, "she was no longer a woman." Sorry to insert crossdressing into one of the few manga I've reviewed that doesn't have any, but tell that to the contestants in the Miss International Queen competition, Tezuka!) But Black Jack is something special. It doesn't have the ambition or the weakness of Tezuka's long novel-like stories (MW, Swallowing the Earth, The Book of Human Insects, Buddha, etc.), which tend to sound awesome in summary but sometimes veer out of control and botch the ending. It's simpler, it's just a character-based episodic manga story; but what a character! Black Jack is the perfect mix of realistic and unrealistic; he's just believable enough that you can imagine him walking into any situation (i.e. he doesn't wear a superhero costume), and yet he's so unbelievably skilled that you can imagine him doing anything. In "Gas" (Vol. 4) a patient accidentally swallows a poison capsule and Black Jack has to find its location in the body and race to get it out before the intestinal fluids melt the capsule and release the poison. In another story, he operates on a dozen or so patients at once, awing the doctors at the hospital who had thought he was just a quack.

Perhaps one reason that no Black Jack anime adaptation has truly captured the spirit of the original manga is that Black Jack is such a CARTOON. The Osamu Dezaki OAV series had realistic character designs and a dark, serious tone, but Tezuka's Black Jack manga is not one of his more restrained seinen ones, and even when there's death and gore, he loves to draw goofy stuff and play around. The manga is full of gag references to other mangaka, such as Hideshi Hino, Tsubame Kamogawa, Tatsuhiko Yamagami, Fujio Akatsuka, etc. Side characters look so weird, it's hard to tell if they're human. When Black Jack says he can't help a patient, the patient retorts "These episodes are only 20 pages long, right? You'll have to come up with something pretty soon." And then, on the next page, there's a clinically detailed surgery scene! This mix of moods works because the character is just so strong…and frankly, because Black Jack is so sympathetic. No matter how weird things get, no matter what situation he's in, you always know Black Jack will do the right thing.

It's a hit in Japan. Even today, Akita Shoten is still producing Black Jack spin-offs with the approval of the Tezuka estate: Young Black Jack, Black Jack M, Black Jack Neo, Black Jack: The Dark Doctor, Black Jack: Alive, and so forth. That's not to even mention Shuho Sato's medical manga & J-drama Black Jack ni Yoroshiku (about a 'real' doctor who's inspired by Black Jack), or the countless manga in which Black Jack has a cameo. Some even say that Black Jack invented the whole genre of 'badass professional' manga, i.e. outlaw cooks, veterinarians, interior decorators, manga reviewers, and so on.

Black Jack first appeared in English in Manga Vizion, Viz's short-lived early attempt at a manga anthology magazine, around 1996. Two volumes were translated before succumbing to the usual 1990s manga sales doldrums (the first couple of issues of something would sell OK, but then sales would sink down, down, dowwwwwn), but it wasn't until Vertical translated the series that we got all 17 volumes of the Japanese bunko edition. The bunko edition is itself a "best of" edition, so there are plenty of untranslated stories still in Japan (although by definition they are the "worst of", so don't hold your breath for them to get translated). Black Jack packs so many stories into its 17 volumes, it feels like there's no way to ever read it all. It's so good and so unpredictable, I'd recommend it to anybody. If you haven't read it, go read it NOW. It's like a miracle that manga science can't understand.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete GuideKing of RPGs and H.P. Lovecraft's Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. He also reviews manga for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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